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Inside Founder Field Day: Like a Scene Lifted From HBO's 'Silicon Valley'

I spent the first 30 minutes wondering if it was all an elaborate "Candid Camera" prank.

Can tech companies be in on the joke if they are the joke?

That question hung in the air on Monday at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Startup investing firm Rothenberg Ventures rented out the stadium for its annual Founder Field Day. It kicked off the event — a high-end picnic for its portfolio companies and other startup founders — by playing a clip from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” on the Jumbotron. It featured a fictional VC firm buying out the ballpark for an evening of debauchery.

It was the first of many “Inception” moments of the day, but the show had a few details wrong. Where were the on-demand massages? The after-party performance by Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas? The rescue puppies? Because all that and more was on display at the real Founder Field Day, the event that likely inspired the show’s writers.

The subject of a forthcoming Harvard Business School study, Founder Field Day is either a symbol of tech excess taken to comedic proportions or a clever and valuable networking event, depending on whom you ask. I spent the first 30 minutes wondering if it was all an elaborate “Candid Camera” prank.

For those unfamiliar, Rothenberg Ventures is a newcomer among tech’s venture investing firms. Founded in 2013 by then 28-year-old Mike Rothenberg, it bills itself as “the Millennial Venture Firm.”

Founder Field Day attendees mill around finishing lunch on the field of AT&T Park, home of the Giants.
Founder Field Day attendees mill around finishing lunch on the field of AT&T Park, home of the Giants.

For the last two years it has rented out the Giants’ stadium, invited hundreds of founders, its own portfolio companies and other investors to swing at home plate and attend Q&A sessions with tech leaders like Jake Schwartz, founder of General Assembly, and Kira Wampler, chief marketing officer of Lyft.

The first hint that Founder Field Day wasn’t going to be quite like other tech events came in the informational emails. The coordinator signed everything “In founders we trust” and warned “all attendees will wear the official T-shirt.” Sure enough, when I arrived at the welcome table, the people manning the swag were adamant.

“What’s your shirt size?”

“Oh, I don’t need one.”

“You have to wear the shirt.”

“I’m not going to wear it.”

“Security might not let you in without the shirt.”

I took my chances.

You can’t really blame the organizers for T-shirt dictatorship. They’re paying $35,000 to rent the field for the day. That doesn’t include the cost of the upstairs area, grub or the after-party venue (Pedro’s Cantina, across the street). Food fare was baseball-bougie, with “Marin Sun Farms grass-fed burgers” and potato salad made with “Napa Valley mustard aioli.”

The faire at Founder Field Day was baseball-bougie.
The faire at Founder Field Day was baseball-bougie.

When I asked Evan Macmillan, the CEO of enterprise company Gridspace and former head of product at Groupon, what he thought of “Silicon Valley’s” parody, he laughed. “It hits too close to home,” he said. “This isn’t my fantasy, this is my sad reality.”

The writers from the show do their research. One reached out to Mike Rothenberg before Season Two and asked if they could shadow the firm. He declined, but was delighted when they seemingly satirized Founder Field Day anyway. “It was so on point,” he said. “It’s totally fair play to put this on HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley.’”

Pups, provided by Family Dog Rescue, snuggled up to attendees
Pups, provided by Family Dog Rescue, snuggled up to attendees

At the same time, he defended the event. “If you were a tiny startup trying to pay for this, that would be stupid, but that’s not what’s going on here,” Rothenberg said. “Everyone is using the time to scale their networks.”

At first glance, Founder Field Day seems like a waste of investment money, but Rothenberg Ventures brings on sponsors to foot the bill. The list of backing names was long: HP, Silicon Valley Bank, Lyft, Perkins Coie, Summit Tax and Accounting, and Baker Avenue Asset Management. Rothenberg said the sponsors cover the cost of the event, but that the firm itself doesn’t make a profit.

On-demand massage startup Zeel provided the masseuses, who glistened in the afternoon heat as they dug their elbows into techies’ backs. The nonprofit Family Dog Rescue, which has become the unofficial puppy provider for events hosted by Uber, Square and others, supplied the animals.

I met Pablo Solano, an investor from the Latin American firm Mita Ventures, by the masseuses. He shrugged and smiled when I asked what he thought of the event. “Is it massive compared to the size of the [venture] fund?” Solano said. “Yes. And is it awesome? Yes.” He handed me an errant baseball he’d signed with his initials before wandering away.

A masseuse from on-demand startup Zeel works on the sore muscles of an attendee.
A masseuse from on-demand startup Zeel works on the sore muscles of an attendee.

A long line of founders and others formed to take a swing at the plate. One in particular furrowed his brow in concentration, as though he took the HBO show’s portrayal of techies’ baseball skills personally — the main character swung, missed and stumbled — and wanted to prove them wrong. After a few fouls, he connected and the ball soared across the field. A flicker of relief flashed across the batter’s face.

Upstairs, the group of companies in Rothenberg’s River Virtual Reality accelerator demoed their products. One station recreated the night of Trayvon Martin’s death in CGI, using the recordings of 911 calls made by neighbors. I watched a virtual George Zimmerman chase down Martin even as the 911 operator says, “We don’t need you to do that.”

At another station, an educational VR set transported wearers into the galaxy for a science lesson. A third mimicked the Formula One racing experience.

After strolling the room, Scott Gutterman of investment banking firm UBS teased Rothenberg’s chief of staff, Henry Pfirrmann. “You’re having too much fun, there’s no way you could be good investors,” he said.

The comment was made in jest, but touches on the young firm’s biggest challenge: Striking a balance between being young and fun (to appeal to the youthful founder crowd) while also showing its responsible and discerning side (to appeal to potential LPs).

Sources tell Re/code the firm is raising its third round at the moment. Rothenberg raised $4.8 million for its initial fund, but was only able to secure $850,000 of a $50 million offering for its second fund, according to SEC filings. When I asked about this, the firm said it has $25 million in assets under management. At the time of publishing it didn’t respond to my inquiry about why those assets aren’t listed on SEC documentation; I’ll update this if I hear back.

Most of the companies it has invested in are too young to have exited yet, which makes the sell harder. “We’re trying to grow up, but don’t have a long enough track record,” Pfirrmann told me.

An attendee teases an unwitting VR wearer.
An attendee teases an unwitting VR wearer.

“Growing up” is relative in the land of tech, where ping-pong tables are a staple at almost every startup, as are snack cabinets and kegs. Founder Field Day might have resembled a kiddie birthday party on a much bigger scale, but it works for Rothenberg Ventures’ biggest need: Meeting potential founders.

“It was at last year’s event that I heard about Rothenberg the first time,” Roger Lee, founder of wealth management company Captain401, told me.

“All the investors blend together except the top three or four,” said his co-founder, Paul Sawaya. “[This] made them more salient in my mind.”

From Rothenberg: “If you’re not creating the networking event that opens Season Two of ‘Silicon Valley,’ then you might not be hosting the right networking event.”

For the after-party Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas showed up around 10 pm. He did it in return for an undisclosed favor.

When the emcee announced Taboo’s set, the techie nerds ignored him. In seconds, he’d leaped onto the bar that stretched through Pedro’s Cantina and strutted it like a catwalk. “C’mon!” he hollered. “Let’s do this!”

He took the DJ stand and started with a BEP classic: “I’ve got a feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night …” The techies began leaping and moshing to the best of their abilities.

Taboo, from the Black Eyed Peas, leaped onto the bar at Pedro’s Cantina to get everyone’s attention.
Taboo, from the Black Eyed Peas, leaped onto the bar at Pedro’s Cantina to get everyone’s attention.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.