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Don't look back in anger 

Startup.com chronicles rise and fall of a dot-com dream

I just got an e-mail from Tony, a buddy from high school. This spring, he and some dot-com exiles formed a new Internet company out in San Francisco. Their timing, of course, couldn't be worse. These days, most startups have the shelf life of raw chicken under a heat lamp. Still, Tony and his boys are trying to drum up interest in the local press.

"The urge to watch the giant car-wreck of the Bay Area's economy is almost irresistible," they concede. "But is it no longer possible to write a success story?"

Two years ago, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a success story. Internet startups were the Gold Rush and prospectors were everywhere. Two of them were Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, twentysomething childhood friends who quit their day jobs in New York City to invest in a million-dollar idea.

That idea was simple: Give Americans a way to pay their local government fees -- driver's licenses, traffic tickets and the like -- online. The duo christened their baby GovWorks and went to work.

They weren't alone. Jehane Noujaim, a young filmmaker, had been a roommate of Tuzman's and saw her friend's gamble as a chance to document the fin de siecle revolution. She left her job at MTV and hoisted a digital video camera on her shoulder, starting May 20, 1999, the day Tuzman quit his own job at Goldman Sachs.

For Noujaim, Tuzman's quest was a chance to see "the center of the action. And he was this extremely charismatic character."

At the same time, Chris Hegedus had a similar idea but couldn't find the right subject. (Hegedus and her husband, D.A. Pennebaker -- the man behind the 1967 Dylan documentary Dont Look Back -- had won Academy Award nominations in 1994 for The War Room, the behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.)

"I was totally obsessed with this idea. I was looking for something that was the pulse of this generation," Hegedus says. "It looked like the Internet was that."

A mutual friend brought Hegedus and Noujaim together in 1999. The two began following Tuzman and Herman, filming them as they pitched their idea to venture capitalists; as board member Maynard Jackson (yep, Atlanta's own) led them in a pep rally cheer; as they coped with a break-in at their Manhattan offices; as they apologized to girlfriends and family members for their long hours; as they bickered and cursed and watched their business drive a wedge in their friendship. There's even a scene with Bryan Mundy, the CEO of Atlanta-based EzGov, who died in January in a house fire.

Says Noujaim: "In terms of a goal or strategy, it was to follow whatever happened. Penne said just shoot 'til you get bored, which gave us 400 hours of footage."

From those 400 hours, Noujaim and Hegedus emerged with Startup.com (opening in June), a documentary that purports to track, as the promotional posters say, "the rise and fall of the American Dream." Through the prism of the last year, as dot-coms imploded and tech stocks plummeted, that dream seems as ephemeral as smoke. After only a year or two, the film's subject already seems like ancient history. Were we really that naive?

When they started, the filmmakers had no idea how far they'd travel with Tuzman and Herman. Six months, maybe. It turned into 18.

"You never quite knew the end, but you'd anticipate what it might be," Hegedus says. "The obvious end would be that they would become millionaires and whatever that would do to somebody so young."

Of course, that was before the market collapsed, before dot-coms started breaking apart like a dead leaf. As Tuzman and Herman realize their product can't match the competition, that they can't realize enough of the "vertical market of $586 billion," they turn on each other. One partner fires the other, and we're left wondering if their friendship can be salvaged. But Noujaim and Hegedus captured their reconciliation -- in a gym, of all places, much to the initial chagrin of the filmmakers.

"We didn't want a lot of back-up noise," Noujaim says. As it turns out, though, the gym was a great metaphor, as Herman spots his old friend on the bench press. "It was 10 times more interesting than if it was in a coffee shop -- all those nuances that come out from reality that wouldn't be there."

The post-script to the story is that today, Tuzman and Herman are in business together again -- helping bankrupt dot-coms.

"It was an amazing adventure," Hegedus says of the Internet salad days. "People will have a hard time finding something to replace it. ... For a lot of these people, just going back to business as it is will never fulfill creatively what that moment was. It was a time when everyone was encouraged to come up with all these ideas."

As for my friend Tony and his colleagues, they're concentrating on the one commodity where a dot-com is almost guaranteed to make money. They're selling sex toys.

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