Do you remember the Internet boom days revolving around the turn of the Millenium? Like the California gold rush of 1849, e-businesses popped up madly and entrepreneurs invested millions into the fledgling enterprises that were often no more than fanciful ideas of brilliant techno geeks. The Internet gold rush boom lasted roughly a year before the bubble burst.
Startup.com puts a definitive face on this brief blip in business history, and does so remarkably intimately. The hand-held digital camera seems to go everywhere with the founders of Internet startup company govWorks.com—from the initial meetings before it even has a name, through a myriad of cell phone calls, and through breakups with girlfriends and other personal matters without censorship. Normal documentaries just don’t get this close to their subjects. But it turns out that co-director/cinematographer Jehane Noujaim was a Harvard roommate with Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, one of the two main partners in the startup e-business.
Tuzman and high school buddy Tom Herman had been tossing Internet-based business ideas back and forth for nearly a year before they came on the idea of “parking tickets”—devising a way for people to pay off their fines through the Internet. Herman quits his tech job while Tuzman quits his Goldman Sachs job to plunge into the fledgling business venture together. The lure of instant millions for a successful Internet idea is too much to pass up, and the two friends do have a lot more going for them than many who started e-businesses at the time. Far too many of these businesses involved techno geeks without a clue about the business world—and this venture at least had the competitive and aggressive Tuzman.
Although Herman and Tuzman agree to be co-CEOs of the business, it soon becomes clear that Tuzman will evolve as the corporate head. Even the name of the company is left to his final decision—after initial high fives circle the couch after a small group of founding members agree on the govWorks domain name, Tuzman has second thoughts two-hours later, thinking that he doesn't like the idea of the “government” name association. They go through more ups and downs over the name of the company before it is left to Tuzman. He has a system for deciding such things, consisting of a few moments of quiet meditation. He will use this more than once here.
Another small touch that everyone will notice is the disappearing and re-appearing beards on Herman. The filmmakers finally even include a shaving scene to let us know that this is not an optical illusion—but when Internet and business geeks spend 20-hour working days, a few things may get neglected. Same too with Tuzman’s girlfriends, who eventually leave him from neglect. His first girlfriend Doris even states that a mere phone call from him would “keep me going for three weeks.” We even see the breaking point later when Tuzman can't break himself away from an email when Doris is right behind him, begging to get out of the office for a needed vacation.
Even more painful is the breakup of the partnership and strain on the friendship between Herman and Tuzman, complete with a few tears from the more sensitive Herman. It even reaches the point that Tuzman will write a terse note of termination to his buddy and assign a security guard to escort his former partner out of the building. The next morning, we witness Tuzman awkwardly attempt to explain to the employees that Tom is no longer with the business and then abruptly lead the company cheer “in his honor.” The fact that these two guys are both under 30 helps us forgive their cluelessness.
The scenes we see are far too familiar for anyone who's been involved with an Internet business or anyone who has ventured into the business world. Knowing what we now know about the Internet boom and bust, many scenes strike with irony and humor—put this film into a time capsule to capture this period in history. I sense that people who are not Internet or business savvy will have a difficult time relating to the film, judging from the couple sitting closeby that continued talking to each other despite my “shsh'ings” (I eventually moved down several seats to avoid hearing their conversation).
Every business has its highs and lows, and e-businesses were especially volatile during the boom and bust year. Especially revealing are the scenes inside the venture capitalist corporations. One deal for 17 million looks promising, but Tuzman and Herman have only an hour window to get hold of their lawyer and resolve the issues. Of course, techno-geek Herman has never dealt with monetary figures like this and he's uncomfortable with some of the terms proposed by the VC, designed to give them a bit more control and force them into accountability. Isn't it natural for a VC dumping millions into an endeavor to want a few safeguards with a company that is only an idea on paper and has no one on board with startup experience? But with the laptop breaking down and inability to get hold of their lawyer in time, the deal falls through.
Millions of venture capital is obtained, but then comes the problem of creating the site with a database that can handle the job of compiling a city's parking ticket data and handle payments. The company soon expands from 8 to over 200 employees, and a florescent office space with dozens of computers takes over one floor of a Silicon Valley office building. Things are looking up when Tuzman's picture appears on some business magazines, govWorks.com is listed among the top promising Internet startup businesses, and when Tuzman sits next to President Clinton during an Internet conference. Tuzman later quips that he offered the President a job as he was giving Clinton a business card.
Those are some of the “up” periods. The “down” periods are stark and devastating. As bad as an office break-in is, and the moments when Tuzman declares that his highly praised website is not ready to go online (it's not nearly as good as the competition), the lowest come when the partnership crashes and Tuzman dejectedly laments that Herman no longer trusts him. No surprise after terminating him and having security usher him out of the building, but Tuzman has Michael Corleone's sensibilities—it's not personal, but only a matter of business.
The idea of fleecing citizens who have already been ripped off by governments demanding parking violation money may seem like a rather lame idea, but govWorks actually had landed a contract with New York City and might have made a go of the enterprise had the Internet boom not gone belly up on Wall Street. If nothing else, govWorks will forever be remembered by this historic documentary, expertly compiled by Noujaim and Chris Hegedus, who also worked on the definitive political campaign documentary, The War Room. Add the name of legendary documentarian, D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room and Don't Look Back) as the executive producer and you should realize that this is a film to be reckoned with.