Making Startupland

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

by Silumesii Maboshe


I love a good story. I love figuring out how things work. I think that’s why watching Startupland was so delightful. It is really five different stories told from a common vantage point; the accelerator programme at The Fort. It is quite possible that, had these five startups never enrolled at The Fort, the people behind them would never have met. That in itself is interesting to me.
As a production, Startupland is elegantly layered yet understated. It chooses to shine light on its characters and uses simple documentary film-making and story-telling technique to great effect to do so. I think it’s beautifully done and so was even more curious to learn …

The Story behind The Story

The Startupland documentary series began as conversations between Jonathon Perrelli and Justin Gutwein. Perrelli is the Managing Director of Fortify Ventures which, at the time, operated, “The Fort”—Washington DC’s first tech startup accelerator. Gutwein, a film maker, packaged those thoughts and launched a Kickstarter project to fund the idea. Over 31 days, from 25th June to 26th July 2013, the goal was to raise USD$75,000.00. The project successfully achieved and surpassed its target, receiving backing of USD$85,295.00 from 354 sources (an average of USD$240.95 per backer).

The Fort has since been closed, making Startupland its swan song as Fortify Ventures focus their energy elsewhere. As a result, Startupland documents the second and final accelerator class at The Fort.

The production credits for the documentary include:

It’s a lean team that packs a mean punch. That kind of efficiency makes me happy and is definitely worth emulating. Could a Zambian film maker have pulled this off? I wonder … and if not, why not?

Maxim enthusiastically answered audience questions after the screening of the premier at BongoHive on June 10th. He was also kind enough to do an interview about his work on Startupland. It would be selfish to keep that information all to myself. Enjoy!

Startupland is a Kickstarter funded project.



  • Silumesii

    How were you able to find BongoHive?

  • Maxim

    We found BongoHive because we knew that we wanted to bring Startupland to Zambia, we did a bit of research and discovered that BongoHive is generally considered to be among the best of the innovation and entrepreneurship hubs in the region. So we decided to contact the team!

  • Silumesii

    How did you come to be part of the Startupland documentary series?

  • Maxim

    I personally came to be involved in Startupland as an Associate at Fortify Ventures, Fortify ran the accelerator which is featured in Startupland, though I still work with Fortify, I spent the better part of a year focused on Startupland running the business and operations side of things as an Associate Producer. The project kept evolving and growing to what you see today, and it is because we all had a shared vision to bring something valuable, inspirational, and educational to the world.

  • Silumesii

    What was the response like to the Kickstarter project and the premier in Washington?

  • Maxim

    The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The world needs this kind of documentary series, that much is clear. It has been particularly inspiring to see the conversations and relationships that have formed around Startupland, the energy, enthusiasm, and community that seems to develop within the audience is incredible. We’ve actually met people who have watched the complete series and gone on to start their own company because of us, that’s a powerful thing!

  • Silumesii

    What was Justin Gutwein’s process of creating the documentary?

  • Maxim

    The filming took place across about 14 months, Justin filmed a lot of the process of the accelerator to show what it takes to start and grow a business. Nothing was ever “staged” or “scripted” -- at first the people who were being filmed felt a little odd with the camera around, but within a few days they totally forgot about it. What you see in Startupland is perhaps the most realistic depiction of entrepreneurship that you’ll find.

  • Silumesii

    What was it like getting the “external sources” to do their interviews?

  • Maxim

    Some of the interviews we obtained through personal connections, others we didn’t know at all. We contacted many entrepreneurs that we were interested to include in Startupland, and for many the concept resonated with them, there were some who were interested but didn’t have time. Nearly all of them got back to us though.

  • Silumesii

    Given how lean the team is, how did you approach marketing the project?

  • Maxim

    Startupland is a startup. We are a small team of dedicated people who have big goals and a grand vision for the project. Like any startup we have had to be very careful with budget, understand where to spend money to get a good return, and how to get a small team to do big things. On any given day, each one of us is doing the job of four different people! So when we say that this is a film for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs, we really mean it.

  • Silumesii

    Would you do a project like this again? What would you do differently?

  • Maxim

    We would certainly do this again, it’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve learned more than we ever expected, and have met some very interesting people along the way. There are so many things that we would do differently, but that is because hindsight is always perfect -- at the end of the day, we are proud of everything we have done, and the obstacles we have overcome to get here have helped us grow as a team, as individuals, and are part of what makes Startupland what it is!

    More objectively, something we would have done differently is to start developing our university and accelerator curriculum earlier on. The demand for it has been huge, and we are working very hard to get it finished and ready for all of our customers. But then again, you run into the classic startup problem of always needing more time, more money, and more people. We’ve done our best, and we believe that it will pay off, as it already is beginning to!