Burning Man and Start-Ups

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Burning Man: Influence on Startups

The Burning Man is a festival celebrated each year in Black Rock City, Nevada, United States, motivating the startups' founders to adopt the festivity philosophy through their ideas; Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project is an example of this. The Burning Man festival is a place where the rules are different, and startups can expand their boundaries experimenting and sharing new technology in a "community knowledge" environment.

Creativity Leads to Experimentation, Experimentation Leads to Developing New Ideas

  • To achieve creativity, the restrictions of modern society must be "left outside" of the Burning Man festival, formalities and conventionalities are abandoned, and people enter in non-conformist community forms, based "on the principles of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression. "
  • The creativity rises from certain events, from epiphanies, connections, and stimulus at the Burning Man, however, this only can work if the startup that the founder tries to boost is sailing smoothly.
  • Technology experimentation is a fundamental component within the Burning Man festival. In the words of Larry Page, Google Co-founder, "there are many, many exciting and important things you can do at the festival that you just can’t do in normal work-life because they’re illegal, or they’re not allowed by regulation."
  • The article written by the expert Alessia Clusini states that the process of creativity at the Burning Man festival leads to an ultimate objective, for which the outcome must be the implementation the new ideas into an inclusive and radical startup once the Burning Man has ended.

Examples of Startups/Startup Founders

  • Shane Metcalf, Co-founder and Chief Culture Officer of 15Five, created a program where two employees are invited by the company to experience the Burning Man festival.
  • Shane Metcalf says that the Burning Man's self-reliance on a cashless system and its focus on building art installations teaches attendees creativity, a skill imperative to any good business.
  • Larry Page, Co-founder of Google, create the first doodle in history in 1998 because of his experience in the Burning man festival. The Doodle featured a stick figure in the logo and, curiously today doodles are a crucial part of the company success.

The Ten Principles of Burning Man Philosophy

  • The Burning man culture is based on ten principles that are reflective of a community's spirit, aspirations, and beliefs. They serve as the prevailing guidelines for participants.
  • These principles are not a mandate with regards as to what should be, but are a representation of the community's "ethos and culture" as it has evolved since the event started in 2004. They are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.
  • Some principles like radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and communal effort invite the participant to be innovative and creative in order to contribute to a "community knowledge."
  • The culture surrounding the Burning Man festival inspires startup founders to build their plans over this philosophy, putting the creativity and innovation in the center of their projects.

Examples of Startups/Startup Founders

  • Zappos´ CEO Tony Hsieh, a passionate attendee of the Burning Man festival, was inspired by the Black Rock City event to commence the Downtown Project, described by VentureBeat as a $350 million plan to make Vegas an "entrepreneur’s Disneyland."
  • At the Downtown Project website, there’s a description for it that closely evokes Burning Man’s principles: inspiration, entrepreneurial energy, creativity, innovation, upward mobility, and discovery through the 3 C’s of collisions, co-learning, and connectedness in a long-term, sustainable way.
  • Innovation Lab, motivated by the Burning Man philosophy, decided to build an office in Black Rock City. They transformed the inspiration obtained in this massive MVP called Black Rock City into ideas and concepts for innovation.

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Burning Man: Startup Founders

While, due to the festival's reputation for drug use and sexual excess (which might create problems when interacting with the more conservative financial industry), startup founders appear reluctant to directly attribute the success of their own companies to Burning Man. However, the festival is widely known among founders and CEOs to be the heart of Silicon Valley's startup culture, to have resulted in both ideas and partnerships among attendees, and to be such a boost to creativity that at least one startup pays to have its employees attend.

Silicon Valley Startup Culture and Burning Man

  • Burning Man was "born out of the counterculture that was a key part of Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s," and has remained key to Silicon Valley culture ever since.
  • The Startup Societies Foundation credits Burning Man with creating "a seasonal startup society: the 'temporary autonomous zone' of Black Rock City" where "information becomes a key tool that sneaks into the cracks of formal procedures." Since Burning Man spurns structured and permanent systems, it empowers raw creativity.
  • Visiting Burning Man is considered a badge of any "true" Silicon Valley entrepreneur; e.g., Elon Musk is said to have at least once scoffed at another entrepreneur, "He hasn't even been to Burning Man!" and stating on another occasion, "Burning Man is Silicon Valley."
  • A recent Metroactive article by startup veteran Gisele Bisson argues that Burning Man was the key inspiration for Silicon Valley startup culture in the first place: "Burning Man circa 1993 was a startup. The experimental temporary autonomous zone of Black Rock City had, arguably, between 500 to 1,000 inhabitants. Like many successful unicorns—Silicon Valley slang for startups with a billion-dollar valuation—the early denizens of this temporary town had no idea it would mushroom into a bustling metropolis of some 70,000, and hundreds of smaller satellite 'regional' burns and festivals worldwide... Burning Man, at its heart, is about risk-taking and new ideas. It is now obvious to me that Burning Man was, and remains, Silicon Valley's greatest incubator."

