You probably think you’ve heard all you need to about the dot-commers, those aggressive young heathens who made and lost millions of dollars over short periods—years, months, sometimes even weeks. In the past couple of weeks alone, the story (as if there’s only one) has been told by Nightline and other news outlets, sometimes sensationally, sometimes soberly, but always with a sense that the market is a mystifying, unnerving, and untamable thing. You also may not be feeling very sympathetic to their current unemployment, what with the media attention paid to their raucous disdain for traditional “values” (except, of course, making lots of money, a perennial value, it seems, no matter what your politics may be), frustrations with a narrow-minded business sector, their pink slip parties, and their brave decisions to move on to the next high-rolling conquest.
No matter what you think, however, you might be pleasantly surprised by the new film by veteran documentary maker Chris Hegedus and first-timer Jehane Noujaim, the aptly named Startup.com. The film follows the spectacular trajectory of govWorks.com, a company put together by the gifted, visionary, and unabashedly ambitious Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends since high school and willing to put their own money and careers on the line to make their idea a reality. This idea, as the film explains it, is deceptively simple. It begins with parking tickets. Kaleil and Tom’s grand and fairly admirable notion is that they will “put government online,” making it accessible to people who need to pay tickets, register vehicles, and grapple with the thousands of other irritating minutiae having to do with the U.S. government, and allowing them to avoid long lines and enraging situations in the process.
Tom and Kaleil look like a lot of people you might know. Tom’s bearded and scrappy, most comfortable in khakis and t-shirts, the too-eager tech-guy, so full of energy that he’s unable to contain his enthusiasm. Kaleil, by contrast, is Mr. Charisma. He looks great in an expensive suit, radiates confidence and seduces potential financiers (a.k.a. venture capitalists) with well-crafted stories about their favorite topic—making money, lots of it.
The film starts with their company’s birth—Kaleil introduces himself to Tom’s initial employees, having given up his six-figure Goldman Sachs gig to be the new company’s CEO. Sitting on computer boxes, the group looks on Kaleil like the vaunted leader and savior they want him to be, everyone full of hope and desire, imagining how to spend that first million. They make good-natured fun of one another—at one point the group starts listing and laughing at Kaleil’s “favorite words,” the jargon he uses in pitch meetings, like heuristic, visceral, holistic, and query. It’s a good moment, they’re aware of the performance and able to pull back from it.
And then, they start to argue. The company name seems a small thing, but it’s at the crux of their personal and professional project—which is looking great and new and innovative and brilliant. Tom and Kaleil spend days fretting over what to name the company, going back and forth, disagreeing, feeling threatened, wanting to be generous but also worried that this first test of their friendship will land one of them on the bottom of a hierarchy that they don’t even want to acknowledge exists between them.
All this turmoil is conveyed subtly: already, only fifteen minutes into the film, you can feel tension building, the pace picks up, the faces look slightly more harried, and the exchanges between the partners become ever so slightly shorter. Neither says out loud that he’s worried or competitive with the other. Instead, they go to Starbucks, where they ask the patrons which names they prefer. It’s lighthearted and kid-like, but there’s an edge here too, a hint of the differences in outlook and faith—in people, in themselves—that will come back to haunt the two co-founders. The non-crisis blows over quickly, but soon enough it’s replaced by another, slightly larger one, when Tom speaks his mind in front of a potential investor and Kaleil feels he has to reprimand him for presenting a non-united front before an outsider (he explains his rationale for the dressing down, helpfully, for the camera).
And then another disaster occurs—the guys are offered $17 million by an eager group of investors and then can’t find their lawyer on the phone, to check the contract language (embarrassed, they say they have to fire their lawyer, rather than thinking they need to be better organized). Then again… even when they weather this storm, they’re hit by another: the office is burglarized and specific hard drives are missing—sabotage or coincidence? Is it possible to be paranoid in a business where the stakes are so high and the egos so large?
The movie’s structure suggests this increasingly jaggedy relationship—as the guys fall out, make up, dance a bit, recommit, then finally give up altogether—handheld, relentlessly mobile and curious. Hegedus and Noujaim had unusual access to their subjects: Noujaim came up with the idea for the documentary while she was Kaleil’s roommate, a relationship they continued during filming, so that whatever went on at home at night also became fair game for footage. At the same time, the filmmakers developed a kind of partnership with their subjects, and they worked together to tell a story in which everyone felt invested.
The result is a movie that is less about the dot-com revolution than about a friendship that falls apart with dot-comming as the fast-moving, life-changing background. This focus on the relationship raises obvious questions that the film doesn’t really dodge, but doesn’t really answer either: what does it mean to turn your life over to outside forces, not only those of the market and the media who use them as poster boys for the breakneck pace and incredible success of the dot-com world (or more accurately, the media use photogenic and savvy Kaleil, who appears on television and magazine covers, even scores a meeting with President Clinton), but also the simultaneously intrusive and thrilling power of the camera. Making your life available to someone else is certainly a daunting endeavor, though perhaps not as daunting as soliciting $20 million to jumpstart a company with no proven record. Still, Kaleil and Tom appear on screen in all kinds of situations, with family and coworkers, in their kitchens, their cars, their bedrooms, their offices—they address the camera occasionally, but mostly just and go about their business with a series of superrich suits, as well as their loyal employees, whose numbers expand quickly, to the hundreds. Eventually, they’re performing the meltdown of their relationship for an audience. You can’t help but wonder what this might mean to those sucked into the process. The heady early days of “the company” very quickly give way to professional disputes and distrust, which the guys work hard to keep separate from their friendship. Their inability to do so is surely compelling and disturbing; the fact that you’re watching it is equally troubling.