Whip cream holsters. Topless dancers. Airplane-size sculptures. It's all part of the draw at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nevada, which kicks off this week. But for one entrepreneur, all this reckless abandon has a very concrete pay-off: it's a highly effective productivity booster.
"You're completely in the desert," says Mitch Rothschild, a New York-based entrepreneur who admittedly went through 30 canisters of whip cream last year. "There's just miles and miles of flat desert expanse and you've got 65,000 people there. There's no money, no cell phones, no Internet. You get back as much as you put in." (Rothschild's distribution of whip cream was one way he gave back to attendees.)
While the festival's emphasis on personal expression no doubt stokes Rothschild's creativity, it's also renewed his perspective. "We live in a world where we're trying to get ahead," says the founder of Vitals, a doctor review site that made the Inc. 500 this year. "When you hit somewhere between the ages of 30 and 35, you ask yourself, 'Are you going to work on staying interesting and continuing to learn, or are you just going to age and fall into patterns and predictability?'"
Rothschild, who was a "virgin burner" last year, has clearly chosen the latter. "In almost any venue, whether it's a lecture in a city or meeting a new person, it's about having as expansive an experience you can have," he says. "It keeps you young, helps you step out, and reexamine your perspective."
In fact, a change in perspective helped Rothschild pivot his business last year. Before he attended the festival, Vitals was strictly ad-based. There was growing demand for price and quality transparency, especially among insurers, but Vitals wasn't making use of the data it had. After attending the festival, however, Rothschild saw the opportunity right in front of him. So what if it was a new business model? The money he could make would be worth it. Now a year later, Vitals has grown five times from where it was a year ago, thanks to this shift.
Burning Man's focus on self-reliance--among the festival's principles, an emphasis on survival remains paramount--has also helped Rothschild's approach to problem-solving at work, he says. "There is no plumbing, there is no water. There are dust storms and you have to not mind that."
Above all, Rothschild stresses the importance of simply unplugging. "You go on a vacation and don't even realize the cobwebs you have in your brain until you're thinking about things fresh," he says. And the more different the experience, the better your perspective will be. "It's almost like going to Mars, it's so different from anything else," he says of Burning Man. "But if you embrace the concept of change, not for its own sake but for adaptaing to change in your environment, well, that's what an entrepreneur has to do."