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Many investors say they did not know — nor was it disclosed in annual reports — that he was founding and funding his own business with their dollars, despite the fact that the investment was roughly 50 times the size of the seed investments the firm normally makes.
Forty people crowded into the firm’s offices above a pizza shop in San Francisco’s So Ma district, passing the sign detailing a three-part plan to “Build Awesome Startups” and “Profit.”Rothenberg, 32, greeted them with the confidence that comes from accomplishing significant things at a young age.
To understand how he rose to fame as a prominent backer of virtual reality startups before becoming mired in allegations of fraud and mismanagement, Backchannel interviewed more than two dozen former employees, limited partners, portfolio company CEOs, and other people who knew and worked with Rothenberg.
The story of how Rothenberg built, nearly destroyed, and now hopes to save the startup that, until recently, bore his name is a morality tale for this generation of Silicon Valley’s investors and entrepreneurs. Founding a company has become the stuff of entrepreneurial myth in which everyone ends up a billionaire.
Most troublesome are questions about how Rothenberg managed investors’ money.
Specifically, in 2015 he founded a virtual reality production company called River Studios to create virtual reality videos for the likes of Coldplay and Björk, funding it with million from Rothenberg Ventures.
To keep his culture of “awesome” — a favorite adjective — he hired scores of millennials for sometimes below-market paychecks, once doling out VR headsets instead of bonuses, and relied on his instincts, aided by his team’s diligence, to get equity in companies with auspicious projections. The firm’s 100-company investment portfolio includes stakes in promising companies Robinhood, Space X, and Revel Systems.