Risky Business

Startup.com makes a mint out of a losing proposition

Let's suppose you're not an angel investor who lost your shirt when your favorite start-up went belly-up. You're not a venture capitalist who watched millions of dollars go up in smoke. And you didn't exhaust your retirement money day-trading tech stocks. Not to worry: It's never too late to lose big in the dot-com boom! In fact, why not buy a piece of govWorks.com? Though much of this company was purchased in January by eONE Global LP, its hanging racks, store fixtures, and irreverent capitalizations are still for sale, along with a portal, a Web site, and all of govWorks Latin America. It's bona fide, friends!

But you might want to see Startup.com first. Arriving post-implosion to find us kicking through a carpet of empty bottles and asking, What the hell happened here and why is my hair full of confetti?, this documentary takes us from dot-com to dot-bomb by way of the apocryphal govWorks.com, which was born, flourished, and died in about a year and a half. At its height, the company boasted 250 employees, $65 million in financing, and a monthly "burn rate" of--cue Dr. Evil pinkie--one million dollars.

But that's not the good part. As Tom Waits once said: "Anybody who plays the piano would thrill at seeing one thrown off a 12-story building... It's like school. You want to watch it burn." Boy, does it. Founded by 28-year-old Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and his friends, govWorks.com sounded like a good idea. You had Tuzman, a Goldman Sachs defector with endless reserves of energy, charisma, buzzwords, and cufflinks. You had his high school best friend, Tom Herman, an earnest techie who had invented a Web engine that let people pay their parking tickets online. You had a business world that, drunk on possibility, had thrown the rulebooks out the window and opened its coffers to the kids who knew how to program their VCRs. And you had people lined up with their hands out, willing to trade sleep for wealth, or credibility for wealth, or disbelief for wealth, or wealth for wealth. People expected to make billions. It was bona fide.

Falling into a dot-coma: Tom Herman in Startup.com
Falling into a dot-coma: Tom Herman in Startup.com

But unless you're one of those who still subscribe to Fast Company, the weird netherworld captured in Startup.com already feels long gone. Even the people in it look a little faded around the edges, though that may have something to do with their total disconnection from reality. Figures fly around: New York City's parking tickets are a $500 million market. Workdays are 20 hours. A good night's sleep runs about two hours. This is a $600 billion company paying $8 million in rent. It's all part of the spin, which is like Lake Wobegon on Ecstasy. At govWorks, someone is not just good, he's "the most amazing person I've met in my life." At 28, Herman has, as he puts it, "spent the last 20 years of [his] life in technology." (Yeah, my third-grade class graphed Pac-Man on the computer, too.) At one point, Tuzman feels the need to clarify: "We're not replacing government." You don't say. Do I need to mention that Tuzman and his employees had a group cheering routine?

The beauty of Startup.com is that it makes no attempt to sort through the delirium or translate the bizspeak--it just presents it in all its cramped, feverish glory. There's no anchoring narration, no Real World-style breakouts where the characters explain themselves, and very few title cards or captions. The effect is as dissociating as an illness; the best way to tell time is by Herman's facial hair. One gets the sense that things felt that way from the inside as well.

And at a certain point it dawns on you--probably around the time that Herman and Tuzman are squabbling about what it means to be "co-CEO"--that, cable-network interviews and roundtables with President Clinton aside, these people had no idea what the hell they were doing. Who shows up at a meeting with people who want to give you $17 million without bringing a lawyer--or at least checking to make sure your lawyer's not on vacation? Who picks a company name based on how it sounds when you say it to your friends in a fast-food joint? Who fires his best friend and "co-CEO," gives a Polaroid picture of him to building security, and then takes pains to reassure him, "I don't want you to lose anything--pride or money or anything"?

Answer: The same people who arrive at major business decisions by meditating. Which is to say: people who believe they have nothing to learn from anyone but themselves. No wonder they were running scared.

Interestingly, Startup.com is really the tale of two start-ups. The first is govWorks.com; the second is the documentary itself (cf. www.startupdotcom-themovie.com). Co-director Jehane Noujaim was Tuzman's roommate and a fellow Harvard alum. When Tuzman quit Goldman Sachs, Noujaim quit her own job at MTV to chronicle his exploits on digital video. Like Tuzman, Noujaim was tired of working for other people, and she knew a good idea when she saw one. But unlike him, she had the good sense to hook up with people who knew more about what she was doing than she did. Chris Hegedus (The War Room) served as her co-director; Hegedus's collaborator (and spouse), vérité veteran D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), produced, and he seems to have filled the editing suite with family members and associates.

By necessity, Noujaim matched her roommate's work hours, travel schedule, and, presumably, his caffeine ingestion, spending her savings and accumulating more than 400 hours of raw footage before she--and govWorks--were finished. Since its debut at Sundance, Startup.com has garnered the opening slot at Toronto's Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, positive reviews from every paper one could hope to hit, and a better-than-decent opening weekend in New York. Since when is business a riskier proposition than art? Since businesses started flopping like Waterworld, apparently.

That sound you heard last January? That was a $65 million piano hitting the ground. And perhaps the best measure of Noujaim's achievement is her quiet revelation of the secret glee on the faces of the boys 12 stories up, shaking their heads like skaters who have just witnessed a particularly spectacular wipeout and covering their mouths to hide their smiles. It's not their piano, anyway. Besides, the bottom has dropped out of the market for pianos. Now the people making money are the ones who let you watch them fall.

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