Burning Man: Meaningless Debauchery or Entrepreneurs in Training?

This post is a bit of a diversion from the normal fare. I took a quick ramble out to Burning Man for my 12th visit (my first was in 1996). In previous years, I’ve gone in a custom boxvan tricked out to carry motorcycles, an Airstream, a 16-ft geodesic dome, and an 18-foot truck chock-full of projects and comforts; this was the most minimal ever: I slept in the rented SUV I came in, and brought only a cooler, a costume box, a kitchen box, a rug to set stuff on, and a great pal. We stayed from Monday am to Wednesday afternoon, long enough to ramble around a bit, interact with friends and fellow travelers, and then scoot back to Reno for a hot shower. Minimum viable Burning Man!

Pre-dawn Drive past Pyramid Lake

I am on several mailing lists where folks talk about Burning Man every year, and there is usually a lot of discussion from jaded Burners saying “it will never be as good as my first year/last year”, or “it’s just a huge wild party”, or “why don’t these people spend their time doing something useful?!?”  For the record, there is plenty of partying and debauchery during the event, and anyone who tells you different is LYING, or at best only selectively paying attention.

Burning Man used to be a rite of passage of sorts for Bay Area software developers; most of the engineers I worked with at Critical Path went every year back in 1997-2000. We actually delayed our initial product launch so that most of the engineering team could go – I convinced the CEO that it would be suicide to launch right before the core team left for a week (this was back in the pre-PlayaNet days when you were actually out of touch there, rather than checking your email on your iPhone from your camp). So, it has lots of history for me…

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One of my favorite things to do is to venture out onto the playa at night for an art and photography tour; this year was no exception.

One of the first art pieces I saw was Syzygryd, which got an honorarium from the BurningMan organization, and then raised additional funds through KickStarter. I stared at it completely mesmerized, and the fire effects weren’t even going yet. In the photo below, you can see one small part of the sculpture itself, and someone working on a scissor lift fine-tuning things. The 60′ sculpture included a giant three-armed welded frame, color-changing lighting, three interactive touchscreen sound boards controllable by participants, sound, and (although I didn’t get to see it that night) fire effects. I suspect it was one of the more complex projects on the playa this year.

Tuning up Syzygryd

As we stood looking on in awe, my friend @DaleLarson commented that the amount of effort required to create something this complex was comparable to what it takes to create a startup and launch a product. That piqued my interest, so when I got home, I did some research.

The project’s website says it was a collaboration between four different Bay Area arts collectives: Interpretive ArsonFalse Profit Labs, Ardent Heavy Industries, and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. I was sitting at Maxfield’s House of Caffeine this morning waiting for a client, and serendipitously happened to run into two of the folks who worked on Syzygryd; I saw she had a dusty coffee mug with a Syzygryd sticker on it, and I asked if they were just returning from the playa, and struck up a conversation.

Syzygryd with Music Controller

They said there were about 67 people who had substantial involvement in creating the piece, and the lead group was Interpretive Arson (who also created Dance Dance Immolation in previous years). The folks at Interpretive Arson had done Burning Man projects before, but wanted to do something bigger in collaboration with other arts groups.

I’m hoping to interview one or more of the lead artists once they get back to civilization and shake the dust out of everything. They must have done something right; they unloaded the truck returning from BMan to Oakland one day early, because the loading crew was so efficient. Apparently they were ahead of schedule, but alas, not under budget.

OK, back to Burning Man. Earlier that day, I’d been puttering around near the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV), and struck up a conversation with Jessica, one of the Tahoe City creators of an art car themed like a ski chalet (think: deer head on the front, ski lift chairs as swings, stripper pole in front, bearskin run on the floor with a trapdoor with beer underneath).  The whole crew was milling about waiting for approval, obviously eager to go for a trial run. When they finally got approved, they went to start the car, and found the battery was mysteriously dead. A search for jumper cables ensued, and I bid them bye for now and good luck.

The next day, I was rambling around the city on foot when I saw their car approaching. I ran up and asked for a ride, and they recognized me and hailed me aboard. They were dancing on the car in a particularly sassy way, all dressed in different colors of tutus (it was tutu Tuesday, after all), really having a terrific time. I stayed with them for about an hour, and while I was watching them cavort, I realized that this wasn’t just about having fun dancing on a car you can drive while you’re drinking beer… This was their art car’s LAUNCH PARTY, and they were proud as hell to be driving around on something they had labored over for months beforehand. It’s wasn’t just a normal sexy playa dance, it was a victory dance. I said as much to a few of the people on the car, and they concurred. They eventually ended up over at Distrikt.

Tahoe City art car crew dancing at Distrikt

Watching them dancing together in the sunshine, I realized that Burning Man itself is the launch party for the thousands of artists/enterpreneurs who labor throughout the year to create incredible works of art, be they drivable, climbable, visual, aural, or anything else. In the early part of the week, there are a lot of crews putting finishing touches on projects and testing things out. The amount of work that goes into making project before they get to the playa is mostly invisible – what you see out there is the art, and the party.

Later that night around 3am, I had walked way out almost to the trash fence (to the boundaries of the festival), and I hopped on the top deck of an art car, and prayed that it would return me somewhere close to center camp. I sat down next to two nice folks, Max and Lisa, who asked what I’d seen that day. I gave them my camera, and invited them to scroll through the photos. They got halfway through the day’s photos, and looked at me, stunned. I had a whole series of photos of Tiny Tropolis (a series of dioramas viewable through peepholes, built by 50 different artists and mailed to them from around the world) and they were the ones who had built it. They said they’d set it up earlier that day, and hadn’t really heard much in the way of feedback about it yet. It was a sweet moment where it was clear they were charmed to know that someone had liked their art, and cared about it enough to take photos.

