Startup.com (Artisan Films, 2001); directed by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus
The world swarms with would-be film makers, guys (or, in this case, gals) who dream of overcoming budget and technical limitations with a brilliant concept and a modicum of luck. Their ambition is similar to that of the computer geeks who hope to create the next Microsoft or AOL from an office in Mom and Dad’s spare bedroom. In each case, the lure is unlimited fame and fortune. The odds are no better than the lottery’s, but, as with the lottery, the price to play is small. And, unlike the lottery, talent and hard work can improve the odds of winning, even if only from minuscule to tiny.
Startup.com is the result of an accidental convergence of these two species of optimism. A wannabe producer/director had a roommate who left his investment banking job to join a high school buddy in setting up a Internet company and said that it would be okay by him if she trailed around with a vidcam, documenting what might be the first days of a multibillion dollar enterprise. Eventually there were over 400 hours of tape, condensed into 103 minutes for the theater with no narration save a handful of captions, recording the fortunes of govWorks.com from early struggles through brief glory to final fall.
The documentarians were fortunate not just in having exceptional (though not unlimited - more about that in a moment) access to their subjects but in happening upon a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Most businesses never get very far past the beginning, and those that do generally continue in a perpetual middle, neither succeeding or failing in any spectacular way. This story comes to a conclusion. As a work of fiction, it would lack originality, but that is no weakness in a tale taken from life.
To summarize briefly (yes, you’ve heard this before, but read it anyway): Three bright young men, Kaleil, Tom and Chang, come up with an idea for getting rich by finding a new niche on the Internet. In this instance their inspiration is - parking tickets. State and local government offices are dreary places to spend time, yet citizens have to visit them for hours on end for mundane reasons like renewing driver’s licenses, obtaining permits, looking at zoning plans and paying minor fines. How about setting up a Web site where those tasks can be accomplished on-line rather than in line? The hours saved would surely be worth a nominal fee that, multiplied by millions of transactions, will produce billions of dollars of revenue.
Financed by small checks from family and friends, the buddies begin with eight employees in Spartan office space. A grueling round of presentations to venture capital firms raises millions of dollars, at the price of losing absolute control (the VC’s impose an outside board of directors) and friction among the co-founders. Chang (a shadowy figure whose omission would have left no gap) pretty much stops contributing and is pushed out. Kaleil and Tom argue about the company’s “message”. Still, those problems are small. The govWorks team pushes ahead. It signs contracts with 45 local governments, gets coverage on national news media, raises more millions and heads toward “going live”, with visions of an IPO soon to follow.
Then, when the company is no longer a concept but an active, moneymaking business, the real challenges begin. Others have thought of the same bright idea. Competition is fierce. Revenues don’t meet the expectations of investors. The low-bore disagreements between the partners escalate. Demands on their time disrupt Tom’s family life and Kaleil’s budding romance.
The May 2000 dotcom crash abruptly brings the tale to a climax. There won’t be a quick IPO. Stock options won’t make the founders overnight billionaires. Each of them blames not economic conditions or unrealistic goals but his partner. The board backs Kaleil, and he fires his childhood friend.
We know at this point how the story will end. Not seeking to maintain suspense, the movie skips to “Six Months Later”, a shot of an empty office. The erstwhile partners, reconciled by misfortune, talk briefly about how they will wind up with nothing, and captions inform us that the assets of govWorks were acquired, on January 1, 2001, by a “multinational conglomerate”. Final, lyrical scenes leave the impression that the former high-flyers have adjusted to lower altitudes. Tom plays with his daughter; Kaleil is back with his girl friend, romping with the dog that he refused to buy her before. A final caption notes that two have joined in a new dotcom venture.
As the preceding synopsis should make evident, Startup.com attempts both to inform and to entertain. Neither attempt is fully successful, but the ways in which the movie fails are interesting and instructive.
The production notes, pointing out how unlikely it is that many other film makers will have the same degree of access to the principals of a new, almost successful dotcom, exude confidence that the movie will be of great historical value. Unfortunately, three factors undermine the film-as-history. Two were unavoidable and could have been mitigated. The third is the directors’ fault and is far more serious.
One of the venial flaws the notes themselves mention: The founders of govWorks were willing to be filmed at all hours of the day and night and to expose both their personal and their business lives to the camera. Other key players were more reticent. There are only brief scenes showing presentations to prospective investors, and the company’s board of directors is invisible. Important actors in the story thus are heard about rather than seen.
Second, businesses are not all that photogenic. Pictures convey information about the expansion of the company’s work force, the steady improvement of its office space and the way in which it presented itself to the world. They aren’t a substitute for data about business plans, financial statements, contracts, employee turnover and similar fundamentals. The viewer is left with only a hazy idea of how govWorks is faring at any particular moment or when it went off course.
Third and most crucially, the reasons for ultimate failure remain murky. Was the concept flawed from the beginning? Was it sound but destroyed by an inferior product? Did the novice entrepreneurs waste too much money or fail as managers? Did their personality conflicts bring progress to a standstill? Was competition simply too intense? Did the collapse of dotcom stocks lead the outside investors to give up prematurely? One can guess that more than one factor was at work, but there’s little basis for deciding which ones or for ranking their importance.
From the point of view of aspiring dotcommers who want to learn from history rather than repeat it, the lessons that the movie teaches are tactical and not very profound. Don’t argue in front of potential investors. Make sure that your lawyer is on call before going into a crucial meeting with venture capitalists. Don’t wait until the weekend before you launch your site to test whether third party software integrates with your system. Don’t store trade secrets on your CEO’s hard drive, and, if you do, don’t rely on a security cable as protection against theft. All of that advice is sound, but it falls short of the illumination that the directors promise.
As entertainment, Startup.com starts with promising elements: The main characters are attractive, without the narrow outlook that one associates with “geeks”, and the film has two plot lines, one centered on the business, the other on its founders’ relationship, to play against one another. The business and personal stories are obviously interrelated, so that we have an unusual instance of Life working hard to give aid and comfort to Art.
The auteurs do not seem to have wanted Life’s assistance. Neither story is told satisfactorily or sheds more than fitful light on the other. Is the rift between the partners inevitable from the beginning, the product of their sharply different personalities? The production notes state that one of the directors thinks so and anticipated the break, but we don’t see enough of Kaleil and Tom outside the govWorks cocoon to judge for ourselves. Did their inability to work together as businessmen doom them to failure? Again, we can’t tell, because the reasons for the failure are so fuzzily depicted. Did the failure ironically rekindle a broken friendship? It’s easy to make that assumption, but the abbreviated coverage of the period from Tom’s discharge to the company’s distress sale leaves it in the realm of speculation.
The problem with the movie’s storytelling is that the directors, instead of letting their material shape the work, slipped into the “buddy movie” genre. That pattern is fine while the buddies are being pulled part by outside stresses, but a buddy movie demands reconciliation and the learning of lessons, neither of which can be shown here, because they took place outside the boundaries of govWorks.
The remnants of the govWorks Web site still exist, a pathetic monument to the creators’ dreams. A note from Tom says that Kaleil is writing a book about his experiences. That is probably the best form for recounting them. On the other hand, a book takes longer than an hour and three-quarters to read. For a peek into what is for most of us a strange and fascinating universe, without any great investment of one’s time, this movie is a pleasant aperçu.