From the outset, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine‘s “Something Ventured” probably isn’t something everybody will enjoy. A documentary about venture capitalists, you need to already have something of an interest about the money that has powered some of the greatest technological advancements of the past forty or fifty years. But even for those who are curious about the coin behind the creative minds, this slim documentary (that runs under 90 minutes) quickly falls into a repetitive, narrow minded rut.
To be fair, the doc does get off to a great start, chronicling the origins of venture capitalism. Back in the late ’50s/early ’60s the very concept of independent financiers lending the money as the seed capital for fledgling businesses was unheard of. Banks were largely the place anyone wanting to start a business went to get a loan, but the problem was those institutions preferred sure things, instead of risky ventures where they might not get a return. Enter Arthur Rock, a junior banker who one day received a letter from a group of disgruntled engineers who were planning to leave en masse from Shockley Semiconductor, and they wrote to the bank looking for advice. Deciding to go off on their own and form a new company, Rock helped the group approach over 30 bigger corporations to see if they would help fund their endeavor, only to be firmly rebuffed. However, all was not lost and Rock was tipped to Sherman Fairchild, an entrepreneur who decided to lend the $1.5 million the engineers needed to strike out on their own. And the rest is history.
Fairchild Semicoductor was essentially the first major company in the area we now know as Silicon Valley, and they helped kick off a tech wave that led to groundbreaking innovations and some of the grandest ideas that helped shape the world as we know it today. But from here, the doc really doesn’t know where to go. Though the filmmakers talk to ten different venture capitalists, and discuss the founding of six different companies including Tandem, Atari, Genentech, Apple, PowerPoint and Cisco, the general narrative is more or less the same. The idea was risky, it needed some money, they provided it. The end. Watching ten old white guys talk about how they continually helped more white guys get rich quickly becomes….tedious. It becomes clear that these guys are about the money first and foremost and the innvoation second. Even at the beginning of the film, venture capitalist Tom Perkins makes it clear he looks at the numbers at the back of a business plan first and if they are big enough, then he will find out what exactly the concept is.
Toward the end of the movie, things pick up again when the discussions turns to Cisco, now one of the largest networking companies in the world. Co-founded by Sandy Lerner, she quickly saw the raw end of the deal that partnering with a venture capitalist can bring, as her fractious relationship with fellow co-workers at the company and the new executives led to her being fired within eighteen months of growing her business. And her story is hardly new in the tech world, where a regular rotation of CEOs and VPs is par for the course. Asked about this unwritten 18-month rule wherein key company figures are swapped out, the venture capitalists are mostly cagey, saying it isn’t easy to fire someone, but not really discussing why they feel the need to do it, so soon after a company begins to spread its wings. You would think this would lead to a conversation about ethics, but instead unfortuantely, the directors don’t really choose to go down that path.
“Something Ventured” eventually winds up being a celebration of guys who have a lot of money and then decide to make more money by making some risky investments (although let’s be clear, guys on this level aren’t going to be losing their houses or cars if a deal goes south). The doc is mostly centered on how this kind of investing has driven technological achievements, but there isn’t much discussion about how the future, which increasingly involves crowd-sourcing and other means of raising money, will change the game. Several tech ideas and concepts are now being built by communities of like minded individuals sharing resources and talent, and already the paradigm is shifting. After spending so much time with these old timers, many of whom are likely beyond retirement age, “Something Ventured” could have used a boost from the current generation, and where they see techology being funded and growing in the years to come. But alas, the documentary is ultimately a look at where we’ve been, not where we’re going, and it’s a nice — if somewhat dry and routine — story that only emphasizes that when it came to tech back in the day, the motto was C.R.E.A.M. [C]
“Something Ventured” is on DVD today.