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[whitespace] Rise and Folly

A fan of failure sizes up new film about dot-com flops

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Leaving the theater, stepping out into the blistering heat of a sweltering spring afternoon, author Paul Collins pauses to glance briefly at the glass-encased movie poster for the film we've just finished watching.

Startup.com, a critically-acclaimed documentary by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, is the true story of a typical Internet flame-out--a real-life screwball tragedy. The poster features the provocative image of a large DOT being rolled uphill by a struggling human silhouette (think Sisyphus in the Underworld, forever pushing his boulder to the top of the mountain) and bears a clichéd-but-tantalizing tagline: "The Rise and Fall of the American Dream."

With a knowing nod of his head, a deep-throated chuckle, and a naughty neon-bright smile, Collins turns away, gesturing for me to lead the way. As we head off in search of an air-conditioned spot for our post-film conversation, he laughs again, obviously delighted, and clearly inspired.

Nothing inspires Paul Collins like a good failure.

A sometime teacher and long-time chronicler of the business world--he writes for such publications as McSweeney's Quarterly and eCompany Now--Collins, a conspicuously intelligent, self-effacing man with bright, piercing eyes and an ever-present "oops-you-caught-me" grin, ranks among the world's leading experts on the unfortunate art of anonymous failure.

By anonymous failure, Collins means those artistic and scientific efforts that, in spite of their merits, were so spectacularly unsuccessful that their once-famous progenitors have now been all-but-erased from the pages of history.

Until now.

Collins' abiding interest in, as he kindly describes it, "things that didn't work out," has now emerged in the form of a book. Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck (Picador, $25.00) is a collection of ripping-good stories that have waited a very long time to be told.

The book's title refers to John Banvard, a painter of enormous panoramas that, for a time, made him the world's richest and most famous artist--until his one fatal mistake. Subjects of other tales include William Henry Ireland, who made a good business out of forging works by Shakespeare, until he was caught, and Thomas Dick, a popular writer of scientific tracts whose theories led all too briefly to the exciting "discovery" that the Moon was populated by humanoid bats. It gets even funnier.

But Collins' wounded losers have nothing on Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, the floundering co-founders of GovWorks, the Internet company that is the primary focus of Startup.com.

Kaleil and Tom, childhood buddies, dreamed of becoming billionaires by age 30. GovWorks seems to be their pathway to the riches. Energetically pitching their on-line service, where users would log on to pay things like parking tickets and water bills, the entrepreneurs amass millions of dollars in startup capital.

Then, as the movie posters promise, things begin to go wrong. But for all its drama, Tom and Kaleil's eventual fall--alternately tense, heart-breaking, and hilarious--is nothing particularly extraordinary. And that's exactly the point.

"Failure," insists Collins, "is normal."

We're sitting at a table, observing a trio of homeless people sauntering past the coffee shop window in the heat. "Like hydrogen, which is universal," Collins says, "or entropy, which is everywhere, failure is really one of the most natural occurrences in the world.

"One of the things I found myself thinking as I was watching the movie," he continues, "was what I often think when I look at businesses that fall apart, or ideas that don't work out--which is, I don't know what they could have done differently. They were relatively sober people. With an idea that was not really that bad--but they got swamped anyway."

And the reason they got swamped is as common as the cold: Someone else did it better. That someone was EZGov, a competitor with a snaky CEO and a much better name.

"GovWorks is a lousy name compared to EZGov," Collins agrees. "Tom and Kaleil might have been wise to invest a little capital for a consultant to come up with a better name."

Still, GovWorks is better than the names we see them bandying about on screen. Their company almost became NexTown, or--no joke--GivetoCaeser.com. And GovWorks, as a concept, is still better than the one they almost launched: Virtual Tombstones.

"I'm glad this movie is coming out when it is," Collins muses. "I think it's a useful reminder to people about the essential nature of business, which is that most businesses do fail. Unless a business collapses in a really spectacular way, we tend to only hear about the successes. Most businesses go out with a whimper."

Collins compares Tom and Kaleil's experience to that of Alfred Beach, a New Yorker who, in 1870, attempted to build a vast pneumatic-tube passenger system beneath the streets of Manhattan--"It was very Jetsons," explains Collins--but was scuttled by corrupt officials with their own plans for an underground subway.

"He was blown out of the water by competition," Collins says.

Unlike Beach, however, Tom and Kaleil couldn't really be called visionaries. "All Kaleil wanted to do was succeed," Collins notes--to become a billionaire.

"The vehicle was sort of irrelevant," Collins says. "If they'd decided that they could have made a fortune off of Virtual Headstones I think they would have done it. What drew me to the people in the book was not just that they were failures. These were people who genuinely believed in something, and often stuck by it, even when everything else was going wrong, even when no one was listening to them, even when there was nothing in it for them any longer except their belief in the idea."

Good point. Throughout Startup.com, Tom and Kaleil repeatedly state what has become the unofficial mantra of the Dot-Com religion: "If this doesn't work, we'll just do something else."

Well. . .now they'll get their chance. Next time, says Collins, they might even succeed.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Kaleil does ends up being a billionaire some day," he says. "Or at least a multi-millionaire. And if so, people will look back on the events of Startup.com, and just, you know, chalk it up to experience.

"Because, as everybody knows," Collins concludes, once again beginning to smile, "You can learn from failure. There's no better way to learn to walk than by falling flat on your face."

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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