“Abandon the idea of conventional wisdom. Whatever the majority thinks is wrong,” quoth the Silicon Valley venture capitalist.
“I’m under a lot of pressure at home to be successful. My wife thinks that I can do anything, and she doesn’t understand why all her buddies are millionaires and we’re not,” bemoans the chief technology officer of a start-up.
In July 2001, is there anyone who can listen to a V.C. making bold statements about disregarding conventional wisdom without cracking a wicked smirk? And is there anyone who can muster sympathy for a CTO who feels he’s failed his family simply because he isn’t a millionaire yet? On second thought, was there ever?
Just a few years ago these kinds of only-in-Silicon Valley statements had the power to provoke anxiety and envy, if not admiration. Maybe those Sand Hill Road venture capitalists really were a privileged priesthood with crystal balls and the ability to mine billions from the next big thing. Worse yet, if only you were hanging out with the right “buddies” in the valley, maybe you’d be motivated by peer pressure to become a millionaire yourself. If only.
But now that the stock market bubble has burst, a bad case of dot-com fever has made a lot of very smart people look really, really stupid. Jay Capela, the director and producer of “Wild at Start: High Technology Adventures and the American Dream,” is in the unenviable position of having created a one-hour documentary celebrating the entrepreneurial culture of the valley circa 1997 to 2000. The quotes above come from the documentary, which will air in the fall on San Jose PBS station KTEH. You could say that Capela didn’t exactly time the market right.
“Wild at Start” follows three tech start-ups — GirlTech, Not Limited Inc. and Tellme Networks — as they stump for funding, recruit employees, lure customers and make deals. We learn that being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur involves making phone calls, giving speeches, signing documents, attending meetings and driving around to get to those meetings — not exactly the raw material for an edge-of-the-seat drama. But it can also can involve mortgaging your family’s financial security, turning your daughter into a shill for your product and spending all weekend conducting recruiting events: “It was a very effective weekend,” cheers one entrepreneur. May all your weekends be effective.
The film does give an intimate sense of what it’s like to try to build a technology company, both as a valley insider who can practically cough and raise millions and as an outsider who’s trying to break into that golden circle. I’d recommend the flick to any bushy-tailed entrepreneur about to quit his or her day job. But it’s impossible not to view everything and everyone in “Wild at Start” through the gray filter of the present day.
Take Mike McCue, the zealous founder of Tellme and a consummate valley guy, who brags to the camera about how he’s building the next AT&T, General Motors, General Electric or Ford. Here’s what McCue has to say about hiring: “The most crucial thing is recruiting people. That’s where we spend 80 to 90 percent of our time, because this team — the founding team that we put together now — will form the DNA of the company.” “It’s all about the people”: Now there’s a hallowed valley saw. But tell that to the 41 people Tellme axed in the company’s second round of layoffs this month.
At another point in the film, Guy Kawasaki, the ubiquitous entrepreneur and co-founder of Garage.com, provides this contextual commentary: “It’s very seldom you see a company truly, truly going out of business. Most companies, they go sideways or they’re acquired and you’re not quite sure whether it was a huge success or a huge failure. It’s sort of in between.” Really? What about the 53 Internet companies that shut down in June 2001 alone?
You don’t know whether to giggle and throw microwave popcorn at the TV or feel sorry for the documentary filmmaker who, like so many others, bought into the Silicon Valley hoopla, spent four years of his life putting that story on-screen and now has to air his film just when the valley’s image is at its most tarnished.
Well, don’t waste too much time feeling sorry for Capela. First of all, he now has a full-time job at Apple as a user-interface designer. Second, some of the funding for the $300,000 documentary came from his own start-up booty and that of his millionaire friends who made their dough selling their start-up. Finally, he stands by his film and says that it’s still relevant, even though the money draining out of the valley has taken the glamour and the hypefest with it. “I think that everything the entrepreneurs go through are these kind of archetypical moments and milestones, and the things that they face are no less true today than when the economy was booming,” says Capela.
For two of the companies in the film, that’s true. When Janese Swanson, the founder of GirlTech, a gaming company for girls, talks about starting her company — “I slapped my credit cards down and I said, ‘That’s it, I don’t care how many ‘nos’ I’m going to get’” — she is the Everywoman entrepreneur. She eventually sells her company to a larger gaming company for $6 million, before ever getting a product on the shelves. And when founders of a wireless company called Not Limited, after months of working for free and struggling just to rent an office next to a bail bonds joint, celebrate their first venture funding, one founder offers this insight: “OK, guys. There’s no secret to starting a start-up. You’ve got to do boatloads of fucking bullshit work and everybody in your life disbelieves anything you’ve said over the last year and a half, thinking that all you’re trying to do is avoid work.” Another chimes in: “And that doesn’t guarantee success.”
It’s McCue from Tellme who comes off as the spokesman for a bygone era. He shows off the free soft drinks in the office, the pool table for employees and the dogs that come to work with their owners. At one point McCue reflects, “We want to take advantage of this historical opportunity right now. You’ve got this economy and this time when I can go and tell people: ‘Hey, we’re going to change everything about the telephone.’ And they actually believe that can be done.” That’s right. There was actually a time not so long ago when people actually believed things like that. But, sorry, we’re all less credulous than we used to be.
“Wild at Start” takes this “one special moment in time” idea to an extreme. Capela and his crew actually place the venture capitalists, journalists and other “industry insiders” who provide commentary on the entrepreneurs’ stories amid sets that duplicate famous Rembrandt paintings. Thus the thinkers and financiers of this new renaissance (get it?) describe the glory days of the tech boom in 16 mm film flanked by old globes and candelabra. Now that’s one for the new-economy keepsake chest, right next to the Pets.com sock puppet.
And Capela still believes that a renaissance has taken place. “There’s definitely something magical that has happened and still to a certain extent is happening — just the idea that if you really want to you can tell the world that you’re an entrepreneur and you can take your best shot at it.”
Which is exactly what Capela did: He told the world that he was an entrepreneur, like his subjects raising the capital and building the team to put together a product — in his case, a documentary. While he was filming “Wild at Start,” Capela received tons of press by drawing parallels between his start-up film production and the start-ups it was covering. “The parallels have only deepened,” Capela joked recently.
Like other start-ups in these lean times, Capela had to scale back his original ambitions. Starting in 1997, he shot 230 hours of film of 17 companies, with the idea of creating a three-hour series for PBS that would star 12 companies. By 1999 that plan had been reduced to a two-hour series starring eight companies.
Now the film is being released as a one-hour portrayal of three companies. Unlike “Startup.com,” the dot-com documentary that showed one ludicrous company’s rise and fall, “Wild at Start” ends too early, before the hype comes crashing down. But Capela vows that if “Wild at Start” is a hit with audiences, he’ll make a sequel to tell the story of an IPO and a failure — the aftermath of the dot-com frenzy.
Yet even Capela is not terribly optimistic about the next episode’s seeing the light of day. “The timing is just all wrong at this point. I don’t think that it makes sense to finish the second episode. My gut feeling is that it was more applicable when things were still happening at 1,000 miles an hour.”