So you have a Web site that's supposed to help drivers pay their traffic tickets. But when users search on the words "parking tickets," it asks whether Park is their first or last name. You have a problem.
That's just one example from two years' worth of troubles that slapped business partners and high school pals Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman as they swaggered through the launch and demise of GovWorks.com. The site, which was up and running from May, 1999, to December, 2000, was intended to link people with government, ultimately making it easier to pay parking tickets and taxes and buy licenses.
Their biggest mistake might have been the basic concept. Isaza Tuzman, who had been looking for some type of service to put online so he could join the Brave New World of Internet entrepreneurs, found an unpaid parking ticket in a box while moving and thought, "Hey, this is it! I wish I could pay this online. People need this service."
Did they really?
"RENDERUNTOCAESAR.COM" The rise and fall of GovWorks is the subject of Startup.com, a documentary by a couple of filmmakers with fortuitous timing. Co-directors Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus begin their ripped-from-the-headlines story as we watch Isaza Tuzman packing up his desk in the Wall Street offices of Goldman Sachs and moving a few blocks away to the Silicon Alley headquarters of GovWorks, where he joins his co-founder.
The filmmakers chronicled one vivid example of the rocket flare that, in hindsight, we know to have been so common in the young Internet industry. For 103 minutes (boiled down from 400 hours of tape), the audience gets to peek through the open door of what appears to be a very interesting, fast-paced workplace, where 28-year-olds are given $60 million and asked to turn it into something grand.
"I want to call it RenderuntoCaesar.com," says CEO Isaza Tuzman as the team agonizes over what to name the business they have founded on the premise of "inalienable rights" -- like the "right to buy a fishing license at 3 in the morning" or "the right to attend a town meeting in your underwear."
This film brings to life in embarrassingly personal detail the stories we've all been reading for the past year. Noujaim and Hegedus show what happens at the confluence of money, technology, and get-rich-quick dreams.
CLUELESS. What happens is that basic mistakes are made. And, although there are some heavy-hitters on the board -- including Wall Street legend Henry Kravis -- watching life at GovWorks made me feel like there often was no adult in the room. An early trip to Silicon Valley illustrates the hubris of this band of high-fivers. They are obviously thrilled to get an interview at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. But after the meeting, they brush away criticisms. Told that they are coming too late to the game and that they betray their rookie form by showing up with documents rather than a computerized presentation, they reassure themselves that the criticism came from someone who "just doesn't get it."
In one tense moment, the partners are offered $17 million in VC money from Highland Capital Partners. They have to agree to basic terms that day, but can't get their attorney on the phone to help them through the details. When they track him down, he says he was "at the printer." Didn't they know where they were headed that day? Did they not know they might need legal representation?
Everyone is quick to spout jargon -- first-mover advantage in this bureaucratic facilitation marketplace -- but it's little more than bravado. GovWorks' momentum is stalled when competitor and actual first-mover Easygov.com launches its site a month before our boys are ready to go.
THE LOOMING ICEBERG. Another momentum-killer comes when an office break-in appears to be sabotage by either an employee or a competitor. And the conversation following it highlights personality differences between the two founders. Isaza Tuzman, visibly shaken by the burglary, is trying to explain to tech-impresario Herman that this could be a fatal blow. Herman says he hopes it isn't, but shrugs it off. The worst-case scenario, he comments, is that, "we both live in nice places and we'll go on to good jobs."
That seems to be the beginning of the end of the personal relationship between the two men and of their fledgling business. A worst-case scenario they hadn't foreseen comes along on Friday, Apr. 14, 2000, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The Nasdaq drops 354.81 points, or 10.68%, and the wind is taken out of the dot-com sails.
But they don't see it yet. Watching this breakup is like watching a married couple come apart, seeing how their anger and fear keeps them from communicating clearly. "We're not really co-CEOs, but in some ways we are," says Herman to a colleague. "You're not responding to my authority," Isaza Tuzman tells Herman. Huh?
PERMANENT VACATION. Then the divorce papers were filed. On May 28, 2000, Isaza Tuzman fires his friend and has him escorted from the building. He explains it as a desperate attempt to get Herman to take a vacation.
The personal problems pale beside the company's business failings -- flat revenues, an infrastructure that has bloated to 250 employees, a sales cycle that is too long, difficult negotiations with municipalities, and a board that was becoming increasingly impatient.
For the viewer, all of this is filtered through our knowledge of what has gone on in the past year. We know that the inflated dreams of instant wealth have been replaced by harsh economic realities and a desire for profits. But Isaza Tuzman and Herman didn't know that things would go sour -- and neither did the filmmakers. More than just a fly-on-the-wall look at the rocky start of one company, this story of conflict between personal and business relationships is a universal one. By Robin J. Phillips in New York