Startup.com Movie Review
Documentarians Chris Hegedus (The War Room) and Jehane Noujaim were extraordinarily lucky to be at the right place at the right time in order to capture the story of govWorks.com, an Internet startup that aimed to make it easy for anyone to interact with their state and local governments through the Web -- to pay taxes or parking tickets, renew a driver's license, etc.
Sounds great, but of course, it didn't work out like the business plan said it would, and inside of two years later, the company was gone and forgotten but for the hours of digital video shot during its flameout.
Part Hoop Dreams, part Nike commercial, Startup.com focuses on the two principal founders of govWorks, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, childhood friends now all growed up and ready to hit the business world. Maybe it would work, maybe not: Tuzman is all business, brash and foul-mouthed. Herman is his antithesis, a touchy-feely guy who may as well live on a hippie commune. Can the opposite personalities work together to pull off a dot-com?
Foreshadowing their own demise, we see them both as alternately arrogant and frightened and rarely likable for a moment. As the new CEO, Tuzman decides he wants the name of the company to be UntoCaesar.com. Eventually he "meditates" and agrees to govWorks. Their story develops as a dead-on, true-to-life tale about how business is really done -- in front of the TV in someone's living room or over a slice at the local pizza place.
But most of Startup.com focuses on the agony of defeat: The grueling road show looking for investors... a tense meeting where the partners are offered $17 million but can't locate their lawyer... a troublesome third partner who refuses half a million dollars in cash to be bought out... a break-in assumed to be corporate espionage... and ultimately the dismissal of one of the founders, which leads to a lot of enmity among the group. Their tribulations, of course, are eventually all for naught, as the company finds itself losing ground to the competition, missing revenue targets, and then running out of cash before being acquired by another firm.
Startup.com will likely become a bellwether for business at the turn of the millennium -- simply because there's no other adequate chronicle of the spectacular rise and fall of the Internet phenomenon on film. For a business journalist like myself, who watched (and wrote) about the roller coaster personally, I found myself jaded by the struggle of Tuzman and Herman -- as if I'd seen it all before. Like I said, the govWorks saga happens every day.
While it's a worthwhile documentary, the film is certainly not without its flaws. The final months of govWorks are not adequately chronicled (we go from 233 to 50 employees in the blink of an eye and with nary a layoff, and Tuzman's ouster is never even mentioned), but most egregiously, the entire movie is out of focus more often than not, and its shakycam DV footage is so atrociously shot I was literally sick after an hour of watching.
As a modern morality play about the perils of doing business in the new millennium, Startup.com succeeds marginally -- trying to convince us that its ethical core (as Herman's mother tells us) is that people are more important than things. I'm not sure if the story of govWorks makes it that far. From where I'm sitting, the moral of the story is only this: If someone ever offers you cash for your share of a dying business, TAKE IT.
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