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Startup.com Reviews

Ostensibly the rise-and-fall story of a fledgling Internet company, this timely documentary (which opened a year after the April 2000 stock market crash that busted the dot-com boom) winds up being a sad illustration of the adage that mixing business and friendship is an invitation to trouble. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman went to high school together and remained friends long after graduation; in 1999 they joined the ranks of online entrepreneurs with govWorks.com. The site sprang from a simple but enticing idea: It would help people pay parking tickets online. It quickly mushroomed into something more ambitious: A one-stop site where people would have easy access to a wide range of government services, free from interference by layers of bureaucracy. GovWorks, in turn, would eventually siphon off a portion of government service fees. Isaza Tuzman, who left a lucrative job at investment firm Goldman Sachs to seek his fortune online, provides the business acumen, while Herman oversees the technical side of the project. Made by Isaza Tuzman's former roommate, Jehane Noujaim, and veteran documentary filmmaker Chris Hegedus, the film covers the period between May 1999 and December 2000, during which the company grew from a handful of employees to more than 200, blew through millions of dollars and was beset by troubles: A mysterious break-in, competition from rival site EzGov.com (which launched first and lasted longer), an ugly break with a third founding partner, technological failure (four days before the site was due to go live, its search engine responded to a query about parking tickets with the question, "Is 'park' a first or a last name?") and a rift between Isaza Tuzman and Herman that led to the latter's ignominious ouster from the company he co-founded. The intricacies of the business are duly chronicled, but they're eclipsed by the complicated relationship between Herman and Isaza Tuzman (and, to a lesser degree, their relationships with their families and other friends). And that's what elevates the film above TV newsmagazine level: The story of the business is historically interesting, but the story of a friendship tested to the breaking point is timeless. An ironic postscript: Despite their bitter and oh-so-public break, Isaza Tuzman and Herman subsequently went back into business together. They formed a company called Recognition Group, which helps the owners and backers of failing Internet-based companies negotiate the complicated legal and emotional terrain of bankruptcy.