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STARTUP.COM(directors/editors: Chris Hegedus & Jehane Noujaim; cinematographer: Jehane Noujaim; cast: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman (himself), Tom Herman (himself); Runtime: 105; Artisan Entertainment; 2001)
“Honest, suspenseful and educational.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sobering cinéma vérité documentary, shot on a mini DV, about two high school friends, Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, who went to business college together and dreamt of starting their own Internet firm. This came to fruition in May 1999 in NYC after raising $700,000 from friends, relatives, and angels. They were both in their late 20s when they became equal partners. They started small with 8 employees working their way up to their heyday figure of 233 employees–when their fairy tale ride to riches suddenly ends in collapse in January 2001. In their time of operation they raised over 60 million dollars from investors and before they went broke, were worth at least $12 million–apiece.

Their Web-based firm was named and was devoted to making government more efficient and helping to cut through the red tape of bureaucracy by providing a site online to pay parking tickets, file taxes, register autos, get fishing permits, and so on. This saved the hassle of doing it only during working hours at the government office building. It sounds like a good idea whereby the public is served with a convenience, the municipalities get their money quickly, and the businessmen make a healthy profit. So what went so wrong!

The film came at a time when startup companies on the Internet were booming. Money from capital venture speculators being thrown at the feet of brash young businessmen with ideas and high-tech skills. But the surprise is that it all came tumbling down so fast and so catastrophically, and in this case even putting a damper on a close friendship. Since this is not fiction, it’s interesting to look behind the scenes. It seems that documentary filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus had a lot of latitude to film and their camera was the fly-on-the-wall for both the good and the bad moments. Ms. Noujaim was Tuzman’s Harvard roommate. The co-director, Mrs. Hegedus, came aboard later (she co-produced with her husband, D.A. Pennebaker, “The War Room,” which was about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign). The legendary Pennebaker is also the producer of this film.

The charismatic Kaleil leaves a secure position at Goldman Sachs to begin his dream, and fortunately Ms. Noujaim was there to film all the excitement and his puffed up feelings. Kaleil was confident to the point he couldn’t see the downside to his gamble. He ran the business side of the operation. He was the pitchman who rallied the troops. Tom, his partner, is the more sensitive type and handled the technical side. He is exuberant over the prospect of doing some good in the community and making some dough for himself and the investors and board members (some prominent like the former mayor of Atlanta Maynard Jackson brought on as a consultant).

Their early optimism is met with a series of missteps due to their inexperience. It involves inflaming a bad blood situation with a former founding member who now is being offered a buyout, their missing a $17 million buyout from a Boston firm when they can’t reach their lawyers in time for a consultation. The final blow was the bear market a year later, which reduced the value of their shares to nada.

Meanwhile the pressures get to Kaleil and Tom. Kaleil goes through a few girlfriends because he’s too busy to call them, while Tom in his nervous state goes from having a beard to shaving it off to growing one again. We never get to know about Tom’s marital status, but he does have a black three-year-old daughter whom he dotes over, whose mother never appears. The friends get caught up in a power struggle to run the firm, and the more naive Tom is terminated by the board. They’re now back together in another business venture.

Kaleil is backslapping with the rich and famous at fund raisers, and appears on CNN business shows and on the cover of Forbes. He will also appear in a roundtable discussion on representative democracy and the Internet with President Clinton on C-SPAN, where he’s crass enough to lay his business card on the Prez.

Let’s hope the partners have better technology this time around, since I took no pleasure in watching them fail. This film would not encourage me to invest in a company run by them, no matter how smart they are or that they make things happen — I felt their bad vibes. But I would recommend this film — it was honest, suspenseful and educational. It was also an American melting pot dream come through story. The players were of so many different ethnic groups and colors of skin–all dreaming the new American Dream of instant wealth and better technology.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”