You’ve probably already heard that hundreds from DC’s entrepreneurial community came out to preview the first two episodes of the Startupland documentary series at Landmark’s E. Street Theatre. It was a first-class event, but then it was back to the grotto for producer/director, Justin Gutwein, who compares his first opening night experience to his wedding. “It happened so quickly, you’re getting pulled into 1,000 different directions constantly, I don’t remember half of it – and I was sober,” he says. “There was just so much going on.” Like any good marriage, the project he’s been wedded to since July 2012 has been a balance of passion, commitment, creativity and work — lots of work. But, for Justin, polishing the 2 ½ hour documentary series he has edited down from over 200 hours of footage that he shot is more mission than a job. Most days, it’s a labor of love. Until this project, Justin made a living shooting brief documentary-style marketing videos for commercial websites. Startupland marks Justin’s headfirst plunge into living the feature filmmaker’s life.
Welcome to DC!
A little over three years ago, Justin’s wife got a job on the Hill and the couple moved to DC from Indiana. Justin had to leave his job at an Indianapolis-based video production company, and made a fresh start in DC founding “Shine on Storytelling.” No stranger to meetups, Justin quickly found many great opportunities to network in DC’s expanding startup community. “The cool thing about the tech community here is that it’s tightknit,” he says. “Somewhere along the way at meetups I met Adam Fazackerley, a limited partner at Fortify; then I met its founder, Jonathon Perrelli a couple of times. I started doing more tech company videos, basically 2-3 minute marketing films, but they were in a documentary format.” His video client list grew from startups like Social Tables and CoFounder’s Lab to the Fort.
“I got to know Jonathon little by little,” Justin recalls. “I’d see him at meetups. One night in a bar after a meetup we were talking and he said: ‘You know what would be really cool? A reality show inside of an accelerator.’
“Um…no,” Justin replied “because reality shows are pretty terrible.” Then, he rallied: “But, a documentary could be interesting if it were authentic and had more benefit than shock value.” And, that was the beginning of a conversation. “We continued ping ponging the idea back and forth until it became clearer and clearer,” he said. “Eventually, we decided to go with it and give it a try.” That was July 2012. The Fortify team had already decided that Spring 2013 would be the last class of the accelerator. “We wanted this final class to be filmed to capture and share the experience of founders participating in an accelerator,” says Jonathon. “I loved the idea that The Fort would live on through Startupland.”
Now, all they had to figure out was how to do it.
Just start it
Working out how to get the series made was what Justin calls a “pretty organic process.” It was clear that he would need to be physically present and fully immersed in the accelerator to be aware of the activities of all five companies and who was coming and going.
“We got some more equipment that I thought we would need – at one point I thought we’d have a secondary guy there. We were getting close to the start day and I wasn’t 100% sure of the style I wanted to do it in. We were even talking about getting security system cameras and putting them up around the Fort so we could get that footage going.”
Then, Justin stepped back and did what any aspiring artist would do: Study what had been done well before. “I started watching documentaries I brought online powered by VHX, like ‘Sound City,’ by Dave Grohl and ‘Indie Games: The Movie.’ Visually, I know what my kind of thumb print is, but I learned what kind of stuff I would need to capture to make this feature work.” He practiced and got used to using a new shoulder-mount camera.
Class is in session
By January 2013, the Fort had welcomed LegCyte, RidePost, SnobSwap, TrendPo and TripTribe into its second accelerator class and Justin moved into the corner office with his gear. It took a little time to gain the trust of all five of the CEOs and have them get comfortable with a camera aimed at them.
“The first couple of days were awkward, but then as one CEO told the crowd at the premiere, they kind of forgot I was there. I went to work with them every day, went home with them and went to meetings with them,” says Justin. “I was always trying to find the balance of finding really interesting, informative things to film but also being respectful of the fact they were trying to build a business.” He filmed weekly stand-up progress sessions and Investor Day pitches but not every meeting. Sometimes, if you’re going to meet with a potential investor having a camera in the corner is not always the optimal thing,” he says. However, the CEOs got comfortable keeping Justin in the loop and invited him to come along on some meetings. He doesn’t mind missing angel investor meetings at which investors say “yes.” “If a successful angel pitch is filmed for a TV show, it tends to be staged anyway,” says Justin. “Whenever I see something like that in a documentary, I call BS.”
