The words “Internet” and “commerce” go together like “baseball” and “game,” and in 2001, the great documentary “Startup.com” set the gold standard for movies about on-line entrepreneurs. Shot in 1999 and 2000, just as the dot-com bubble was bursting, it captured, in fascinating detail, the attempt by a former Goldman Sachs trader to launch a site called govWorks.com. The company wasn’t without merit (it was designed to facilitate a user-friendly relationship between citizens and their bureaucracy). But part of the lacerating honesty of “Startup.com” is that the film never shrank from the idea that it was all about the money. For the creators of govWorks, their IPO was going to be Christmas Day meets the Fourth of July — or, at least, that was the kind of hope and desire that bubbled up around the Internet bubble. The crash of the boom sent out a different message: Your IPO dream is a fantasy of winning the lottery. It’s possible, but don’t stake your day job on it.
Fifteen years later, the young entrepreneur wannabes in the new documentary “Generation Startup” may indeed have staked their day jobs, but from the outset it feels like they have less to lose — and less to gain. One of them is co-starting a company that designs mobile phones and tablets (really? Isn’t that sort of like saying you want to launch a hamburger stand to compete with McDonald’s?), one of them has invented a special brand of pasta made from chickpeas (it’s gluten free, and texture-challenged as well), and one is spearheading a new kind of property-management company that will hook up landlords and tenants in a more direct way (which sounds like a smart idea). They have all relocated — not to Austin or New York, but to Detroit, where they’re part of an umbrella project called Venture for America, which has purchased a 3,000-foot, 7-bedroom wreck of a house for $8,000. They do a makeshift renovation, turning the living room into their office laptop lounge, and christen it “the Rebirth House.” That’s a reference to the way their efforts are serving the greater social good — not just the startup companies themselves but the fact that they’re all there, in Detroit, at the crumbling heart of a city that needs to be brought back to life.
“Startup.com” channeled the end of the go-go ’90s (which a lot of people seem disinclined to admit were even more materialistic than the go-go ’80s). But “Generation Startup” catches a vastly different mood. Its subjects are so giddy with idealism that the fundamental issue of why they’re all doing this in the first place remains starry-eyed and a bit vague. From the outset of the digital era, on the campuses of behemoths like Microsoft and Apple and Google and Amazon, the ideology struck by those companies’ overseers was always that they represented a new breed of corporation — one whose driving motivation, apart from profit, was to make the world a better place. The altruistic element, or at least the perception of it, was baked into those companies’ brands, and to a striking degree it was embraced not just by their employees but by the larger world — specifically, by the media coverage of new technology that has always, at least until recently, fawned over that aspect of CEO gurus like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.
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It’s remarkable, in “Generation Startup,” to behold how much that belief has filtered down into the cells of the culture. The attitude of every one of the film’s subjects is some variation on: The Internet is good. Internet companies are good. To start one up is good for the world. The profit motive, or perhaps we should just call it the earning-a-living motive, might be implicit, but it is scarcely mentioned on screen. And we hear next to nothing about business plans. (I kept thinking that we might have learned a lot more had the leaders of each company been subjected to four minutes of grilling by the hammerheads of “Shark Tank.”) The movie itself doesn’t seem overly interested in fiscal details. It’s pumped and boosterish, with thrumming music over the introduction to each character that says, “They’re in this because they care.” In “Generation Startup,” the notion of starting up a dot-com has a mystique about it. It’s not just a business — it’s a way to accessorize your cred.
What’s less clear is how much any of the startup companies we’re seeing fulfill that mission. There’s a bit of real-world grounding to the opening scene, in which Labib Rahman, an Indian-American from Yonkers, tries to explain to his conservative Muslim parents why he’s ditching a conventional career to join a startup. His father points out that only one in 10 startups succeed, and Labib says, “I know that I am on my own,” but his grin tells you he doesn’t know what that means. It turns out that Labib, who’s one-half of the mobile-phone/tablet company, has a biomedical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins, and what’s never clear is why working at a startup like Mason (the name of his company) would mean following his bliss any more than becoming a biomedical engineer would.
A person who comes off as equally bushy-tailed — and lost — is Dextina Booker, an ebullient rasta-braided M.I.T. grad who wants to “give back,” and whose slightly ominous overseer talks in syllogisms like “The nature of what we do is extremely project-based.” Labib observes that many of the twentysomethings who get involved in startups come from privileged backgrounds, which is why they can afford to experiment and maybe even fail. That’s a fantastic point, because it suggests something about the entire culture of startup mania, and the kinds of values that it channels. But it raises the question: Are the other people we meet in “Generation Startup” from privileged backgrounds? Are they helping to “rebuild” Detroit, or are they wide-eyed interlopers using the burnt-out husk of a city as a hipster corporate playground?
The filmmakers, Cheryl Miller Houser and Cynthia Wade, are way too coy about all of this. They simply accept on faith, and ask the audience to accept, that everything they’re showing us is cool and progressive. But there’s no doubt that they’ve done a very good job of capturing the spirit and flavor of a certain kind of millennial go-getter. Brian Rudolph, for instance, is a man with a mission. He’s the cofounder of Banza, the first and only brand of chickpea pasta, and he believes in his product. He keeps tinkering with the recipe, trying to get it right, giving away samples of it at farmer’s markets, and he succeeds in getting it onto the shelves of several hundred stores. His industrious fervor is admirable (he winds up being cited in a “30 under 30” feature in Forbes), though if he were simply presented as a young guy who had launched a pasta company, we wouldn’t necessarily be watching a movie about him. It’s the tech link that gives it that indie edge.
The promise of the Internet has always been that it would create a world of greater transparency, but that hasn’t happened. Corporations, maybe in reaction to the information age, now shroud their inner workings as never before, and “Generation Startup” is too blurry about the grass-roots wheeling and dealing it shows. What separates success from failure? And how, exactly, has the Internet changed commerce for startups? These questions remain only half-asked and mostly unanswered. Yet by the time “Generation Startup” is over, you feel like you’ve spent some quality time with people who incarnate both the unique opportunities offered to their generation and, in a certain unstated way, the lack of opportunities. From a glance, the Rebirth House looks like a community, a thriving hive of innovation and industry, but the movie also shows you that to try for a startup in this era is, at bottom, a lonely endeavor. For it’s not enough to start a company. To be successful, you have to demonstrate that there’s a need for it.