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Internet Becket

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Two friends divide responsibilities, set off to serve the masses while ruling a kingdom, sadly diverge on matters of policy, turn on each other with a potent mixture of regret and accumulated bitterness and destroy what they have built. The story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, right? As well as the story of figures as divergent as Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Apple Computers founders Steven Wozniak and Steven Jobs. But also the smaller, more recent story detailed in Startup.com, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus.

Beginning in May 1999, the filmmakers began to videotape 27-year-old Internet entrepreneur Kaleil Isaza Tuzman. Tuzman roomed with Noujaim at Harvard, and the access Tuzman and his business partners granted the filmmakers is a testimony both to the power of friendship and the incredible, naive arrogance associated with the business venture Startup.com documents.

Swarthy, thick-chested, handsome and nakedly charismatic, Tuzman teamed with former high school classmate Tom Herman to start a company they called govWorks.com. Shy, quiet, given to riffs of philosophizing and dreaming out loud, Herman is the Wozniak to Tuzman's Jobs. Tuzman's charge was to raise the money and dazzle the clients. Herman's responsibility was to design the Web site that would turn blips of light into torrents of dollars. GovWorks would provide customers Internet scissors for the vast red tape of governmental bureaucracy. Click your mouse on your home computer and renew your driver's license, get a land-use permit, or pay your parking ticket.

The idea was simple and compelling enough to attract $60 million from venture capitalists as the nation teased itself that the idiot's bubble of the "new economy" would expand forever and make millionaires of us all. But the crash of 2000 awaited, for companies and the alliances that spawned them.

The ego seeds that would produce poisonous trees of disloyalty are visible from the beginning. GovWorks hasn't but eight techie employees under Herman's management when Tuzman quits his day job at Goldman Sachs to become the fledgling company's full-time CEO. Immediately, he tries to change the firm's name to UntoCaesar.com and then to NexTown.com. Why he doesn't like govWorks is never made clear. Shortly later, Tuzman is bristling that Herman has contradicted him in a meeting and complaining that when Herman attends pitch sessions to potential investors his remarks lack requisite focus. After a while Herman gripes that Tuzman is trying to meddle with product design and should stick to his responsibilities for fundraising and client development.

But as long as the investment money flows in, Herman and Tuzman hang together. Eventually, of course, they have to make their money in something resembling the old-fashioned way: They have to deliver a Web site offering a product that people are willing to pay for. They are not utterly without success. They land contracts with 45 cities and win the parking-ticket service for the city of New York. But in the aftermath of the NASDAQ nosedive in April 2000, they find themselves with far too few revenues to sustain a bloated infrastructure that has grown to include more than 100 employees. Tuzman blames Herman's product design and Herman blames Tuzman's megalomania. The inevitable power struggle leads to disaster for all involved.

Startup.com is effective as a cautionary tale about both the tech madness that seized the country in the late 1990s and about the perils of immaturity. Tuzman and Herman are like spoiled children who drive Daddy's car too fast and blame fate and each other when they get in a wreck. They try to mask their fundamental greed with a post-hippie style that's as shallow as the Rio Grande in August. They cheerlead their employees, conduct retreats complete with nature walks, proclaim the wonders of meditation, dispense hugs like after-dinner mints and confess their mutual love at every turn. But they are grandchildren of the 1960s stripped of its altruistic ideals and marinated in a broth of Reaganomics. When the going gets tough, the tough screw their partners. The only thing new is the dot.commers' pretense that they were above all that.

Startup.com is less successful, however, as a revealing piece of documentary cinema. Far too few questions are asked. And far fewer are satisfactorily answered. For instance, what happened to the mother of Herman's black daughter, and why are scenes with the child included in the film? More important, what are we to make of govWorks' third founder, and why are we introduced to him so late and incompletely? Is he the traitor Herman and Tuzman term him? Or is he just a Menshevik steamrolled by Bolshevik ruthlessness? Most important, was there something deficient in Herman's Web site design or was govWorks' collapse primarily a function of market downturn? We don't have to admire or like either of these two men to yearn for a clearer measure of their talents as a counterbalance to their obvious deficiencies of character.

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