“Because Justin was there every day, ready to film and capture footage, he saw the story as it was being written,” says Jonathon.
The idea wasn’t to dive deeply into the nitty gritty of things like specific company pitches but to convey the idea of what makes for a good pitch and, ultimately, capture an authentic view of the startup journey. As far as the actual story of the five companies, Justin says there is nothing hidden in the series that is relevant. “Each company had a natural progression of a story line and my job was to present that,” he says, proud of staying true to his style. “I didn’t sweeten it up, or ugly it up,” he says. “Bad things happened and good things happened, but they’re not overdramatized in any way.”
As the CEOs worked to grow their startups to the next stage, the film project also evolved. Originally, Justin says he tried to keep the project really small, like an engaging U-tube film that could help educate. Even just a month or two into filming, the idea started getting bigger. “But, it wasn’t until about halfway through that we realized we had the opportunity to do something grander, and make more of a positive impact on the world.” That’s when the team decided to weave in interviews with successful startup veterans and expand to a slice of startup life on a grand scale.
Startupland as startup
Jonathon knows how to go big. He proposed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the web series. In one month, the team pressed forward and raised $85,000 from 354 backers, with much higher pledges than average campaigns. “We sold three executive producer spots and sponsor spots at $10,000 a person,” says Justin, who went way outside of his comfort zone to ask friends and family to contribute to the campaign.
By then, Maxim Wheatly, who Jonathon had met at a Georgetown Entrepreneur Day event and brought on as an intern at the Fort had “fallen in love” with the Startupland project and came onboard as a salaried associate producer who spent the summer doing just about everything needed to free up Justin for focused shooting and editing. He spent the summer doing much of the valuable research and outreach to industry people featured, which ultimately included Steve Case (AOL, Revolution), Michael Chasen (Blackboard, Social Radar), Esther Dyson (Angel Investor and industry analyst), Kevin Hartz (Eventbrite, Xoom Corp., ConnectGroup) Chris Heivly, (MapQuest), Amy Millman (Springboard Enterprises), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit, Hipmunk) and Tim O’Shaughnessy (LivingSocial). (Elon Musk respectfully declined, but had the class to reply.) He also planned and executed an awesome premiere theater experience.
“Startupland itself was a startup and we were able to work on our plans for the Kickstarter campaign, marketing, partnerships, our premiere, the global tour and more because we were together every day,” Jonathon observes. Following Investor Day, Justin took his gear and moved back into his studio to begin the post-production process. “Had he been in the office with us, it would have been much more challenging for him to edit and polish video amidst the chaos. We tend to forget the enormous ‘behind the scenes’ effort, but without dozens of mentors, the Fortify partners, and specifically Carla Valdes, the accelerator and Startupland would not have been possible.”
The right results from the right process
Justin admits he’s a guerilla filmmaker in every way. “We lucked out that each company had a pretty interesting progression from where they were when they joined the accelerator to where they were when they finished. “Some things were positive and some weren’t,” he says. “They definitely go through some trials, that’s for sure. That’s the thing about Startupland, every day’s kind of a trial.”
“The most unique aspect of Startupland is that the founders of the companies did not necessarily want to be filmed, but they accepted the cameras as they went about their daily lives,” says Jonathon. Authenticity was Justin’s goal from the start, and it was certainly achieved.”
It’s been a long haul, but Justin’s solitary polishing won’t end until the Startupland series is released for online distribution via VHX on June 6. “I’ve always done everything on my own,” says Justin. “This project was so large that it was actually a crazy thing to do. But, I’m still rolling to the end on this one. It’s kind of like being at Mile 23 of a marathon. You don’t stop there. You’ve got to go ahead and finish.”