The press event could have been a scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley. At least, that's what the reporters who showed up were supposed to think, waiting for the CEO of Soylent in a Silicon Valley parking lot.
Rob Rhinehart, CEO and co-founder of the Los Angeles-based meal-replacement startup, arrived in a white truck emblazoned with the company’s logo, alongside the actor Josh Brener, who plays the character Nelson Bighetti, or Big Head, on Silicon Valley. The truck, too, was an inside joke: Cartoon Soylent trucks appear in the show's opening credits, and Rhinehart said that inspired him to make one in real life.
The entrepreneur and actor were touring California’s actual Silicon Valley to pitch Soylent's latest products, out this month: Coffiest, bottled nutrient sludge combined with coffee, and Food Bar, a caramel-flavored slab of soy protein, algal flour, and isomaltulose. By the time they pulled into the parking lot in Holbrook-Palmer Park, they had already visited eBay and the former GoogleX (the "moonshot factory" of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, now goes by simply "X"), to hand out product samples and pose for selfies. Later that afternoon, they were scheduled to visit GoDaddy.
If Rhinehart is among the weirdest CEOs in the tech world — he sells food whose brand alludes to dystopian sci-fi, he has blogged about getting rid of his fridge and giving up laundry, and he had a brush with the law this summer after installing a shipping container on a small piece of land he owns on an LA hilltop (as an “experiment” in housing) — then Brener is perhaps his perfect celebrity pitchman. The shaggy-haired actor approached the role of shill with a polished deadpan. You almost couldn't tell whether he liked the product — or had even tried it.
"I don't drink Coffiest, because caffeine makes me a monster, but Food Bar is delicious," Brener, 31, said. "I had it for breakfast and will probably have it for the rest of the meals for my entire life."
Later, he took a sip of the caffeinated goop. "That's really friggin' good!” he said. “I shouldn't sound so surprised."
"Everyone expects it to be bad," Rhinehart, 28, replied.
At another point, the slightly built Brener said, "I like to use Soylent as a post-gym recovery drink. It gives me the protein I need to bulk up."
"Silicon Valley has its finger on the pulse," Brener said. "Soylent is coursing through the veins of this great township."
This reporter's attempts to ask normal questions — Is Soylent paying you? How much? — were futile. Rhinehart and Brener, who wore Soylent windbreakers that Velcroed up the front, are friends (they met through Rhinehart's sister, a filmmaker). They shoot skeet together in LA. On Tuesday, they did a jokey friend routine.
"All my meals for the next — what is it, 300 years? — are taken care of," Brener said, sitting at a table on a sun-baked dirt patch near the park's Fitness Cluster.
"Or death, whichever comes first," Rhinehart added.
So, that's payment in Soylent?
"You wouldn't pay an elephant in anything but peanuts," Brener said.
What did he and Rhinehart do at the mysterious X?
"We handed out product, we stole company secrets," Brener said. "They came by and hung out with us and told us what they were working on, in great detail."
The whole thing was layered thick with irony. Even the visit to Google involved a wink or two: In Silicon Valley, Brener's character works for a Google-like company, and previously, in the 2013 comedy The Internship, Brener played a Google employee. When Hollywood imagines a comical Googler, it sees Brener.
His TV show, packed full of inside jokes and references, seems at times like it's tailor-made for the Soylent-drinking tech set. It's satire, sure, but it's gentle enough to be widely beloved among the young strivers and the power players of Silicon Valley, as BuzzFeed News's Nitasha Tiku has written. Brener's character, in theory, represents one of the show's more pointed jokes, a slacker who manages to make millions without lifting a finger. But real-life Big Heads eat it up.
"It is shocking the number of people who are like, 'Dude, I'm your character! I just sit around and do nothing and get paid for it,'" Brener said. "Which is sort of disheartening."
Brener isn't the only Silicon Valley actor to moonlight in the tech sector. Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh in the show, has shilled for the e-commerce startup Jet.com. This is the sort of convenient windfall can arise when you set out to mock a popular industry that has wealth. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but it does show how closely tied this satirized tech world is to the real one.
Or as Brener put it, "Who doesn't like getting ribbed? Trojan built a whole empire on being ribbed.”
"I do think it shows great, not self-awareness, but at least a levity, that you embrace the satire instead of fighting against it," Brener added later, getting serious. "People here are really big fans of the show and enjoy having that crossover."
The people who make Silicon Valley like to talk about how realistic it is. In doing research, the show's writers have to act almost like venture capitalists, searching for themes that will be relevant in a year's time, when episodes finally air. Brener relayed an anecdote about a neighbor who found the show hard to watch because it was “too close to home.”
But the weirdness of the real tech world, embodied in Rhinehart, is sometimes too out-there for the show. A group of Silicon Valley writers once met with Astro Teller, the head of X, according to a recent New Yorker article, but when an annoyed Teller tried to leave the meeting in a dramatic huff, he ended up wobbling away on his Rollerblades. They didn't use the joke because it was too "hacky," the article says.
A joke like that "doesn't feel real," Brener said. "It's so insane, it's so bonkers."
Minutes earlier, Rhinehart had given a small speech about his shipping container project, which was supposed to be an experiment in sustainable housing. Neighbors complained about the metal eyesore and said it attracted vandals. City prosecutors charged Rhinehart with violations including unpermitted construction. He removed the container and wrote a blog post offering his "sincerest apologies."
But on Tuesday, Rhinehart said he wanted to try again.
"Hopefully by next year I'll have four or five containers on the land," he said.
He explained how he would arrange them on his quarter-acre property on top of the hill. "Where there's a will," he said, "there's a way."