Each year in August, tens of thousands of people, including some of today's brightest entrepreneurs, meet in Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the cultural event that has become known as Burning Man. This event, which started in 1986 on a San Francisco beach, has inspired countless villages and theme camps that populate Black Rock City. One of those camps is Disco Chateau, co-founded by 4 Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Like many other Burning Man Camps, Disco Chateau is dedicated to celebrating the unique culture of Burning Man but with an emphasis on creating social art, community and wellness among the broader community.
One of the camp's co-founders, Ari Kalfayan, is also involved with the Startup Tech Mixer, a large networking event that hosts thousands of budding entrepreneurs, and is the VP of Growth for 10x Management, a Silicon Valley talent agency that represents coders. As a serial entrepreneur, Kalfayan says he is struck by how similar Burning Man camps can be to business ventures. I spoke with him recently about those similarities, and how "The Burn" influences his personal approach to building organizations.
Revenue and Expenses
With any organization, revenue is certainly one of the most important goals. Disco Chateau has expenses just as Kalfayan's other ventures do, so it's important to bring in money to cover them. In setting up Disco Chateau, he and his partners approached it just as they had with other startups, arranging limited liability and insurance to cover them in the event a legal issue should arise. Once these features are in place, Kalfayan says, as with any business, teams should work to build a model where they bring in revenue to cover expenses that come along each month.
"Part of dues and part of our donations are tax-deductible, specifically because it's promoting art projects," Kalfayan says. "We're actually building physical art projects and promoting community interaction at our camp." In this way, Burning Man camps differ from for-profit work because they merely have to break even and don't have to make money. Regardless, the similarities between Burning Man and entrepreneurial work are very similar structurally.
Building a Model
Kalfayan's first experience with Burning Man was a few years ago at another camp. He was impressed with the projects on display, and was empowered to create one of his own, a"cuddle puddle." The cuddle puddle is an art piece where guests are invited to let their guard down, lounge and cuddle in a sea of giant teddy bears.
"Specifically, the Cuddle Puddle as an art piece is dedicated to unlocking human intimacy and bringing people to a child-like state to share," Kalfayan says. "When I say intimacy I mean warm intimacy, not sexuality, intimacy among people, regardless of age, regardless of gender, regardless of sexuality. Allow that natural human connection to come together."
In his second year at Burning Man, Kalfayan and his friends started their own camp, which became Disco Chateau. A key part of the operation was creating their own "puddle." This became a kind of minimum viable product, or MVP, as a startup founder might say. 80 camp members from ten different countries participated and built a 40-foot by 20-foot space for the puddle. It was a success, attracting people from all over Black Rock City.
"Like an entrepreneurial venture, building this art piece taught me and reminded me that a lot of entrepreneurship is taking an idea, communicating it, putting it into physical form, and then watching and observing people's reaction to it. Then, going and iterating and improving it. Then, going and improving and iterating it again." At Burning Man 2015, Disco Chateau will grow the cuddle puddle to over 3,000 square feet to keep up with demand.
Attracting the Tech Crowd
This all illustrates how Burning Man itself has reached beyond just the arts community. What was once a small party involving a group of friends in San Francisco is now a large gathering that becomes the third largest city in Nevada each year. Some of the top entrepreneurs in the world seek out the event, including venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and board members. At Disco Chateau and other camps, leaders teach not only cultural values, but general values, which appeals to entrepreneurs at all levels.
Each year, Burning Man reaches new audiences, who learn and grow from each other. As Disco Chateau continues to attract people from around the globe, Kalfayan and his group hope to be able to build a community of people who can learn from each other and grow as a community. He says one of the best things about rising to the top of any field is being able to share lessons learned with a new generation of entrepreneurs.
"If you strike a chord, people will volunteer their time. People will want to get involved. Your organization, your project will grow. That's exactly the same thing as entrepreneurship."