Tragedy Tomorrow, Dot-Comedy Tonight
This summer's hot documentary tells the riches-to-rags story of an Internet start-up. Steven Soderbergh, can we talk?
In January I received an excited e-mail from my friend Corey, who was attending the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah, and had just seen a movie called Startup.com. "It's your E-Diaries column on film!" she wrote.
Intrigued, I poked around the Sundance Web site and learned that Startup.com is a documentary that chronicles the rise and fall of an Internet company called GovWorks. The film was produced by some of the same people who worked on The War Room, the documentary in which James "Ragin' Cajun" Carville spin-doctors Bill Clinton to the presidency. This was exciting stuff! Were Internet entrepreneurs, so recently spurned by the media and the investment community, poised to become Hollywood darlings? If so, what could I get for the film rights to The Gazooba Story, that roller-coaster thrill ride of passion, intrigue, and viral marketing? And who would play me? Brad? Ethan? Keanu? I quickly settled on Chow Yun-Fat to play the part of my Japanese cofounder, Zen. I could picture Chow whipping out the Green Destiny sword whenever a board member pushed back on our expense projections.
Startup.com wasn't in general release yet, but I couldn't wait to see it. So I called the distributor and requested a screening. "Will you be rating it on a star system or writing a feature about it?" asked the distribution woman. I hesitated for a moment, unsure if having written a college paper applying Freudian theory to Hitchcock qualified me to wield my very own star system. "Feature," I replied reluctantly. She said she'd mail me a press copy. It arrived, Zen came over, and we fired up the VCR.
The action of Startup.com takes place between May 1999 and December 2000. GovWorks founders Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman are high school buddies who, as adults, decide that putting municipal-government processes like parking-ticket collections on the Internet represents a bigger opportunity than online tombstones. So Kaleil quits his job at Goldman Sachs and becomes GovWorks' CEO. Tom is chief technology officer, something never actually stated but easily deduced from the fact that his subordinates carry Nerf guns. The cofounders set up shop in a loft in Manhattan: very Silicon Alley.
Kaleil is the front man, the pitchmeister. Since one of the film's directors was Kaleil's roommate, Zen and I were treated to an intimate shot of Kaleil getting up late for a VC meeting and running to the shower in his underwear. (Note to self: If asked to star in The Gazooba Story, insist on a body double for scenes in which the word Jockey is legible.) We watched Kaleil score an appointment with Kleiner Perkins, and Zen's eyes clouded over. At Gazooba we had gotten money from Kleiner's Sand Hill Road neighbors but never saw the inside of the Valley's most prestigious firm. As we listened to Kaleil talk about getting skewered by the Kleiner guy for having the gall to locate GovWorks in New York, Zen looked like a kamikaze pilot who had pulled up at the last moment. "I would have loved to have been rejected by those guys," he said wistfully.
Other incidents made us squirm. In Startup.com, the founders' friendship is tested when, in front of a potential lead investor, Tom challenges Kaleil's explanation of the business plan. Back at the office Kaleil is incensed. "We should all trust that any one of us will represent a vision of the business that will be seconded and thirded and fourthed and fifthed by other members of the team," he rages, after kicking around some furniture. The scene rang so true to our own epic confrontations that Zen and I couldn't look at each other. It was like being at a Chicago White Sox reunion and watching Eight Men Out.
Then came the Citizen Kane stuff. Kaleil and Tom raise $60 million. Kaleil appears on CNBC. The company hires more than 200 people. Kaleil's girlfriend asks for a commitment or a dog. As our heroes' fortunes rose higher and higher, I could imagine an audience full of people who owned tech stocks a year ago sitting on the edge of their seats, hungrily anticipating the fall.
Things start to unravel when competition heats up and the market cools. Like the adults in a "Peanuts" cartoon, Startup.com's VCs don't appear on camera much. But when GovWorks fails to meet revenue targets, you don't have to hear wha-wha-wha-wha-wha to know the investors are getting restless. "I've had some pretty ugly conversations with board members," Kaleil tells Tom. "This is a serious crisis." I won't give away what happens next. But for a film with no explosions or special effects, Startup.com delivers more than its share of carnage.
The saddest victim is Kaleil and Tom's friendship, which, by film's end, looks as though it's been through the woodchipper in Fargo. Long after the credits rolled, the founders' story stayed with me. Tom and Kaleil's experience was so personal that I wondered how they felt about seeing it made so public.
So I decided to ask them about it. Tracking down Kaleil on his cell phone in a Manhattan taxicab, I asked him what it was like to be the Gordon Gecko of dot-com entrepreneurs. "My visceral reaction was I'm mortified," he said, multitasking between talking to me and offering directions to the cabbie. "Because it's not fiction; it's my life. It shows parts of ourselves that are not the parts we're always proudest of."
Kaleil told me that the idea for a movie about GovWorks was originally his and Tom's. "We thought it would be useful for business schools or people starting companies," he explained. But Kaleil said his most valuable lessons weren't captured by the documentary, because they came to him after the bulk of the filming was done. "It doesn't just end with, you can't do a financing, so you pack up your things and go home," he said. "You care an enormous amount about the employees and the clients that you've promised things to and the relationships around the company."
According to a note at the end of the film, Kaleil went on to form Recognition Group, a company that brings turnaround specialists into distressed start-ups. What it doesn't say -- but what Kaleil told me -- is that Tom Herman is once again his partner.
I called Tom. "My first reaction was that it was hard to imagine I would want to do that again," he told me. "What convinced me is that I wanted another chance to work with Kaleil. Also, I found what he was planning exceedingly interesting."
Asked for his reaction to Startup.com, Tom said that he wished it had fleshed out more of his professional strengths, like building a technology team and leading employees. "The movie was very one-dimensional in its portrayal of both Kaleil and myself," he said. But it did teach him some brutal lessons about personal grooming. "I was so disappointed in my ability to dress well," said Tom. "You realize the way you dress has an impact on people's perception of you. I had such a bad shave through much of the movie."
You can judge Tom's business and fashion sense for yourself, since the film should now be in theaters. Startup.com has been given an "R" rating, and entrepreneurs are strongly cautioned: it contains disturbing buzzword usage, explicit depictions of obscene valuations, and scenes of graphic cash squandering. Some material may not be suitable for people who still have a dot-com business plan on their hard drive.
Andrew Raskin, founder and former CEO of Gazooba.com -- now Qbiquity -- can be seen in San Francisco-area theaters clutching a medium buttered popcorn and a cherry Icee.
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