Now for the film: Startup.com
First the event, then the book and, finally, the film for those of you who weren't there. Startup.com is a take on the dotcom crash from the inside except, like the internet boom itself, there is rather a lot missing, writes Gordon MacMillan.
Startup.com is the real story of govWorks.com. Maybe you've heard of it? It doesn't matter if you haven't, as you will be familiar with the story all the same. It was played out hundreds of times from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley. Oh, there was some activity across the Atlantic as well, but really this is an American story.
A story of a group of bright twenty-somethings, an idea and some venture capitalists. The company goes from four people to 233 as govWorks moves from seed funding to attracting around $50m of VC money. I could tell you what the company did, but it's really not that important. If you really want to know, go visit the site. It's still running.
There are two main players -- Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom. Oh, Tom has a surname as well, but it's really not important. He's just Tom, he was in the computer club and blended into the walls at parties. He's 28, but wears a 40-something's full facial beard and a back cap. No goatee for Tom who, on a team-building weekend, encourages everyone that if they listen very carefully they can hear the wind whistle through the pines. It's like a spiritual moment in this whole screwed-up money thing, you know?
Tom is affable and you are sure there is more to him, but it is just not there on screen. That said, there is the big unanswered question. While Tom has no life outside of the site (and his apple-pie liberal American parents with their forest retreat), he has a little girl. She is maybe three or four. Where did she come from? We don't know. Where is the mother? We don't know. This is annoying as the film-makers took the effort to include this child in a number of scenes (Tom brushing daughter's hair, Tom and daughter at funfair, daughter being tearful at Tom's departure), but beyond that she is an enigma. The guy from computer club, after all that is an enigma. Who would have guessed?
Kaleil on the other hand is the flamboyant, driven, good-looking and charismatic leader guy. He has the attractive girlfriend who wants a puppy and is always waiting for his call. He never calls. Kaleil's name (in diametric opposition to Tom's) becomes a sticking point for everyone he meets. It doesn't matter if it's the receptionist at the VC firm he visits or the anchor on the CNNfn slot he does. Its Kaleil Isaza Tuzman. He is the one who gives the others hope and his hero is Jerry Maguire -- well it's who he seems to have modelled himself on at least.
In keeping with that role model, he will not lose and he says this a lot in an "I will not, will not lose" kind of way. This is, of course, poignant as Kaleil, like everyone else, loses everything. Friends, the company and the reality of being a dotcom billionaire.
He stands out while others fade into the background. There is a point in the film that, at first, appears to be a Forrest Gump/Zelig moment when Kaleil is seen on TV sitting next to Bill Clinton at a round-table discussion. Later, he is giving the president a business card and offering him a job on the board.
As the company grows, you quickly lose focus of who is who. All we had to represent the growing of govWorks were subtitles flashed up saying "April 50 staff", "October 150 staff" and suddenly there were 233 and then 20 minutes later it was over.
It was the same with the technology. This proved one of their biggest problems, highlighting the fact that many operating in the dotcom world just didn't know enough about it. Couldn't build the sites that would make their plans a reality. The same was true of govWorks.
This was Tom's fate. Shortly before being "terminated" by his high-school friend Kaleil, it became apparent that he wasn't up to the job and then he was out. So much for the whistling pine needles (and still no word on the kid -- what's the secret, come on, tell me).
In the end, this film is more about a very small group of people involved in the dotcom boom rather than the boom itself. There is too much missing for it really to be seen as a record of an extrodinary moment or two in history. There was no sense that govWorks was part of a larger picture. This is a shame. What was so interesting at the time wasn't just the long hours and the dynamic people and ideas that came to the fore, but the society around them. GovWorks was at the heart of this, but this was sadly lacking from the story.
GovWorks.com suffered the fate of many dotcoms. In the end, it was swallowed by a faceless corporation and continues to operate. Despite its problems, Startup.com feels quite real and it worth watching for that alone, as it is documentary evidence that this did actually happen.
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