The remarkable thing about Startup.com, a new documentary chronicling the rise and fall of an internet startup, is the climate that made this story possible.
It is 7.50 on a Wednesday night in Greenwich Village. I’m in a queue with about 100 others who – if the conversation outside the cinema is any indication – have, like me, been recently laid off from an internet company.
We are waiting to see Startup.com, a new documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus, chronicling the rise and fall of an internet startup.
This hilarious film focuses on Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, two of the founders of Govworks.com – a service that allows users to take care of transactions with local government, such as applying for licenses and paying parking tickets online. In the early scenes, Kaleil leaves Goldman Sachs to join his highschool buddy, Tom, to form an internet startup in Silicon Alley. Over the next 90 minutes we watch spellbound as Tom and Kaleil chase their dream of internet riches, revealing themselves as buffoons in the process.
Kaleil is an overstuffed, overbearing, frat boy, living in an expensive Manhattan apartment that transforms into a messy dormroom over the course of the year. Tom is cringe-makingly PC and evidently incapable of making a firm decision or uttering a sentence that isn’t steeped in therapeutic jargon. When they aren’t hugging one another, high-fiving or saying ‘I love you, man’, they are asserting a set of eclectic and sometimes bizarre principles which can only be described as ‘Buddha meets Blue Peter’. Watching them abandon these principles, within nanoseconds of pontificating about them, is part of the fun.
The first sequence of the film shows Kaleil and Tom as they essentially adlib with venture capitalists. We laugh and cringe at their breath-taking naivety. But once the funding is in, the company grows at a phenomenal rate. Life at Govworks.com is a hoot. The company meetings grow surreal, and the staff look progressively more perplexed as Tom and Kaleil try their hand at management.
At the same time the PR machine kicks into gear. There is a wonderful moment when a company meeting is being filmed for a Spanish-language TV news program. Kaleil, who is choreographing the company cheer in Spanish, panics when he realises the gesture the TV crew has suggested the employees use to demonstrate their enthusiasm is in fact the Nazi salute.
As fast as the company grows, the hype grows faster. After the launch of a limping website, Kaleil appears on magazine covers, in the New York Times and on TV. Eventually we see him sitting at Bill Clinton’s right hand at a White House symposium on the internet and government. And since we know Kaleil by now, our minds boggle.
Meanwhile, the company is running out of money. Revenues are flat and the competition’s site is better. ‘Hard decisions’ loom ominously on the horizon. Somebody has to go….
Startup.com will shatter any remaining illusions about dotcom entrepreneurs, and provide some cathartic schadenfreude for people in the industry. But while it is hard to feel sorry for Tom and Kaleil, the remarkable thing about Startup.com is not the foibles of its founders but the climate that made this story possible.
The business idea for Govworks.com – that the government should communicate with its citizens via the internet, just as they communicate now by fax and phone – isn’t particularly original (duh!), but it isn’t bad either. In fact, operating some government services online is probably inevitable. But the business idea wasn’t the raison d’être for Govworks.com.
Speculation and the chance to make a fast buck was the real driving force for Tom, Kaleil and the venture capitalists who funded them and countless other companies. If the dotcom bubble has shown anything, it is that to build a successful business takes long-term commitment and far more investment than the market is prepared to give.
Startup.com will probably become an instant classic because it sums up the era so well. You’ll want to go and see it. And if you worked for a dotcom like I did, I promise you’ll laugh your way to the dole.
As I left the cinema, I couldn’t help but think how the worst thing about the dotcom crash isn’t simply the failure of companies like Govworks.com or even the loss of jobs. It is that a fledgling industry, which – in spite of the hype – really does have the potential to transform how we live for the better, has been nipped in the bud.
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