Two Documentaries Reveal Trials and Triumphs of Young Entrepreneurship

The entrepreneurs behind two recent documentary films about U.S. start-up culture talk about how they made the films and why they matter.

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By Brian Patrick Eha

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Want to test the start-up waters before jumping into the deep end? Thanks to a handful of intrepid entrepreneurs/documentarians, these days you could simply queue up one of a growing number of niche films that seek to highlight what it's like to start up as a young entrepreneur.

Two twenty-somethings from Reykjavík, Iceland turned their career malaise on its head by filming web entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Europe for their film, The Startup Kids. Similarly, a French entrepreneur decided to shed light on the immigration troubles he faced as a start-up founder in Starting Up in America.

To be sure, there have been documentaries about starting businesses in the past. And there have surely been films about entrepreneurs. But documentaries by, about and for young entrepreneurs remain a rarity -- though they're on the rise. Here's a look at the making of two new startup-focused documentaries and the impact they've had on their makers.

When Vala Halldorsdottir and Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir from Reykjavík, Iceland, both 27, decided in 2008 to make their film about young web entrepreneurs, the bottom had just fallen out of their nation's economy. With little advance planning and no contacts, they bought one-way plane tickets to the U.S.

All they knew was that they were "looking for interesting and smart people who were willing to share their stories."

In the course of two trips -- and a tour of Europe that took in London, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm -- the filmmakers gathered material for their documentary, The Startup Kids, for which they managed to raise $23,000 on Kickstarter. This film, which showcases a variety of inspiring startups and their founders, including Zach Klein of Vimeo and Alexa Andrzejewski of Foodspotting, offered something of an "aha" moment for its makers.

"It was kind of like getting a second chance in life," Vala says of making the film.

Indeed, the lessons they learned from the dozens of entrepreneurs whom they met in the course of making The Startup Kids helped the two friends, who had previously founded a board-game company together, to launch a tech startup of their own. Their product, KinWins, is a mobile application which they describe as "like Sims for real life -- a motivation game to get people to become the best versions of themselves." KinWinsdebuted in early November on Iceland's iTunes store, and within a month, its creators say, it will be available in the U.S. store.

Meanwhile, their film has been shown at the Palo Alto International Film Festival and, this month, is being screened in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Poland, Slovenia and Vietnam. Next year, they say, it will be on iTunes. The big lesson they learned? The importance of providing "market proof" -- that is, a working prototype with a user base.

Another young entrepreneur who recently turned the camera on his peers is Tarik Ansari. He made the 24-minute documentary Starting Up in America in 2011 after experiencing the difficult realities of what it means to be an immigrant entrepreneur.

Returning to San Francisco from France two years ago, where he had gotten his B1 business visa renewed as the founder of a startup-dating site called Mojo, he encountered a surly U.S. customs official, who told him he could remain in the country for only 30 days. He had expected to stay for six months.

"I was basically screwed," he says. Though, knowing he would have to leave soon, Ansari immediately stopped work on his company to make the documentary.

Teaming up with filmmaker friends, he raised a little more than $2,000 through Kickstarter, and created the film over the next month and a half. (He eventually found a lawyer who was able to obtain a five-month extension on his stay.)

Through interviews with other foreign-born entrepreneurs, the film, which is available to watch for free online, explores the enduring appeal of America's start-up culture and its barriers to entry for non-U.S. citizens.

To date, the U.S. does not offer a visa specifically for start-up founders, making it difficult for many young would-be entrepreneurs -- who don't have a large savings account or a long resume -- to justify their continued presence in the country.

Undeterred, Ansari remains fascinated by American-business culture. He sees his film as contributing to a conversation about the country's future. "Innovation is what has made the nation successful," he says. "And it's built from young entrepreneurs."

Seen any inspiring documentaries about young entrepreneurs lately? Let us know which ones and why they were uplifting in the comments section below.

Brian Patrick Eha

Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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