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Burn, Babies, Burn 

Net casualties in Startup.com

Wednesday, May 16 2001
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Toward the end of the new documentary Startup.com, one of the protagonists, 29-year-old Tom Herman, sits down for a kitchen-table chat with his parents. While his toddler daughter bangs around in the kitchen cupboards behind him, Herman’s mother reminds him of the pre-eminence of human decency. “The values that you grew up with were that people came before things,” she says in quiet, measured tones, “and that didn’t seem to be part of this new world.” There’s a round Band-Aid in the middle of her left cheek, as if she’s had a mole removed in the past few days, a trivial detail that, on film, works to verify the intimacy of the moment — only in real life (and Chinatown) do people wear such conspicuous evidence of wounds. Tom tries, weakly, to disagree with her assessment of the dot-com era, but Mom has little patience for the argument. “All I’m saying,” she continues, “is that I’m not sorry this part of your life is over.”

At this point in the film, Herman’s startup company, an online civic liaison called govWorks, is sputtering to an end somewhere in Manhattan; his relationship with his close friend and business partner, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, lies in ruins. And his mother’s postmortem consolation should carry a weird irony — for Tom, for his father, even for Mom herself. Eighteen months earlier, this same woman proudly announced that she’d written govWorks’ first big check. But by the time Herman comes home for solace, the players in Startup.com have conveniently forgotten those days when dot-com seemed synonymous with fast cash, and investors who threw money after barely hatched ideas seemed forward-thinking and brave.

Tom Herman

Film, on the other hand, remembers everything.

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Presumably, filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus intended to follow govWorks from first glimmer to IPO — Noujaim started tailing her former Harvard classmate and roommate Tuzman with a digital minicam when he was still employed by Goldman Sachs, working in his off hours raising auspicious bundles of cash for a startup. The future still looked bright when she was joined by Hegedus, who made the 1992 Clinton-campaign documentary The War Room with her husband and collaborator, D.A. Pennebaker (Startup.com’s producer). But the IPO was not to be — govWorks followed instead a more familiar dot-com trajectory, from grand-delusional hopes (“It’s a 600 billion-dollar market,” people in the film keep repeating) to flameout. And from what must have been hundreds of hours of film, Noujaim and Hegedus managed to extract a near-poetic parable of hubris, hard work and friendship. It begins with Herman fixing his little girl’s hair as she squirms and whines in protest. “It’s one of life’s hardships,” he tells her, “having your father fix your hair.” It ends with Herman having acquired a little more information about hardship than he’d bargained for.

Just as those years of dot-com frenzy, when news of startups swarmed the headlines way back in 1998, were almost intolerable to read about, the early months of govWorks — roughly the first third of Startup.com — are nearly unbearable to watch. Like a bully and his sidekick, Tuzman and Herman swagger through funding meetings, company pep rallies and staff brainstorming sessions, full of hollow bluster. Their cluelessness is staggering: When a hotshot from the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers encourages them to draw up a business plan, they declare that “The guy just doesn’t get it.” But there are plenty of other V.C.s waiting to write them checks, and media ready to fawn. Tuzman makes television appearances for which he manufactures nonchalance, papering over his enormous insecurity with a pretense of authority. He even gets an audience with Clinton. Only Tuzman’s girlfriend, Dora, maintains a sober perspective: She likes to watch the boys in their precious little cuff links and neatly pressed suits, she says, playing at being big men.

For all his leadership ability, Tuzman has no technical expertise, no deep interest in the social philosophy of the Internet; Herman is the systems geek, the only one with real, practical skills, and he struggles like mad to design an interface for a technology that keeps slipping out of his grasp. And while Tuzman’s posturing helped them raise $60 million in a hurry, it can’t buoy them through adversity. Herman and Tuzman find themselves having to pay off another business partner who lost interest in the project with $800,000 as compensation for past work. Shortly thereafter, govWorks gets vandalized, probably by an employee. The board of directors, which hovers unseen like James Bond’s SMERSH, pressures the company to burn less and earn more, and Tuzman’s relationship with his staff begins to creak under the weight of his disastrous combination of arrogance and ignorance. At which point Startup.com goes from being a mildly interesting true story to a ripping good train wreck in the making, and Tuzman, the cracks gaping in his once-impermeable façade, becomes nearly likable. Even as the panic rises in his voice, he gives the impression that he sincerely believes everything will be just fine if only everyone would just work a little harder, stay a little later, be a little smarter.

Noujaim and Hegedus put long hours into following govWorks’ staff through every waking moment, and the footage is simply incredible — there’s no other word for it — a testament not only to their own watchful tenacity, but to how much trust they engendered in their subjects (at Sundance, Tuzman told the press that he actually liked the film). Herman and Tuzman’s darkest, most conflicted moments play out before a jittery hand-held camera that aggressively jockeys for a better view of the wreckage. It’s a moviemaking style that’s become self-consciously popular since Lars von Trier placed it among his Dogma 95 articles of faith, but in Startup.com the roughness seems appropriate, even necessary, like the cracking voice of newscaster Herbert Morrison as he watched the Hindenburg crumble in flames. When Tuzman, strung out on trouble, having fired Herman with a terse letter, gratuitously assigns a staffer to escort his friend out of the building, the wobbly camera trails the two men down the stairs.

GovWorks’ staff, which had peaked at 250, plummeted to a straggling 60 at the end of 2000; its remaining assets were sold to another Internet firm, eONE Global, in early 2001. At the close of the film, Tuzman is more or less humbled, while Herman, hard-wired against rancor, is once again spotting his buddy at the weight machine. The lessons here are not all tragic. Herman and Tuzman have not only made up, they’ve launched a timely new venture: a consulting service to ailing dot-coms. Recognizing the importance of putting people before things doesn’t, evidently, mean giving up the profit motive.

STARTUP.COM | Directed by JEHANE NOUJAIM and CHRIS HEGEDUS | Produced by D.A. PENNEBAKER, HEGEDUS and NOUJAIM | At the Nuart

Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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