The strange and unpleasant death of ThinkTank Mathematics Ltd
So ThinkTank Maths is in liquidation; a strange and unpleasant story.
It is a horrible thing to spend years building something, to have put in long hours and good ideas, and to have it taken away.
And with no good reason; it was certainly not a business decision - from a business point of view, the actions of my ex-colleagues were foolish and unnecessary.
It is often the case that noone and everyone is to blame in such matters. In this case, this is not true. The blame lies with Angela Mathis, Samuel Halliday and, sadly, Hannu Rajaniemi, who was once a good friend. And there is documentation to support this.
I have resisted the temptation to attack my ex-colleagues. However I feel that some form of documentation is needed.
In writing the account below, I have tried to keep the story dry, stick to the facts and avoid the urge to speculate or give opinions.
I believe that everything on this page can be verified through the relevant documents (e.g. minutes or emails).
Background: ThinkTank Maths was set up as a mathematics / AI consultancy by myself, Hannu Rajaniemi and Sam Halliday in 2005.
At that point Hannu and Sam were doing PhDs whilst I was working for a games company. It got going in earnest in 2006 when Sam and Hannu went full-time, and with Angela Mathis joining the team . I joined full-time in autumn 2006. Angela effectively became a full-time member of ThinkTank sometime in 2007. Initially we lived of a Smart award, BBC innovation labs and a few small contracts. In 2008 through hard work and some fortunate breaks, the company started to look much more promising. In particular, there was a line of work with Tesco Personal Finance that could become very profitable (with Sam as project lead), and a large (half-a-million) project with the SEAS DTC was agreed with myself as project lead.
The collapse of the team
ThinkTank's collapse was sudden, effectively happening in less than a week.
And that basically was that.
I attempted to open discussions, but these attempts were simply forwarded to the lawyer who restated that things were non-negotiable.
From a small but successful company to a liquidating mess in one week.
- Tuesday: I had a phone call with Angela - she wanted me to sell my shares and become an employee.
I talk with Sam.
I would later find that Sam had made a major error in his calculations (he had conflated contradictory scenarios to give an impossible worst case).
Sam calls Angela in.
This was an unproductive meeting. There was no room for compromise or even exploring ideas from Sam, Hannu and Angela. It did not help that Sam opened the meeting by suggesting I sell my 25% stake for £10k - a ridiculously low price which he claimed the accountant had told him (this was later revealed to be dishonest). There were also some inaccurate statements from Angela about agreements and policies that had never existed. Hannu mostly kept his head down and said little.
- Thursday: I was presented with a stark choice: sell my shares or they would liquidate the company.
- Friday: We met and talked peacefully for an hour or two. We agreed that a change was needed, but that splitting up the team at this point would be foolish. We agreed that we would do everything we could to work through these problems to reach a fair and productive solution.
I present a deal that is favourable to them. The main points were:
I would sell my shares at an independently assessed price. They could space payments over 20 months.
I would continue to work on the projects where I was needed, and at a low wage.
I would sign non-compete clauses that protected them but left me with ability to make a living.
We all shook hands on this and the day ended well.
- Tuesday: Whilst I was at a client meeting, Sam moved out of the office taking the legal files with him. I receive a letter from a lawyer saying that all negotiations are over. I attempted to contact Hannu, Sam and Angela, but they all refused to talk.
- Thursday: The lawyer wrote again with an ultimatum: Accept a deal by noon Tuesday or the company will be liquidated. The deal was completely non-negotiable (again, attempts at communication were rebuffed). Needless to say, it wasn't very good: approximately £30k paid over a year - but with a silence agreement and a strict non-compete clause that would prevent me from working for a year.
Hannu Rajaniemi, Angela Mathis and Sam Halliday never gave any explanation for their actions.
- Resignation: I resigned from ThinkTank Mathematics. On legal advice, I resigned listing several grievances.
- Winterwell: I form a new company with Joe and Jim.
- ThinkTank Maths Ltd: The lawyers form a new company with a suspiciously familiar looking name.
Angela, Sam and Hannu's plan was to dissolve ThinkTank in order to get rid of my shares without paying me for my investment - and then to restart hoping to keep the pending contracts. I've been advised that whilst this probably violates company law, it does go on. The foolishness of it being that without me they have a skills problem:
the biggest project was the DTC, and only I understood the mathematics behind it (Hannu had tried and failed to get to grips with it in late 2007).