TinyTropolis Diorama

I left on Wednesday afternoon, happily missed the burn (which is a bit too hectic for my taste at this point), and enjoyed a day decompressing in Reno. The night of the burn on the playa, I went to Balsa Man back in San Francisco, and managed to miss the burn there too – I was picking up Indian food for a group of friends who would stop by my house later in the evening.

Balsa Man before the Burn

Going to the later days of Burning Man is like going to a software company’s launch party at 1am. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, there are lots of intoxicated people. Yes, there are a lot of freeloaders who didn’t necessarily build much of anything. But there are a core group of artists for whom the party has extra meaning: they came up with an idea, raised money, convinced others that the journey would be rewarding enough to contribute to, led a team to build something, dealt with setbacks and disappointments, adjusted the project to fit available time and money, created something of value that’s recognized by their community, and are dancing like crazy in celebration of what they accomplished.

I remember very vividly both the party where we “broke in” our new Critical path office space at 1st at Folsom for Critical Path before moving (the 2-floor 500 person party was called “Go Postal”), and also our IPO party. Both are great memories where I danced side by side with friends I’d worked hard to create something with, and both celebrated milestones that I’m still proud of today.

I just started reading MacroWikinomics (a new book by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, @macrowikinomics on Twitter). The beginning of the book talks about how old institutions aren’t likely to solve the systemic problems that we’re facing in banking, climate change, education, media, and the public sector. From page 11: “The Kauffman Foundations analysis of recent U.S. Censu Bureau data shows that companies less than five years old create nearly two thirds of net new jobs in America. In other words, if the U.S. economy is going to have a sustained recovery in jobs, it will be up to entrepreneurs to lead the way.”

While I’ll agree it’s an idealistic perspective, I like to think that Burning Man is helping to train at least some people in entrepreneurial thinking, planning, and leadership. And if they happen to throw a hell of a launch party as part of the bargain, so be it.  Some of my best friends and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunset from Balsa Man

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at StartupHappiness.com. She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.

7 thoughts on “Burning Man: Meaningless Debauchery or Entrepreneurs in Training?”

  1. Many startups today are a couple of guys in a room making an online to-do list in PHP. Syzygryd was far, far more complex than that. Syzygryd was like throwing together a gaming startup and a hardware startup and a travelling theatre show in about 7 months.

    As it happens, some of the people who worked on it are already veterans of the startup scene, in software and even bioengineering. But not all. And most did all this while holding down full-time jobs.

    I know you meant it in a flattering way, but in my opinion you should have said that being an technology entrepreneur might possibly prepare you well for creating this kind of Burning Man art.

  2. Anyway, I was not seriously involved in this project so I’m really commenting as a third-party here. If I seemed a bit pissy above, please don’t take my attitude as representative of the Syzygryd artists.

  3. Neil, I’m appreciative of your comments, and you may very well be right… Perhaps creating art at the level of Syzygryd is *beyond* the level of commitment, planning, and execution necessary for many startups (certainly the two people in a room variety), and it is in fact the startup scene in the Bay Area that contributes to people’s ability to pull together Burning Man projects of this magnitude. What an interesting take on things that I hadn’t considered!

    Most Burning Man art projects aren’t quite this complex (welding + extremely large/heavy + fire + sequenced light + sequenced sound + gorgeous design), although many of them have a handful of the above elements. And the more projects that combine these elements, the more people get experience leading the projects, and can up the ante in a new direction. It leads me to wonder: what will we get in 2011? I still recall when a single color of sequenced EL wire made my jaw drop because it looked like a hopping kangaroo or a galloping horse behind a bike.

  4. While the level of creativity, hard work, and coordination parallel launching a product, the constraints of Burning Man limit the degree to which the rest of business is represented in these endeavors. For all of the great things about forcing every participant to bring everything they need and encouraging them to be generous, for prohibiting commerce and advertising or sponsorships, this means artists and engineers are getting a chance through Burning Man to get even worse at marketing themselves and monitizing their products.

    I miss the value Burning Man once had for barter (before it stopped being silly and fun and the org changed it to a culture of gifting).

    What might it be like to have a week long event much like Burning Man but with the exact opposite take on commerce? Perhaps with monopoly money to keep it a game. What creativity could be unleashed there, and what lessons learned in real world survival? Could more of the often marginalized artists and engineers who thrive at Burning Man but struggle elsewhere take away even more from that event?

  5. Dale: Perhaps it’s called Commerce Man? Agreed that the artists at Burning Man are somewhat insulated from the typical business cycle, although it seemed like a lot of projects were using KickStarter this year rather than just passing the hat amongst their friends, or hosting fundraising parties.

    So, if I think about what Commerce Man would be like, it would start to approximate a huge-scale resort that allowed unlimited vendors. Wouldn’t there be a dis-incentive to create stunning large-scale art in favor of something else people would “buy”? Even if you could vote on art with some kind of play money, then all of a sudden placement in both physical space and print would be a big deal. Would you arrive to a goodie bag full of flyers advertising things to do and see?

    I do like the idea of hosting a weeklong experiment that helps the engineering/arts community learn about sales and marketing in a way that’s more fun. And, like Burning Man, I’m sure the details would evolve year by year.

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