It may not rank with Alexander Graham Bell's idea of long distance voice
communication, but the team at govWorks.com does have a vision. They want
citizens to be able to order fishing licenses at 3:15 A.M., attend town
meetings in their underwear and pay parking tickets on-line.
STARTUP.COM, the engrossing and enlightening documentary about govWorks by
Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, argues convincingly, if only by
implication, that for the company's founders, Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza
Tuzman, it isn't about creating "insanely great" products, as Steve Jobs
would say, but about making insanely large amounts of money. About the only
song in the film is "Money (That's All I Want)," which just about sums up
the approach of these two hard-working entrepreneurs.
Tom, the technical lead, and Kaleil, the CEO, have been best buddies since
high school. Like brothers, they talk to the company's employees and to
each other about their mutual "love." Although this isn't a fictional
story, the decline of their mutual affection takes on Shakespearean
proportions when their dot-com begins a rapid descent into a dot-bomb.
Although they each have their own families and loved ones, which we see in
glimpses, their bond is just like a marriage. When Tom starts talking about
how he has always viewed himself as being a co-CEO, you can hear the
offstage corporate divorce lawyers sharpening their pencils.
We follow the company by tagging along with Tom, Kaleil or both, as they go
from nothing to $50 million in VC funding in a few months and as their staff
bloats up past 300. There probably are worker bees toiling away in the
background who passionately believe in their product, but what we see are a
couple of 28-year-old guys who dream of getting rich. Kaleil, who hobnobs
on TV with everyone from President Clinton on down, seems on a trajectory to
billionaire status. A comment from one employee, who believes himself
destined to be a mere multi-millionaire, hints of possible resentment over
the size of Kaleil's options package.
But before Kaleil and Tom become as rich as Croesus, there are a few
problems to be dealt with. The Web site that they assume will make them all
wealthy isn't a focus of the movie or the management until the end. "The
VCs are not in this for charity," Kaleil warns over his cell phone. When
they should be ramping up slowly and paying attention to their product and
their business plan, Kaleil and Tom are out hustling money. At one point,
Kaleil tries to work in some time to get more involved with the product he
is pedaling, but he and Tom can't figure out when that would be. Both of
them are likable guys who you want to win but who seem headed for disaster.
On April 14, 2000, the anniversary of the day that the Titanic struck the
infamous iceberg, the NASDAQ crashes dramatically. A savvy Kaleil
immediately sees the writing on the wall. Just like the movie TITANIC,
STARTUP.COM is fascinating even if we feel certain that the company will
sink in the end. Whatever you do, don't leave before the ending credits
which tells you the status of the company, what happened to Kaleil and Tom's
friendship and what they're doing now. Expect to see these guys on the
business talk shows again. Maybe soon. Who knows, as they say, "what goes
down must come up."
STARTUP.COM runs 1:43. It is rated R for brief language and would be
acceptable for any kid old enough to be interested in the subject.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes