Directors: Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 5/11/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus completely lucked out when they set out to make a documentary about the beginning of an Internet company. Their subjects were Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman. The two went to high school together and formed a company called Govworks.com, which facilitates government processes, like paying parking tickets and such, online. Little did they know that in just a year, the company would increase employment about thirty times over (from 8 to 233) and at its height would earn sixty million dollars. And those small bits of information don’t even begin to show the extent of the filmmakers’ luck. In just over a year and a half, the company would go under, lose 183 employees, and be bought out by a multinational corporation. The directors started out looking for a unique aspect of modern business, found a revolution, and ultimately witnessed its death rattle.
The film chronicles events from Kaleil and Tom starting out as two guys with an idea to their inevitable downfall. As they actually begin assembling a team of people, they travel across the country to gain funding for their company. An investor in San Francisco (or "Silicon Valley," as they prefer to call it) tears apart their idea for a number of different reasons (they’re located in New York, they’re idea is outdated, etc.), but there are many other people left to invest. This guy obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This quality of cockiness (in business language: chutzpah) appears a lot between the two. We watch as Kaleil shows the competition around their offices, apparently without regard to the security of their company. In fact, this action could have cost them a bit, as later they suspect corporate espionage (in real-world language: theft). Then later on, once business is booming, Kaleil meets with President Clinton after a meeting about the economy, and we learn that Kaleil gave him a business card and invited him to come work for the company if Hillary’s Senate campaign works out.
The film also gives us an in-depth look at business etiquette—saying what you say to a person’s face as opposed to what you say behind their back. During their quest for funding, Kaleil tells the filmmakers that he is angry with Tom for contradicting him during meetings. He’s actually quite vulgar about it, but when the two of them are together, he begins using the kind of language you would expect from a co-worker—forced politeness. We know what he’s really thinking, though. We also get an idea of how far people will go for efficiency (real and business language: to turn a profit) when Kaleil and Tom try to buy out the third founder, also a friend of theirs. Both parties in the situation are trying to get as much out of it as they can, and eventually friendship doesn’t become an issue. Both of these events foreshadow a later turn of events that I will not reveal in case someone does not know the full story. All of these bring up the idea of keeping your personal life out of your business life, but we see it’s a falsity, as most times, personal lives depend on business life.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the dot-com business world is that it creates millionaires under the age of thirty. Kaleil’s girlfriend tells us that Kaleil and Tom are "playing grownup," but she and we know that they are still quite immature, even if they are quite different from each other. Kaleil calls his mom about relationship advice. He’s afraid of commitment and even twists the idea of buying a dog with his girlfriend into the concept of a lifetime together. He is a masterful businessman, though. Perhaps not fully competent in terms of business sense, but he is a performer—always on. Tom calls him Machiavellian, and that’s pretty accurate. After all, when it comes time to meet the President, who goes? Tom, on the other hand, stays mostly in the shadows. He only does what he knows he can do and tries not to get in anyone else’s way. On a personal level, he has a daughter and is close to his parents. There’s a moment in the movie when a member of the board, tells the company "We’re going to be helping a lot of people. And incidentally, we’re going to make a lot of money." When it comes down to it, Tom cares mostly about the first part of that and Kaleil the second.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that Tom and Kaleil got too successful too quickly. The fact that their competitor’s technology outgrew theirs is only an example of how unprepared they were from the start. They gained everything they didn’t have and ended up losing or seriously damaging everything they started with. But these are all ideas, and the film manages to get them across quite successfully. Startup.com is a fascinating, timely, and thought-provoking entertainment. Full of dramatic irony, backstabbing, and a seemingly destined fall from grace, it has the trappings of a Shakespearean court tragedy. Actually, the entire concept of business etiquette is an oxymoron Shakespeare would have had fun playing with.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.