What can wandering around the desert covered in neon lights and glow sticks teach you about Silicon Valley and the tech industry? More than you might think.
Over the last few years, Burning Man has become an obsession for the tech industry. The annual event, in which tens of thousands of people create and destroy an entire city in the middle of the desert, has attracted the founders of companies like Google, Dropbox, Coinbase, Tesla, WordPress, Uber and many others--not to mention countless venture capitalists, engineers, marketers and CEOs. More of my friends in the tech industry make the trek to Black Rock City every year. Heck, this time around there were even Bitcoin and Dogecoin-themed camps.
It's not just the fact that more people from the tech industry are converging in the desert each year, though. It's also the sheer amount of coverage the event has been receiving recently from the press. Publications like Re/Code, TechCrunch, Mashable, The New York Times, and New York Magazine sent reporters and wrote multiple stories on the event this year. A few years ago, none of these publications would've written half a dozen posts about burners.
So why has the tech industry become more and more obsessed with Burning Man and Black Rock City? Why is the event so appealing to techies? After living in Black Rock City for the first time this year, I have a couple of theories:
1) Burning Man reinvigorates your creativity: The amount of ingenuity, creative thinking and sweat equity "burners" put into their camps, art cars and gifts is simply staggering. If you wander around the center of Black Rock City, you will encounter countless structures and art pieces, intricately created to evoke a sense of awe. One particularly memorable installation I visited--a multi-story metal cage wheel with dozens of burning logs spinning--attracted hundreds of spectators as thousands of embers and sparks lit up the nights. Others created intricate patterns of lights or reflected on the state of our society.
Being around this amount of creativity sparks the imagination, and the art sparked countless discussions about how to bring that creativity to the rest of the world--at least at my camp. I know other burners have told me the same. There's a feeling that you can create anything while you're at Burning Man.
2) It's a city filled with builders: The whole point of Burning Man is to build something amazing you can show to others in Black Rock City, whether it's a camp decoration, a costume, an art car or a new workshop. Building is part of Burning Man's DNA. It's the same DNA that drives entrepreneurs to build startups.
At Burning Man, creativity and innovation rule above all. You cannot buy anything at Burning Man (except ice). So if you want it, you have to build it. For a founder who is obsessed with building new things that countless people will see and use, Black Rock City feels like home.
Or, as Razorfish founder Richard Titus told me, "Entrepreneurs love Burning Man because it is the purest realization of the Silicon Valley DNA you can find."
3) Burning Man allows for deeper relationships: One friend emphatically argued to me that Burning Man was among his important networking events of the year because of the deep bonds he builds and the common experiences he shares with fellow burners. Burning Man ditches handshakes, discussions about your company and other formalities in favor of hugs, philosophical debates and deeper bonding experiences.
When you're stuck in the middle of a hot and dusty desert with no reception and no laptop, you start focusing more on the people around you. Burning Man also gives those who have attended something in common to discuss and bond over in the real world.
4) Burning Man lets techies disconnect from the outside world: There are very few camps with Wi-Fi. There is almost zero service in Black Rock City. I could receive texts, but it was impossible to check email or load any website.
For techies, who can't stop looking at their email notifications, Burning Man gives them an excuse to ditch their phones and their responsibilities, at least for a week. A lot of my tech CEO friends took this part of the experience to heart, refusing Wi-Fi even when they had access. For hardcore techies, having an excuse to disconnect is a relief.
Is traveling to Burning Man worth it for entrepreneurs? It depends on how much your company needs you right before Labor Day, who you camp with, and whether you can handle the extreme temperature swings and unrelenting dust of The Playa. It's hard not to be inspired by Burning Man's creativity, though--and that's what keeps attracting the tech industry to Black Rock City every year.