"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 May 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.




Cheat Sheet
Face it - the road to fiscal health is paved with other people's good inventions. And thinking outside the box is just an euphemism for looking over your neighbor's shoulder. Survival of the fittest is not about obeying the urge to create. It's about denying it.
Five years ago today in Suck.

Startup.com — the story of the failed twosome behind govWorks.com, and the ideal film for people who have spent the past eight years itching for another War Room-style buddy picture — is generating enough heat that we expect President Bush will soon order every high school in the land to show it on a cautionary double-bill with some Say-No-To-Ecstasy instructional film. Even now, with the movie in limited release, the company at its center is so freshly dead that a Google search on "govWorks" gets first-page results equally split between corporate obituaries and the kind of barely-rewritten press release coverage that a company in its prime typically enjoys. It's easy to suspect the film is another of Artisan Entertainment's fakumentaries, and all this web data has just been salted as a Blair Witch prank.

The perfect timing, and the archetypal nature of the plot (govWorks founders Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman go from what looks like considerable wealth to investment riches, and back to considerable wealth — with maximum heartache and unease) help explain why the film is being accepted — in particular by people unfamiliar with its subject matter — as what the press notes call "a crucial part of that testimony (to dot-com history)." Our beloved antihero David Denby reads the entrails in a recent New Yorker review, and the result is rich, somewhat like reading a review of a western by a man who has never heard the terms "cowboy" or "Indian."

"The trouble with cinéma vérité methods is that the viewer has no way of evaluating such a moment," El Denby writes, referring to a scene so familiar (the canning of the company's overworked "third founder," of whom we'll speak more in a moment) it seems like plagiarism. Of the interpretation of another sequence, the solemn reviewer states "[W]e can't be sure." It's a comical judgment, given that the whole movie plays like a note-for-note rendition of the dot-com fake book (with the partial modulation that govWorks had a relatively solid business model). There's the obligatory Outward Bound-style corporate bonding mission, in which the heads of the company schlep the employees into the woods for some fake bonhomie. There's the two-man cover-photo pose by our founder heroes. There's the inevitable office break-in and paranoid, histrionic aftermath. (Was it a rival firm? We, or at least Denby, will never know!) There's the evening before go-live, as the CEO looks at the site for the first time in months and storms around the office, shrieking, "I can not release this product!" There's the uncannily familiar sequence where the boss forces the whole office to watch the (better) competitor's launch press conference, just to put a little of that Vitamin P into the atmosphere, then follows it up with an I-refuse-to-lose speech ("See this as a good thing: They're using our terminology. They're following our ideas...")

And so on. For the target audience (and it's hard to conceive who else will be interested), this stuff is not puzzling — it has all the makings of a genre film. At one point, when it's revealed that govWorks has the misfortune to be represented by Wilson Sonsini, the screening audience (comprised largely of people who won their tickets in a c|net radio contest and had been through all of the above events at least twice before the film's 1999-2000 time frame even began) laughed and hooted the way a slasher movie crowd will when the teenagers decide to split up and look for the killer.

It's Denby's unique handicap not to realize that horror film audiences tend to be rooting for the killer anyway. He sees tragedy where knowledgeable audiences see only farce. Always eager to pinpoint the exact moment when America lost its innocence, he declares that the dot-com bustup has made it "unlikely that the idealism and friendship which the movie celebrates will ever play so large a role in business again." But let's go back to the idealism of that company-wide trip through the woods: Co-founder Tom Herman advises his employees to stop for a moment at a "cathedral-like" spot and soak up the quiet rustling of the pine needles. It's a perfect farcical moment, a shallow person attempting to reveal his inner depths; and as the employees fall silent, we get a glimpse of their expressions — a blend of empathetic embarrassment and barely concealed laughter. Similarly, if the filmmakers had chosen to focus on the fired "third founder" — who apparently managed to flee with a few hundred grand — even tragic-minded critics could have seen that the story provided happy endings as well as sad ones.

To his credit, Denby at least realizes that the govWorks business model — online processing of parking tickets, city taxes and other forms of municipal extortion — made some sense. Every other critic has dispatched that part of the film with an avuncular aside about how these young whippersnappers forgot that you have to make a profit. But the lugubrious treatment of this film as the end of a dream is characteristic of the official history currently being concocted about the Web, and shows the function items like Startup.com will play in that history.

This is not to accuse Startup.com of being a particularly good movie. Artisan Entertainment's tradition of nonstop, motion-sickness-inducing handheld videography raises concerns that the company may be liable for a massive class-action personal injury lawsuit. And the inspiration of setting a montage of meetings with VCs to the tune "Money (That's what I want)" is, well, a little too unorthodox, experimental and brilliantly unexpected to go over with mainstream audiences.

Worst of all, the film gives us virtually nothing of govWorks' actual employees — beyond a scene in which one manager points toward the next room and says, "Let's face it; it's not like we've got a bunch of geniuses writing code in there." (Yes, reader, that is what they say about you behind your back.) A successful farce mixes high and low characters, but Startup.com stays so focused on the Fast Company model of company founding fathers that it ignores the vast majority of us who learned business at the knee of Joel Hyatt, and understood that if some other schmuck was going for pie-in-the-sky millions, then we could be entitled to a large cash settlement — a doubled salary, a cush job, a totally unexpected (not to mention undeserved) career boost.

We've said all this many times, but if David Brooks's recent comments in the New York Times Magazine are any indication, the lesson hasn't sunk in. "People left respectable publications and Wall Street firms to work at Web outfits with names like Suck and Pets.com," Mr. Bobos writes in a eulogy for the Web dream. For the record, the Sucksters' list of respectable publishing histories includes Hotwired, a chemical industry trade paper, an internship at The Red Herring, some ripoff illustration work, and Cracked.

Suck is low enough on the radar screen that we can't get too bent out of shape about Brooks's error, but it's representative of a mindset that insists on seeing only the shattered dream and the phantom riches, not the quick buy-ins of the web thousandaires, not the smooth moves of the Gen Xers whose fault it all was anyway, not the princely sums of small-time bucks that were not made by the internet aristocrats but by the clerks, the geeks, the drones and the all-around psychotics who were happy to pick their pockets, and are none the worse for wear now that the pockets are empty.

Then again, maybe we should keep that our little secret.

Waste company time in today's Plastic discussion

courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy


pictures Terry Colon

BarTel d'Arcy

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