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'Startup.com' Captures Shutdown

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'Startup.com' Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, the public face of a dot-com, examined in the documentary "Startup.com." (Artisan Entertainment)
The astute and entertaining documentary "Startup.com" catches up with recent casualties of the cyber revolution, a couple of Palm-piloters who went down in flames over Silicon Valley. They may have been in their late twenties, but they still seem like kids forming a garage band – old high school chums armed with nothing but enthusiasm, laptops and cell phones.

The would-be entrepreneurs came to the valley like forty-niners to Sutter's Mill. ("I can't believe we're here!" exults one of the partners.) They were wide-eyed, dreaming of riches beyond all imagining, but they found fool's gold. It wasn't until the Nasdaq fell down and went boom that they all realized they had been living in virtual reality. But then everybody was.

As fortune would have it, the team that received an Oscar nomination for chronicling Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in "The War Room" just happened to be filming this meltdown in the making. They had actually figured on a happy ending for Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, founders of the ill-fated govWorks.com, a site designed to cut red tape.

And for a time, the partners thought so, too. In a little more than a year, the duo's company was worth $50 million on paper and had 200 employees.But shortly after the company went public, they walked away with nothing – not even their friendship.

Many documentary filmmakers would focus on the technology, but not D.A. Pennebaker, working here with his directing partner and wife, Chris Hegedus, and newcomer Jehane Noujaim. Pennebaker, who has boiled 400 hours of footage into less than two hours, obviously sees the film as a dot.comedy of manners, a wry, sometimes poignant portrait of kids playing power games. In the opening shot, Kaleil leaves his job at Goldman Sachs to become the CEO of govWorks.com, a net business designed to "facilitate the interface" between municipalities and their citizens. To put it another way: You can pay your parking ticket in your underwear from the comfort of your own home.

Kaleil and Tom share the belief that they have come up with an idea that is as altruistic as it is revolutionary. They can become millionaires and "help people, too." Otherwise they have less in common than Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. And it's only a matter of time before the high-fives become low blows.

Their differences didn't matter when it came to playing video games after school, but Tom's nerdy naivete begins to grate on the driven, charismatic Kaleil. Every time Kaleil is about to score financing from a VC (venture capitalist), Tom says or does something to queer the deal. He's a blooper waiting to happen. When introducing the company's newest board member, Tom remembers that he's a mayor, but can't come up with the city. "Atlanta," prompts Kaleil.

After a power tussle, which the Machiavellian Kaleil easily wins, the baby-faced CEO not only fires his best friend – "one of the most amazing people" he has ever known – but has him escorted out of the building lest he commit sabotage. Though Kaleil tries to smooth everything over with management-type psychobabble and a big, back-slapping bear hug, Tom leaves with a thin smile on his face and a heavy heart.

Don't worry, there will be a happy ending, sort of.

The amazing thing is that they actually got govWorks off the ground, much less talked their parents, friends and financiers into putting $20 million into the project. Nobody ever seems to realize that paying off a parking ticket really isn't such a big deal anyway. All it takes is a 34-cent stamp.

"Startup.com" (103 minutes) is rated R for language.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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