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Being In The Right Place - Startup.com interview


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 16 June 2004

There is a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Twenty-five-year-old, Jehane Noujaim, didn't even have to leave her home for the inspiration for her first documentary.

She was sharing a flat with a twentysomething entrepreneur, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, who had chucked in the day job at Goldman Sachs to kick off an ambitious multi-million dollar business called GovWorks.com.

The idea behind GovWorks.com was to enable people to do business with local government - like paying taxes and parking tickets - online.

Noujaim, who had previously had a production job at MTV, realised here was a unique opportunity.

"There were all these people coming over at all hours of the night to negotiate salaries and he was raising hundreds of pounds on the side of his bed and I was just like, 'This is incredible!'" recalls Noujaim, who set about documenting the company's birth on her MiniDV camera.

In the course of the company's short life - November 1998 to January 2001 - Tuzman and his team raised almost $60million for GovWorks.com. That feat in itself made many of column inches in the print press. But what made this company stand apart from the multitude of other start-ups going for internet riches and glory it was the characters involved, in particular Tusman.

"He's just an incredibly charismatic person. He has never really lost at anything. So I knew that he would either be the guy behind the next Microsoft or he'd go down fighting," says Noujaim, whose father was one of the small investors that wrote Tuzman a cheque.

Chris Hegedus, who previously made the award-winning documentary with her producer husband D.A. Pennebaker, The War Room, which follows Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential Campaign, had developed "the same fascination" for the dot com boom by 1998.

"I kind of came at it from the other end and I had an entrée into a venture capital company [Flatiron Partners]. I had a friend who had told me about this phenomenon and I had read about it," says Hegedus. "He said I'm just consulting for this venture capital firm that's giving all this money away, you should come and sit in on one of these pitching sessions. And so I started watching young entrepreneurs come in with business plans..."

However, after weeks of watching twenty and thirtysomething aspirants pitching their business ideas, Hegebus still hadn't found a young executive that fitted their needs and was still at the conceptual stages of a start-up.

When Noujaim approached Hegebus for funding it was a perfect fit.

The two directors say they knew from the start that they wanted to pursue the human drama - the relationship between Tuzman, the CEO, and fellow-founder and longtime friend, Herman. This was partly because they thought the interactions between the two key personalities - the bullish mover-and-shaker and the nurturing technician - would be more watchable and partly because when it came to business "we had no clue".

It is also easy to forget the highly secretive climate that dot coms were operating in at the time, perhaps rightly so - at one point in the documentary the company's offices were broken into and vital data stolen. That secrecy would have thrown up more obstacles to making a film about the business story of the company than following the emotional highs and lows of the directors.

Due to its sensitive nature, and the sums of money involved, the filmmakers were barred from filming board meetings ("even the board notes were destroyed," says Noujaim).

Although there were regrets that they weren't given more access to the board - with its powerful personalities (like the Mayor Jackson of Chicago who is seen at one point leading a group psyche-up chant) - Hegebus feels that the board's absence might even have had a beneficial effect. She draws a parallel with the enigmatic, absent tycoon in Charlie's Angels. In Startup.com, the focus is on Tuzman after the board meetings, coming under increasing pressure as the the company unravels. It works because Tuzman is so open on camera, his fighting spirit an engaging quality.

Having decided the line they were going to take with the documentary it was then just a case of hanging on tight for the rollercoaster ride.

"We didn't know which way the story was going to go," recalls Noujaim, who did the most of the filming. "The company could have folded or been bought out at any moment."

As it happens the company would follow many other dot coms into virtual oblivion, but would leave some compelling videotape behind.

Near the beginning of the film we see the two friends expressing their love and respect for each other. By the end, Tuzman is having his friend escorted out of the office building by security guard and having the locks changed so that he can't get back in. As Tuzman becomes more determined to salvage the company at all costs, Herman reveals his strong feelings of betrayal and loss of a friend.

Over the course of the company's short lifespan Noujaim filmed 400 hours of tape, which explains why the participants usually look like they have forgotten the camera is on them.

"Some of the most crucial parts of the story happened in the middle of the night, so I did a lot of filming in pyjamas."

Her friendship with the two directors was undoubtedly an important factor in getting so close to her subjects, that and the fact that they are women.

"We weren't as threatening. We didn't clash with the whole alpha male ego thing," says Noujaim.

Perhaps inevitably, there were some reservations about the final cut. "Tom was disappointed that there was less on the IT side," says Noujaim - a complaint echoed elsewhere by viewers. Herman has also said that they overplayed the break-up of the friendship, saying that they didn't include footage of a meal the two had on the same day of the sacking. Herman and Tuzman also went on to set up another company together, Recognition Group, geared towards helping ailing start-ups - something that the film does point out at the end.

Others have criticised the lack of information about the fate to the employees. Hegebus brushes this off: "They weren't that old and they were paid well."

Documentary-making is all about making tough decisions at the edit suite. If it doesn't fit the story then it has to go, no matter how compelling. Noujaim explains that they also didn't use a clip of Tuzman sacking his father - one of the hardest things to do for the young CEO - because it was done on the telephone.

On the other hand, Noujaim wasn't around to record the memorable incident where Tuzman met Clinton at the Whitehouse because she was poring over a hot edit suite back in New York - Hegebus was keen that they were first to market with their documentary before another internet documentary.

Although she missed Tuzman going to Washington, the filmmakers acquired the footage off the network, and back at the GovWorks New York office, got Tuzman's reaction on seeing the meeting again. As they watch him bidding the president goodbye, one of Tuzman's co-workers jokes that he looked like he was reaching inside his jacket for a business card, to which Tuzman replies that he offered Clinton a job in New York City when Hilary took up her post as Senator.

Heady days, indeed.

Originally published on iofilm in August 2001
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