Startup.com is a documentary about an Internet company that generated a decent amount of buzz and investment, and crashed and burned before it ever accomplished much. It focuses on the two main principals of the company, young men who had been friends since childhood.
It feels somewhat more like a regular movie than most documentaries in that there’s little or nothing in the way of narration or background or commentary. (Though I’m struck by how many of the documentaries I’ve watched recently are minimalist like that—basically throwing the material at you and letting you make what you will of it.) You pretty much just follow these guys around for the year or so that this company existed, watching them interact with each other and with other people, and you pick up what you can of what’s going on.
And the “what’s going on” part is not completely baffling, but it’s not completely clear either. (I could see it being much more baffling to a computer and Internet newbie, and much more clear to someone who is very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Internet businesses. My understanding of such matters is intermediate, so the movie was only sort of understandable to me.)
Their idea was to have a website to facilitate people dealing with their local governments, for instance by being able to pay parking tickets online with a credit card. So people would come to the site, type in their city and state, and then they’d have various options to get information, pay for things, whatever. (They never do show the site for whatever reason, so some of this I had to guess at.)
For much of the movie, they are meeting with various venture capitalist investor companies to raise money to create and run their website. And they in fact raise a lot.
But evidently not enough, because the site never really takes off and they shut it down.
But I only have a vague notion of the business end of it. What is all the investment money for? For bandwidth and such to handle the amount of traffic they anticipate? For employees? Employees to do what? To create the site in the first place, just to design the interface and be able to process credit cards and such? That seems like a very temporary need. To contact and negotiate with municipalities to turn over online functions to this company? It seems like they’re trying to raise as much investment money as possible, but why? Aren’t these spending needs finite? Why do they want to owe all this money to investors, or to have so many different entities with a hand in this operation?
How is it supposed to make money? Do the municipalities pay them to perform certain functions? Why? If they want to take credit card payments for parking tickets or whatever, why don’t they set that up on their own government website; what’s the point of the middleman site? Are they going to have advertisements all over their website and raise money that way?
I don’t know, because they show them endlessly negotiating with investors, but there’s little or nothing of them negotiating with local governments or potential advertisers.
So I’m not sure about a lot of this. And the idea doesn’t seem all that hot to begin with. As I mentioned, it seems to be adding a pointless middleman to the process. And for that matter, as a citizen I’d rather have government performing government functions anyway; I don’t want to pay my parking ticket through some for-profit company.
But beyond that, I admit I was rooting for them to fail the whole way. The one partner I was pretty much neutral about—he’s a somewhat annoying, mainstream, techie businessman type, given to pop psychology management blather, but seems to have at least some human qualities—but the other partner I really, really disliked.
He is the embodiment of so much in life that I hate, partly because not enough other people hate it. That is, I have trouble working up nearly the kind of rage and hatred and such for terrorists and child molesters, and the like, because everyone already hates them, and I’m just not into the mob thing. It’s overkill. I don’t need to pile on, to assure people that I’m OK because I hate the right things. I’m more apt to get worked up over more subtle forms of evil, because there’s that added frustration factor that the world is actually facilitating and supporting and applauding such behavior.
He is the kind of person who is utterly pragmatic and tactical in everything he does and says in his pursuit of money and conventional success. Phony from head to toe. But seemingly so internalized that maybe phony isn’t the right word. I mean, some of it he knows he’s being strategic, but some of it I think is just who he really is now, a sort of soulless capitalist machine.
Everything about him is contrived to attain his ends, from his appearance to his speech to his body language, to the emotions he shows, etc. He’s always “on,” saying to his partner what he needs to to get him to do what he wants, using all the right jargon to create just the right impression that results in venture capitalists forking over the money, getting the employees to work harder with rousing platitudes and chants and shows of emotion.
He’s the kind of ambitious, slick, amoral character who nearly always is a conventional success in life. Whether it be women or investors or whatever, he has the kind of energy and smooth style that draws people in. Some people are suckers for it, but I think a lot of more savvy people go for it too, because they recognize that he’s got what it takes to sucker other people, so they want to be on his side, they want to come along for the ride since he’s “going places.” Someone to whom success matters so much that he’s going to play all the games and really nail all the social and professional rituals—better to have him on your side.
So it’s nice to see that kind of creepy behavior fail, albeit rarely and temporarily.
It’s the kind of thing I hardly even talk about any more. I recognize it on a visceral level as a really phony, slimy way to live one’s life, but people eat that bullshit up, and I don’t need to get in fights with them about it. I can’t even articulate all that well why I find it so offensive, so it’s not about trying to win arguments about it. I just see it and I’m so thankful that—for everything else wrong with me and everything else I wish I could improve—I really have very, very, very little of that core phoniness. My thoughts, my words, my emotions, the way I interact with people, is not contrived and manipulative to achieve material success. It’s really me (at least as much as there can be such a thing, without getting into dry and difficult psychological and philosophical concepts of personal identity).
He struggles with his partner at times, because his partner is only sort of like him. That is, the partner will occasionally say something he actually means in a meeting with an investor, instead of sticking to the pre-arranged script. And so eventually he forces the partner out of the company. But he says and does all the strategically correct things to minimize the bad blood, and as a caption at the end notes, after this company failed, they started another one together.
I don’t know. He just pushed a lot of buttons in me. Just the whole, “What’s wrong with him? He’s just being a good businessman, using his brains and energy and personality to influence people.” Whether I can articulate it or not, something is very, very wrong with that kind of person, and with a system (an economic system, a social or dating system, whatever) that rewards such traits.
But Startup.com on the whole is moderately interesting. As I say, it’s somewhat understandable but not as clear as one might like. The plot of following this company and whether it’s going to make it, and how these principals deal with the issues they face, moves along well and keeps one involved.
I also found myself thinking about the filmmaking process itself. Even if most people won’t react as negatively to the one character as I did, he and some of the other people in the movie don’t exactly come out looking good. And there was no way when filming started to anticipate that the company would fail so quickly. Yet apparently everyone involved let these folks continue to film them and make whatever movie they wanted of it.
I have enough trouble getting people to not micro-manage my little personal history films that almost no one except they and their own family will ever see. So I can’t help but be impressed by filmmakers who get subjects to allow them to present their stories to the general public without sugarcoating.