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Film: Startup.com

By C. Antonio Romero




CEO Kaleil Isaza Tuzman

CEO Kaleil Isaza Tuzman







































Tom Herman

Co-founder and co-CEO Tom Herman
























CEO Kaleil Isaza Tuzman

CEO Kaleil Isaza Tuzman






Photos courtesy of Artisan Entertainment




NEW YORK, 3 July 2001 - Those who watched the whole dot-com bubble from the outside are probably still asking themselves what really happened during the last few years. Startup.com doesn't offer anything like the whole story, but it is an engrossing and intimate look at the spectacular rise and fall of one very public dot-com company, warts and all.

The source material for the film is the birth, ascension and ultimate implosion of Govworks.com, a highly touted attempt to bring e-commerce efficiencies to consumer interactions with government -- specifically government transactions like paying fines, fees and taxes. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus (of the highly regarded The War Room, which documented Bill Clinton's run for the White House) and Jehane Noujaim (a roommate of company founder Keleil Isaza Tuzman at Harvard) were drawn to the story because of the company's apparent prospects for success -- they must have hoped to document from conception to delivery the poster child for the dot-com era, a guaranteed winner of a company exploiting a golden opportunity.

Alas, this corporate child, like so many others, died suddenly and too young, as the omniscient Market came to its senses in 2000 and, in its "Angel of Death" avatar, devoured the first-born of the dot-com generation. With the benefit of this hindsight, the film becomes a chronicle of the folly of the entire era -- the founders' arrogance, the ludicrousness (in retrospect) of so many bubble-business plans, and the repellent personality traits that only sudden infusions of millions of dollars can bring out.

In the end, Hegedus and Noujaim wisely make the personalities the main focus of the film, lending it a psychological depth often scrubbed from successful founding myths. MBA Tuzman, seemingly flashing his Harvard ring at the camera at every opportunity, is the dot-com gospel made muscle-bound flesh, personally laying his ego and his considerable energy on the line to make the business happen. Juggernauting through dealings with VCs, partners, business rivals, and customers with equal and seemingly inexhaustible energy, Tuzman verges on cartoonish-ness at times. His wounded arrogance after failed attempts to secure funding, and his pain as the company slips into its death spiral do humanize him (without making him particularly likeable), as does the revelation that Tuzman, Jewish (of Colombian descent), takes his faith seriously and regularly meditates (on-screen, at least once).

Co-founder and co-CEO (bad plan) Tom Herman is a more sympathetic figure: a rather nerdy high school chum of Isaza Tuzman charged with making the technology work, he brings a more humane dimension to the proceedings, through his close relationships with his family, including his life as the single parent of an (adorable) black daughter, simply presented without comment by the filmmakers; in a particularly touching scene, Herman struggles with the girl's hair one morning before turning to his dot-com duties. Tuzman's eventual steamrollering of Herman is predictable, if one simply follows the business logic-- the ridiculous notion of appointing "co-CEOs" suggests a failure to sort through certain basic business issues before the venture began. But Herman's pain in the process is palpable and sympathetic in a way that Tuzman's never is.

There is much worth admiring in this well-made documentary. The personal relationships in the film are all depicted in ways that have the psychological ring of truth to them, though narrative economy compresses most relationships other than that of Tom and Kaleil to a few telegraphic scenes. And the filmmakers' total access to the company's creation and operations -- early planning sessions, negotiations (successful and otherwise) with venture capitalists, nasty company in-fighting-- gives this documentary a depth that even the best-crafted fiction usually lacks. Those who have never been involved in a high-tech startup may find in this film a taste of the same heady charm that the early days of such a venture often bring to the participants. (The late stages of the failure of govworks are unfortunately elided, once the personal relationship between the founders fizzles, the film's emphasis on that aspect of the story makes it impossible to return to covering the business story. While the end of a death-spiral is certainly a less inspiring story than the beginning, many investors in bubble companies might be interested in an up-close look at how and why their wealth was destroyed.) .

But ultimately what nearly torpedoes the film, frankly, is Tuzman. With his drive and his prodigious bulk, he is clearly aspiring to bring Heroic Stature to the founding myth of dot-com civilization; but, rather than Aeneas or even Achilles, he is 'Gilgamesh lite' for Y2K-- mighty, yes, but too arrogant, too lunkish, really, to inspire much admiration in anyone over 23 (though to lead a dot-com, this was evidently enough). More than once, he leads his troops in a cheer concocted by company board member and former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson:

"What are we going to do? Rock 'em!"
"When are we going to do it? Every day!"
"How are we going to do it? Every way!"

The spectacle is unintentionally hilarious. (In all fairness, it was apparently the custom that Tom Herman led the morning cheer, until his departure from the firm; but Tuzman doing it is ludicrous.) Tuzman, smug, swaggers, brays, and pouts his way through the entire experience without the slightest sense of irony-- he is utterly insufferable. Perhaps this is what made the whole dot-com phenomenon so hard to watch sometimes -- unlike the early, accidental titans who appreciated the degree to which a good idea unexpectedly run wild put them on top, those who envisioned and pursued dot-com bubble business plans, no matter how ludicrous, mostly did it with a straight face and without only a limited sense of perspective concerning the 'revolution' their activities represent.

Yes, Web technologies represent a fundamental transformation of how computing will be done for all time forward. And yes, the Internet promises to remake the face of society, commerce, culture, entertainment, you name it. But the ways in which it does so are largely beyond the control or predictibility of any one person (unless his name is Bill) or company, and the hubris that let people think otherwise -- the belief that "where there's a will, there's a way" -- was perhaps the cardinal sin of choice during the dot-com days. As galling as it is to watch him, though, Tuzman and his ilk are an inescapable part of the dot-com story; and "Startup.com," a faithful record of the period, cannot get by without his type.

The dot-com era's story is far from fully told -- is still being digested by most of us. It will be years before this vein of film storytelling is exhausted. But, as a cinema-vérité jumping-off point for that narrative venture, Startup.com is a fine start. If you have a taste for documentaries, or if you just want an inside look a the dot-com era, catch it. But don't expect it to be a pleasant experience.


Three stars


Related: Startup.com Official Web Site


C. Antonio Romero is a writer and engineer based in Silicon Valley. He is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com.




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