“The year 2000 was not kind to the young internet industry. Tech stocks tanked. Fresh capital for dot-coms dried up. At least 130 online firms died and an estimated 40,000 dot-com workers lost jobs.” ^ – Jon Swartz, USA Today, 12/28/2000
There could not be a more timely documentary to come on the scene than “Startup.com.” This riveting film follows the rise and fall of Govworks.com — an internet start-up whose goal is to “make the government work for you!” This ambitious dot-com company’s plan involved getting through the red tape of local municipalities by allowing users to pay parking tickets online or to renew a driver’s license, thus saving consumers the hassle of taking a full day off work to accomplish such burdensome tasks. Sounds pretty cool. But like many bloated dot-com companies, they failed. Govworks.com is currently out of business, having just sold their assets New Year’s Day 2001.
The film takes us on an amazing journey as we get an inside look at the tumultuous 18-month life of Govworks. The story starts right at the beginning as we meet the two wide-eyed founders who make their decision to start a company. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman is a charismatic investment banker who leaves his comfortable dayjob to head up the new venture as its CEO. Tom Herman is a young father and technology wiz. The two have been best friends since childhood and this experience promises to change that relationship forever. Armed only with a business plan and no experience, they venture headlong into this high-stakes world. We see the company at the financing stage with an empty office space and only a handful of employees. The two jet across the country in search of funding meeting with company after company as they lay out their vision for Govworks. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, the two are given one hour to take a deal that will gain them $17 million in funding. The only problem — they can’t even get their attorney on the phone. Once on the line, the suits engage in a high finance battle over terms of the contract. It’s captivating to see precisely how these types of deals go down. Sure, you read about them in the paper, but “Startup.com” offers an intimate look at the process.
With funding secured we see the company grow from only a few employees to several hundred. The vast array of problems plaguing the young company never seem to end, as they become victims of sabotage when their offices are broken into. The weekend that they prepare to launch, there are just too many bugs in the system. Tuzman makes the fateful decision to delay the launch. There are plenty of high-points along the way as well — employees bond at a retreat and Tuzman meets President Clinton and actually gives him his business card on C-SPAN. The most tragic part of the story unfolds when the company fails to meet projected revenues. Tuzman and Herman’s friendship is then put to the final test when the CEO is forced to fire his best friend since childhood. It’s riveting from beginning to end.
I watched “Startup.com” and truly felt the pain of the hardships those onscreen endured. As a dot-com company, Film Threat has survived because our overheard is so low. I’m relieved that I avoided the multi-million dollar funding route and chose to build our site with simply the commitment and hard work of a few dedicated individuals. Any influences by a board of directors or investors would have stifled us editorially. FilmThreat.com is owned by those you see writing for it. I don’t put out weekly bullshit press releases touting exaggerated achievements like so many others. Obviously, it’s paid off for us. While other movie destinations on the web suffer layoffs and near financial ruin, we’re still building and attracting a growing audience. I designed the site with economy of scale in mind so that FilmThreat.com could continue to cover the mainstream Hollywood releases right alongside reviews of independent films, underground shorts or digital features shot by unknown filmmakers from all parts of the globe. I’m proud of what we’ve done and we will continue this mission without the burden of reaching seemingly unattainable financial goals. Why? Because we don’t have to bring in loads of money to survive and that’s the way I want it. I personally believe that the business model for a movie web site — basing it on similar budgets and structures of print film magazines — is just plain wrong. It makes no sense. I have sat idly by and watched a slew of sites continue to make fatal mistakes, pissing away money where it is completely unnecessary.
“Startup.com” ends as an epic episode of The Real “dot-com” World. It’s a fascinating cautionary tale about the internet business that must be seen by anyone who has ever logged on.