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'Startup.com'

dot.panic: 'Startup.com' follows the boom through the bust

Friday, June 15, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Talk about agony and ecstasy, zenith and nadir, manic and depressive. Never was the boom-and-bust cycle more astonishing than in computer businesses of the 1990s, when bull markets and cyber-tech euphoria combined to make (and soon break) more paper fortunes than in any era since the Big Crash of '29.

 
    'Startup.com'

RATING: PG-13 in nature for complex business subject matter

STARRING: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman

DIRECTORS: Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.

 
 

"Startup.com" is a terrific play-by-play account of that phenomenon -- a textbook example of the beast, captured for us in downright anthropological fashion by docu-directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus. The volatile cyber-beast they chronicle is called "govWorks," an Internet portal designed to facilitate interaction among local governments, citizens and businesses -- most notably, a payment-processing software by which to take care of everything from your parking tickets to your taxes.

"govWorks" is the brainchild of computer-genius pals Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, nice guys who spent their New York high-school years dreamin' and schemin' together. Now -- at mid-twentysomething -- they're determined to turn dreams and schemes into a viable enterprise, and we're privy to all the behind-the-scenes creative turbulence and collegial decision-making involved in the start-up process.

It is American entrepreneurialism at its best -- and worst. Between November 1998 and April 1999, they scrape up an initial $200,000 in funding on their own. In May 1999, they get $705,000 more from private investors. By October 1999, they have a staff of more than 50 and a second round of financing (from the likes of the Hearst Corp, the New York City Investment Fund and the Sapient Corp.) amounting to $19 million. By April 2000, they have a staff of 250 in four cities and a third round of financing totaling $39 million.

In January 2001, they file for bankruptcy.

What happens in between is the amazing meat of this odyssey and this film. It includes a blow-by-blow account of the day they got a $17 million venture capital offer but had to make up their minds by 5 p.m. and couldn't reach their lawyer.... The night corporate spies broke in and stole their software and market-strategy secrets.... The painful week they had to buy off and buy out one of their original inventor-partners....

At the heart of it all is charming, charismatic Tuzman -- the guru of "govWorks."

He and his workhorse buddy Herman are "co-CEOs" -- a potential problem waiting to fester, along with the friendship. Tuzman spends most of his 24 hours a day on a cell phone, forever negotiating incredibly complex deals for huge sums of money, perpetually distracted, his sweet Bill Clintonesque smile masking the increasing tension and burden of responsibilities.

At one point, he actually meets Clinton! He's lionized on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. His girlfriend wants either a baby or a puppy -- or at least a phone call from him -- and doesn't get any of the three. When he and Tom get really desperate, they call their moms for advice.

"Startup.com" is a model of docu-dynamic cinema verite. Noujaim and Hegedus followed their sympathetic subjects 18 hours a day for a year and have produced a historically important record of the times. Says Hegedus: "In a funny way, it's very similar to the 1960s -- except today's young people aren't going to change the world with peace and love, they're [trying] to do it with money."

The year 2000 was rough on young Internet industries: As tech stocks sank, some 130 online firms died and 40,000 dot.com workers lost their jobs.

"Startup.com" was produced by the legendary documentarist D.A. Pennebaker (whose work began with the landmark "Don't Look Back" and "Monterey Pop" in 1967), and, true to the noble Pennebaker tradition, it's both a human and a commercial-cultural revelation. Can you be a great businessman and great friend at the same time? You just might be surprised at the answer, which is contained in the ending, which I can't give away.

Go see it and find out for yourself.

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