Plus a general lack of skilled workers, with only 1 developer (Sam).
- Sam indulged in a spot of web vandalism. He deleted my personal website (this website, with my writings, wedding photos, etc). Later he would delete the open-source projects I had done at ThinkTank, and finally my posts from the Java blog that we used to share. As far as he knew, I had no backups of any of these (and indeed, there was data that I did not have any backups of). Someone (and there is reason to believe it was Sam from a careless mistake) used my old computer to illegally access my private accounts, presumably to spy on me.
- Liquidation: a farcical meeting where no-one could look me in the eye.
- I understand Sam and Hannu parted ways with Angela sometime later.
I thought only Angela had a problem with me, but perhaps my other colleagues were harbouring grudges. The incidents below are the possible sources of bad feeling that I can identify.
Friction with Angela Mathis
- Asking questions. I tend to ask people the reasons for decisions, and to debate them if I'm not convinved. Angela does not always like this.
- 2007: Angela proposed paying her sister, who had recently left her job. This proposal was a very sudden thing - it didn't fit in with our business plan or any previous discussions - but it was not presented as a draft for discussion: it already included a pay and commission deal. Moreover, it was to develop the oil and gas sector which we had no position in (and I am not keen on for ethical reasons). I objected to the proposal and a passionate but polite debate ensued. Sam backed Angela. The debate ended amicably enough, with Angela having established she had the votes to get her way. However the subject was never raised after that.
- March 2008: Angela promoted from CEO to Managing Director.
A heated argument followed
I felt it was a bad idea to concentrate too much control in one place,
and moreover, Mrs Angela Mathis was not suitable for the role of Chair, being too aggressive and unwilling to allow open debate (something which the crisis amply demonstrates).
- The DTC project. Angela wanted Hannu or Sam to lead it, but they said no.
- The Ministry of Defence security contract. This was a potential source of confllict rather than an actual one.
I wanted to submit an honest report, which would mean no follow on project. Angela questioned this then quietly accepted it. The actual report was submitted after I left so I don't know what it said.
Friction with Sam Halliday
- Joe's funeral: some horrible behaviour from Sam and Hannu
- SMART audit: An unbelievable incident where Sam and Hannu committed fraud. Not a minor bending of the truth, but proper probably criminal dishonesty: lying, doctoring records, faking documents. We had a brief argument in the office where Sam told me to mind my own business, and to my shame, I did, though I would later try to get a company policy passed that employees should be honest.
- Sam walked in on a conversation between me and Hannu where I said I was considering leaving. He would secretly report this converstaion to Angela.
- Articles of Association questionnairre, which was leading towards removing many of my rights as a shareholder.
- TPF proposal, where Sam's report described what he planned to do as if he'd already done & tested it.
- Coding together:
Sam has on occasion rewritten some of the codebase (without planning) in accordance with some article he's read and liked.
Unfortunately such irresponsible behaviour does tends to break the codebase, so I'd generally make him revert it.
This may have rankled and fermented in Sam's heart. Who knows? His subsequent actions suggest a certain amount of malice came from somewhere.
Friction with Hannu Rajaniemi
Hannu's behavoiur is the strangest and quite appalling. I was a close friend, or if not then he did not have any.
- December 2007: The DTC first project - a heavy duty piece of statistics. Hannu and I were working on this. I was doing the bulk of the work. Hannu was having difficulty getting to grips with the mathematics. This led to friction: I wanted to get the report done, Hannu wasn't happy writing up until he too understood the maths but it was beyond him. Eventually Hannu's stress put him in bed with a fever, after which I wrote up the report.
- WDTC constitution and funding.
In order to get funding, WDTC needed to have some status. To that end I drew up a constitution (based on a charities commission template aimed at small charities such as clubs), and got a fraction . Hannu and I arranged to get the funding application sorted at the weekend.
However Angela had some concerns over ThinkTank's liability and IP. I believed these were groundless. Hannu had his instructions though: the constitution must be revoked (and therefore the funding proposal put on hold). This led to an argument between us: I was angry that instead of helping he was hindering. This ended with Hannu taking responsibility for the WDTC constituion and funding. We made up and had a drink. Future WDTC meetings were amicable.
NB - The second constitution would never be ratified, and the funding application would languish and die.
- Joe's funeral, as related above.
Perhaps it was success that made things turn nasty? Money has a way of affecting people's thinking.
- DTC: £500k.
- Tesco Personal Finance: an estimated £100k per annum.