Although it makes reference to the disheartening statistic that ninety percent of startup businesses will fail, Generation Startup is a surprisingly optimistic documentary. Directed by critically lauded filmmakers Cynthia Wade and Cheryl Miller Houser, Generation Startup depicts the gruelling process of launching and building a startup over seventeen months through the lens of six young entrepreneurs in Detroit, Michigan.
In their early twenties and fresh out of university, four of the six entrepreneurs are new to the community of startups in Detroit, while the other two are CEO’s and co-founders of their own. With most of the entrepreneurs having hatched from Andrew Yang’s Venture for America – a fellowship program that places top college graduates in startups located in America’s emerging cities, Generation Startup does its fair share of advertising for the program.
The majority of the case studies for entrepreneurship are undoubtedly inspiring, most notably with Brian Rudolph, CEO and co-founder of Banza, a startup company that manufactures chickpea-based pasta. After a major setback involving thousands of dollars invested into a defected product, Brian is joined by his first full-time employee, Avery Hairston at the beginning of the seventeen months. Brian and Avery debunk the romantic misconception of a startup company as we follow them to their factory in Northern Michigan where they meticulously sort through pasta shells or when they wake up at five a.m. on a Saturday morning to cook and sell their Banza pasta to the Detroit public. These two are in the trenches, living and breathing their company, with little time for anything else and their story of gruelling and honest hard work is both realistic and accessible to the viewer.
Sharing housing with the Banza boys are the team behind Castle, an online property management system spearheaded by CEO and co-founder Max Nussenbaum. Castle’s journey from a three-person startup in a formerly abandoned house feels somewhat sugar-coated. There’s struggle surely, lightly depicted with insert shots of a low bank account balance and Max discussing his strife on camera from the inside of a poorly insulated tent, but the company’s ultimate successes are portrayed too neatly without delving deeper into the failures that proceeded it, which ultimately, would have been a more compelling narrative. However, Max encapsulates the necessity of maintaining a “fake it till you make it” mentality. Until he and his team received outside funding and positive reinforcement, they didn’t have the courage to own the fact that they were a legitimate enterprise, a universal fraudulent feeling that is not limited to the world of startups.
Contributing to the female point of view of entrepreneurship is Kate Catlin, another Venture for America fellow working as an app developer at Detroit labs. Kate admits to being very conscious of the gender gap in all aspects of the tech world, including saas (Software as a Service), and is inspired to launch Women Rising, an organisation that pairs up women in tech with other female peers and mentors. While Generation Startup does delve into Kate’s emergence in the startup world, Wade and Miller only scratch the surface with Dextina Booker, an MIT grad employed at Rock Adventures, an enterprise that invests in non-profits and other startups. Due to the confidential nature of Dextina’s projects, we see and hear much less about her work life than any of the film’s other subjects. Instead, we are left with half a dozen tracking shots of Dextina riding through the streets of Detroit or venturing to the local market. Her scenes merely pad the film with glossy promotional shots of Detroit, a ham-fisted ploy to generate good press for the struggling ghost city.
The highlight of Generation Startup is without a doubt, Labib Rahman. As a graduate of John Hopkins University and the first full-time employee and product manager at Mason, Labib has high hopes as an entrepreneur. However, he is constantly defending his choice to work at a startup to his parents, both immigrants from Bangladesh and practicing Muslims. Similarly to Brian and Avery of Banza, there is no glorification of the struggles that come with working for a startup company – Labib works eighteen hour days with no guaranteed certainty that he will receive all compensation he is due. On a more personal note, Labib is also gearing up to tell his parents that he is no longer a practicing Muslim, a confession that he believes will ultimately sever all contact with his parents; “I call my mum every day because I know there will be a day where I will call and she will not pick up the phone.” Wade and Miller ensure that viewers connect and sympathise with Labib, whose arc over the course of Generation Startup‘s seventeen months injects some much-needed humanity into the piece.
The silent seventh subject of Generation Startup is the city of Detroit itself, which threatens to become a promotional ad campaign. Detroit’s urban decay has been a discussion point for years, and Wade and Miller really lean on the revitalisation of the city with footage of community markets and street performances that have less to do with the nature of young entrepreneurship and more with rebranding a deserted city. The cinematography is gorgeous and polished, which seems at odds with the subject matter of the documentary but would not feel at all out of place in a sleek commercial.
Even as it reminds viewers of the decline in entrepreneurs between ages eighteen and thirty-four, Generation Startup is unfailingly hopeful to the point where it occasionally rings a little naïve. However, the inevitable failings of most startups has been well-documented at this point, so it is difficult to fault Wade and Miller for wanting to put a greater emphasis on the successes of young startups.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10
Screening at the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Details, sessions and tickets HERE.