Notable Regulars at Burning Man

Partnerships Formed at Burning Man

  • The chance to meet with founders and CEOs has been instrumental in successful business deals in the past. For example, Andrew Johnstone met Brin and Page at the 2006 Burning Man, where he demoed his "Virtual e-Playa," a virtual reality flyover of the Burning Man camp that Brin and Page — "naked and body painted green and blue!" according to Johnstone — ultimately acquired from him and incorporated into Google Earth.
  • Likewise, Black Rock Labs, the Vancouver-based "innovation arm of the Burning Man organization," partners with energy tech startups like Portable Electric to showcase and provide clean energy alternatives to the festival attendees.
  • Portable Electric's founder Mark Rubin said of the demonstration of his company's VOLTstack technology, "It really embodied that essence of Burning Man. There’s new technology, let’s get out there and see what it can do," adding, "There’s innovation in the deployment. But there’s also innovation in collective financing and cooperative ownership."

15Five's Shane Metcalf on the Festival

  • Shane Metcalf, co-founder and Chief Culture Officer for 15Five, has himself attended Burning Man ten times and is willing to invest company resources into paying for tickets to the event for its employees.
  • When asked what kind of events one can go to at Burning Man that benefit tech employees, Metcalf responded, "Authentic relating, workshops on how do you actually be present with other humans and connect on non-superficial levels. There are classes on movement and contact improv and partner yoga. There are classes on singing and death meditation. Classes on emotional healing and overcoming trauma. Lectures on the cutting edge of psychedelic therapy, and the neuroscience of passion. There are workshops on how to create a vision of the future that inspires us to enact global change. If you can imagine it, it's going on there."
  • Metcalf has also argued to Business Insider that Burning Man's "reliance on a cashless system and its focus on building art installations teaches attendees creativity, which he adds is a skill imperative to any good business."

Research Strategy

Given the potential breadth of this request, we needed a way to narrow the field down. Therefore, we began our research by pulling a few dozen articles on the Burning Man festival in which the terms "startup," "founder," "co-founder" and/or "CEO" appeared. After a quick scan of each article to see if the information we wanted was already there, we used them to compile a list of company and founder names. We then sought interviews with the CEO or other co-founder(s) in which Burning Man came up as a topic. While we considered the possibility that this strategy wouldn't necessarily provide enough examples to completely fulfill the request, necessitating further research, we had high hopes that it would provide at least some examples and information that would guide our further research.

To our surprise, while we found multiple examples of startup founders who spoke very highly of Burning Man (which comprise the majority of our useful findings above) or even send employees to the event at company expense, none came out and attributed the success of their startup, in whole or in part, to the festival. That is, none claimed that an idea, inspiration, partnership, or another instrumental aspect of their startup was sparked by attending Burning Man, though 15Five co-founder Metcalf comes closest. This remained the case even when we pulled articles and interviews from earlier than our usual two-year cutoff (to 2014, though ultimately we did not use these earlier articles).

The interview with Metcalf, parts of which are in our findings above, may provide a clue why: The interviewer and Metcalf talk for some time about Burning Man's reputation for having a lot of "drugs, and freedom, and sex," with the interviewer adding, "I bet a lot of CEOs would not want to suggest their team be near it." While Metcalf disputes that vision of the festival, the interviewer's question became pertinent to our hypothesis.

In short, we hypothesize that the reason why startup founders are reluctant to directly attribute their success to Burning Man is that its reputation might drive away potential VC investors, whose industry culture is far more conservative and cautious than that of Silicon Valley startup culture.

However, while direct quotes attributing success did not emerge from our research, it was very clear that startup founders have a very positive view of Burning Man's effect on their entrepreneurship (despite some notable cautionary tales), and so we have presented their extended quotes in support of the festival and its benefits to startup culture above. While this requires us to go outside of a strict interpretation of the request criteria, this roundabout approach was necessary to fulfill what we understood to be the spirit of the criteria once it became clear that we could not fulfill it directly from the available public information.