Startup.bomb

"...and especially our customers, who consider us...rock stars!" ad-libs a tipsy Joseph Park, the 27-year-old impresario of upstart Internet-based sundry-delivery service kozmo.com, toasting his bread and butter. Yet a mere three months after this hailing of the company's imminent IPO in early 2000, Park would find himself forced out by nervous investors, and able only to watch his $200 million baby rescind its bid for greatness, shut down its satellites one by one, and finally, a year later, cease operations altogether.

Park's rise and demise is the subject of Wonsuk Chin's digital video documentary e-dreams--which, like its statelier cousin Startup.com, chronicles the era of brisk "built to flip" incorporation amid the fin de siècle swirl, when pennies for one's thoughts added up to millions. The two films (both screening this weekend on the Sundance Channel) are remarkably similar, as are their characters. The CEOs in both docs are in their 20s; both leave jobs at Goldman Sachs to dial for dollars and plant their flags somewhere in the unmapped Internet expanse. But where Startup.com's directors Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim zero in on the fraying of the original partners' boyhood friendship amid the no-there-there process of pedaling charisma to venture capitalists, e-dreams is much more a story of the promise of the time. Of the energy animating the company's 4,000 employees--symbolized by messengers whizzing along in bright orange gear, racing product (from videotapes to Phish Food) through the gridlock traffic of 11 urban centers. Of an X-games pony express, making good on byte-sized promises. Of creating a beloved brand. Of mistaking revenues for profits. And of assuming rock-star-like proportions.

Venture kaput: The would-be visionaries of 'e-dreams'
Composite
Venture kaput: The would-be visionaries of 'e-dreams'

Such was the swollen arrogance of Net-casters on the eve of the 2001 market dive that schadenfreuders, hipsters, and haters alike lined up for tickets to watch Startup.com's cocky Kaleil Isaza Tuzman go from preening to panicking to pouting. And then, suddenly, fuckedcompany.com--an online parody of Fast Company--was scrolling to six screens with an up-to-the-minute list of e-biz casualties: The illicit caress of the invisible hand had become the swift kick of the invisible foot. In that sense, both Startup.com and e-dreams are crucial documents of hubris that also reflect a strange sort of hope, and nearly burst with naiveté. In this new era of fear and suspicion, the displays of good faith in e-dreams--with capital flowing from the spigots of irrationally exuberant VCs, cliquey big-sibs like Amazon, and Net naifs like Starbucks, to the tune of $200 million-- have a certain shock value. (Startup.com's govWorks was playing in the minors, if stylishly, by comparison.) Milked for maximum suspense, Kozmo and govWorks' wranglings now seem like impossibly easy handshake deals for astronomical sums.

Alas, neither film accomplishes a breakthough representation of cyberspace and the online experience; in fact, none as yet, either in indieland or Hollywood, has found a way to get past the horizontal waves that protect a portal from the camcorder's view. But docs like these would almost seem to have a civic duty to try to show, not just allude to, the promise and reality of the world beyond the screen and the keyboard. In both e-dreams and Startup.com, the subjects are rarely without their laptops, suffering all the attendant technological woes; but the initial inspiration of the frontier, the way that our generation has imagined, ventured into, and occupied the vastness of this new space, is never really captured. Granted, a laptop is not a lathe--but without a glimpse of the world that it's accessing, the Web and its complex geography are relegated to mere mechanics.

Still, in a climate of renewed xenophobia, it's fascinating to view these films as a record of the experience of second-generation Americans--Korean, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese--creating a new platform for their ascendance. Joseph Parks, son of Korean laundry owners, with his anglicized moniker, and Kaleil Tuzman, who charms his way though serial mispronunciations of his name on TV, are welcomed into the financial winners' circle, invited to serve as poster children for the new face of money, and followed as leaders into a new realm of conquest, too win-win to be true.

 
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