On the Town

In Which We Went Golfing with Silicon Alley’s Ad-Tech Elite

Sporty CEOs attempt to answer the question, “What is a Birchbox?”
photo In Which We Went Golfing with Silicon Alleys Ad Tech Elite

Carboloading before the sports. (Photo: Darren Herman)

Bright and early yesterday morning, Betabeat boarded a bus outside of the Buzzfeed offices and headed north to Rockland County for a day at the Silicon Alley Golf Invitational. The guest list included the city’s ad-tech elite. In other words, the CEOs of unsexy business-to-business platforms laughing all the way to the bank. It was a disgustingly perfect day for such an event, with the sun shining and even the heat easing off a bit.

We arrived at the Manhattan Woods Golf Club to find our host, Media Kitchen chief digital media officer Darren Herman, greeting guests in an eye-singeing neon yellow shirt. Cheery assistants in SAGI polos checked in players and handed out extra balls.

Stepping inside, we found gleaming wood paneling and fresh roses and tasteful patterns. Every tacky breakfast room in every Marriott in America is a degraded version of the Manhattan Woods Golf Club’s platonic ideal. The place looks like it’s everted from the collective unconscious of America’s business elite. For a brief moment, we wanted nothing so much as to bring a sleeping bag and take up permanent residence in an empty conference room.

The tip-off that this wasn’t some Fortune 500 gathering: on the swag table, alongside the canvas tote bags and logo-bedecked golf shirts, was a giant stack of Birchboxes for men.

The entire place had closed down for the Silicon Alley Golf Invitational. In attendance were 92 members of Silicon Alley’s ad-tech and media circles—well, those who could still make it despite last-minute schedule changes, made to give the course some time to dry out after Sunday’s thunderstorms. We saw AOL Ventures’ Mike Brown go by; we heard tell of Buddy Media CEO Mike Lazerow‘s attendance, but never saw him.

Mr. Herman’s algorithm for sending out invites went like this: “You must be an active member of the Silicon Alley ecosystem and have played a founding or executive role within your organization,” he told Betabeat by email. “We typically have three types of people: founders, venture capitalists, and what I call ecosystem supporters (such as senior agency ad execs).”

He added that, this year, there were 46 qualified people on the waiting list—though it’s actually the course that imposes the numerical limit, he was quick to add.

First up was brunch, where the mood was jovial. Though advertised as a kind of networking mixer, it looked like many of the men—we could count the number of female attendees on one hand—were already well acquainted. Golfers in baseball caps helped themselves to buffet offerings, then planted themselves at the large, chatty tables. One could order an omelet on the terrace outside and contemplate the entire course and the skyline of Manhattan beyond it.

We sat next to a man named Ben, whom we only belatedly realized was Ben Kartzman, co-founder of ad-tech company (and event sponsor) Spongecell. Clearly in high spirits, he described the trade-offs of being a tech-savvy CEO: VCs respect someone who’s got the development experience, he told Betabeat, but once your hands are off the code base, you just don’t have the same street cred with your own engineers. Then he was off to practice his swing before the games began.

As everyone polished off their juice and coffees, Mr. Herman stepped to the podium to open the festivities. He hates conferences, he explained; he wanted to start a gathering “where everyone would want to go.” It’s not meant to be wholly about golfing (that could be done with friends at one’s choice of venue) and it’s not meant to be wholly about networking (that could be achieved in a one-on-one lunch). “This is meant to be something a little different.”

(We also got an explanation for the Birchboxes. Last year, Mr. Herman introduced an assistant to the gathering and informed the attendees they would do well to hire her; thanks to an investor who knew it had positions to fill, she’s now running publicity for the startup.)

download In Which We Went Golfing with Silicon Alleys Ad Tech Elite

Hugh McLeod’s representation of the event.

Then it was time for the keynote from GapingVoid cartoonist Hugh McLeod. Attendees politely looked attentive as he meandered through a story about his upbringing in Scotland involving sheep-herding, but it was clear their minds were on the fairway. The moment Mr. McLeod wrapped it up, golfers dashed downstairs and lunch-only attendees headed for the door and their trip back to the city.

Once they’d gone, we saw Mr. McLeod amble by the swag table. “I don’t know what a Birchbox is,” he said, “but I guess I’ll find out.”

On the edge of the course, everyone had found his team and cart and all were bustling about, clearly anxious for the official start. It felt a little like the moments before a quail hunt; Betabeat overheard an urgent query as to whether someone had brought cigars. Then, with yet another reminder re: sunscreen, they were off, peeling out of the clubhouse in their ultra-silent carts and introducing one another to their partners.

Once they’d gone, two assistants took Betabeat for a spin on what appeared to be a stretch golf cart. (This was a mistake, as it made reversing rather difficult.) On the seventh hole, we found a team that included Mike Weiksner, founder of the newly launched social shopping app Tip or Skip, who called SAGI “the best tech event in New York,” attended by “a great group of leaders in ad-tech and beyond.” That’s the attraction, he explained—definitely not the competition, which is apparently terrible.

“[These] people are not good golfers,” he said. “That’s not the highlight. The highlight is definitely the people.”

Meanwhile, his teammates were passing around a pack of cigarettes. Another man cracked wise as he took a wild practice swing: “It’s better than being at work!”

Probably not helping, either: we spotted more than one Bud Light being cracked open, and we learned that coolers full of beer were stationed around the course.

The next cluster of golfers we encountered were feeling less gregarious, as one of their teammates had just nailed a pole with his previous shot. Not being golfers ourselves, we’re not entirely clear what that meant, but it was clear that none of them were happy about it, and none of them particularly wanted to discuss how they were faring, other than to say “badly.”

One caddy we puttered past even let slip that some folks “aren’t as good as they think they are.” He declined to dish further unless we brought him a couple of the readily available beers, however.

Around 5:00, golfers began filtering back into the clubhouse, looking worn-out but still energetic enough to trade scores and talk business. (Judging from the conspicuous lack of sunglasses tans, Mr. Herman’s warnings had been heeded.) They also attempted to crowdsource an explanation of just what Birchbox was. “Beauty supplies?” ventured one man before adding, “But I think these are for men.”

In the lull before the awards ceremony, Mr. Herman introduced us to Operative founder Lorne Brown, who’d stuck out like a sore thumb all day, thanks to his hot pink pants. He explained his wardrobe choice: “I mean, if I can’t wear them here …” At the inaugural official game, he’d found himself on the winning team, and his picture had appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Only he wasn’t dressed for fame, having gotten caught in unimpressive black-pants-blue-shirt combo. Now, he says, he ramps it up every year—just in case.

He was full of praise for Mr. Herman’s choice of invitees: “I know I can sit down at any table and I’ll make a good decision,” he said.

As soon as everyone was off the course, Mr. Herman raced through the awards ceremony, and everyone lit out for the parking lot in a vain attempt to beat traffic back to the city and avoid getting stuck on the Tappan Zee.

Betabeat hitched a ride with Lee Freund, TubeMogul’s VP of eastern regional sales. He called the invitational “an event unlike any other,” and as we raced over the Triborough, he added, “People in our industry don’t typically have time for golfing.”

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com