Veni Vidi Venture
The unlikely heroes of big business
From Capitalism: A Love Story to Inside Job to The Yes Men, there's no shortage of documentaries on the business world. But –rightly or wrongly – there aren't many with a relatively positive view of entrepreneurship.
Something Ventured, the seventh film from the documentary team of Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, tells the story of venture capitalism –start-up funding for high tech, long-shot businesses –tracing VC from its midcentury birth to the Internet explosion of the 1990s. It's a chronicle of cutting-edge innovation and staggering wealth-creation, as well as the heretofore untold history of some of the corporate world's biggest names, such as Intel, Apple, and Cisco. But while imbued with admiration for visionary developers and risk-taking financiers, the film's no mere paean; the story of Sandy Lerner, the Cisco co-founder who was fired from her own company, illustrates both the opportunities and risks of growth and capital injection.
Geller and Goldfine credit the film's executive producers, Molly Davis and Paul Holland – a venture capitalist himself – for bringing the subject to their attention. "Paul had been talking to some of the old-time venture capitalists and heard these amazing stories, many of which are in the film," says Geller. "We started talking to some of the subjects in the film and agreed fully that there was great potential there."
We recently spoke with Geller and Goldfine hours before they left for London to see a Royal Ballet production choreographed by a friend who consulted on their 2005 doc, Ballets Russes. "We want to stay in contact with the people we've made films about, or who are connected to the subject matter," says Geller. "And it's a chance to look at someone else's premiere before we have to have ours," adds Goldfine.
Austin Chronicle: Where did this idea to look at venture capitalism come from?
Dayna Goldfine: It was a subject we really didn't know much about, which is kinda one of our rules of thumb when we set out on a documentary project. We didn't know much about ballet before we started Ballets Russes, and unlike Paul Holland, we certainly had not been in the venture-capital world. So for us it was this incredible discovery process, which is what makes making these kinds of films so much fun for us.
AC: So going in almost as a blank slate, do you hope to experience a sense of discovery and impart that to your viewers?
Dan Geller: That's the idea, yes.
Goldfine: And also to go in without any kind of agenda, and just learn as we go.
Geller: We do research! (laughs) We pretty much find every book in and out of print and begin with that and try to build up a little knowledge, so when we sit down and start to interview these people, we have a base from which to ask the questions.
AC: With the business and corporate world seemingly at historically low popularity, your movie depicts a more valiant, noble form of capitalism and entrepreneurship. Was that a conscious decision?
Geller: It became clear so quickly that there was such enthusiasm for bringing transformative technologies to the world. I wouldn't say that money was incidental –money was important –but the overwhelming enthusiasm was for taking these brilliant ideas and these inchoate technologies and making something earth-shattering with them. That's the energy, I think, that comes through in these stories.
Goldfine: I think what compelled us to take this one on, even though it is a positive view of business, was, one, it's a chance to do this kind of alternative view. But also, what these guys were doing –both the entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists –was creating real products. So much of what has come down in terms of the financial tragedy of the last few years has been caused by the investment bankers –people who were really just creating financial instruments, as opposed to changing the world with technology by creating or funding an Apple Computer, or a Cisco Systems, or a Genentech. ... I think business in general has gotten a black eye because of certain areas of the economy.
Geller: There's a funny echo with President Obama talking about this generation's "Sputnik moment," and going back to the birth of venture capital, arguably the birth of the high tech age, and seeing it came out of Eisenhower's Sputnik moment –with the real Sputnik!
Goldfine: For me, the shocking thing early on in the project – and there always is one – is you get this real reminder of how quickly and how recently this technology arrived on our doorstep. I think we forget today, with Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of new technology, the platforms that are addressed in Something Ventured aren't really that old, but we take them so much for granted.
AC: There are some great "feel good" examples in the story –the rise of Apple, for instance –but also cautionary tales, like the "living dead" companies you explore that don't quite succeed but don't quite fail.
Goldfine: I need to applaud both Molly Davis and Paul Holland in this area, because when Dan and I said we don't want to make a puff piece about the venture-capital industry, they could've argued against our interest in making it a more nuanced picture. Instead they instantly embraced it; they embraced our inclusion of things like the living dead and the fact that such a huge percentage of the founders get fired. I think the Sandy Lerner story is poignant and important, but it doesn't put the venture-capital industry or the venture capitalists in a completely positive light.
AC: That's fascinating, Lerner's story at Cisco –she says approximately 45 percent of company founders are out in 18 months once they get VC funding. Is that true?
Geller: I think that's accurate in terms of founders not remaining as president/CEO of the company. Most founders do stay around but take on different roles:A friend of ours started Pandora, and at a certain point, once the venture money came in, it was clear he was going to shift his role to become a chief brainstormer, an evangelist. I can think of many instances, especially around here in the Bay Area, where people learned that often, the skills required to expand a company internationally and rapidly grow are skills that aren't necessarily going to align with someone who's young and full of great ideas but has no large-scale business experience.
Goldfine: It's something that a lot of young founders don't understand. As Sandy says so poignantly, you gotta understand the game that you're in. We tried to present it in a nonjudgmental way, and I think in the end, the audience is asked to draw their own conclusion about that and also whether money does indeed make everything better or not.
AC: She's also the only female entrepreneur we see in the film. Was that a challenge to find female or minority entrepreneurs –or for that matter, venture capitalists?
Geller: Sure. You think about the time we're portraying in the movie. There were very, very few women who were going to engineering schools. ...There were very few women in Silicon Valley, aside from a couple other of Sandy's contemporaries. And that goes to this day, for that mater. You think about some powerful women who were running companies, like Carol Bartz at Yahoo! or Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman when they were at their respective companies. But they didn't start those companies; they were brought on as CEOs. So the problem holds to this day. The same goes for the venture capitalists back then – we're talking about anywhere from 30 to 50 years ago. But the U.S. has certainly changed quite a bit in that time, thankfully.
Goldfine: In a way, we're talking about the same period Mad Men is based in. Look at that –it's all these white guys and their secretaries. And in many, many ways, that's what venture capital and all these start-up companies were like. I think Sandy puts it in a pretty succinct and articulate way when she [said], "Look, there wasn't a box for me."
Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere
Saturday, March 12, 8pm, Alamo Lamar C
Sunday, March 13, 9pm, Arbor
Tuesday, March 15, 11:30am, Vimeo
Friday, March 18, 11:30am, Rollins