As Labor Day 2019 rolls in, the residents of the Eastern shore of Florida are gearing up for what is increasingly looking to be a catastrophic storm in Hurricane Dorian. The nearly universal consensus is that the storm will bring a deluge of water and inevitable floods. It is not an understatement to say no one in Florida is looking forward to the next 72 hours, and our thoughts here at PYMNTS are with them.
About 2,800 miles away on the other side of the country, however, a nearly polar opposite circumstance is unfolding in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, as over 70,000 people living in a temporary makeshift “city” in the absolute middle of nowhere are all anxiously awaiting a fire they are very much looking forward to.
Tonight, as is tradition, a large wooden statue known collectively as “The Man” will be set ablaze in the desert – the capstone event of the annual Burning Man festival. The annual event, created by Larry Harvey and Jerry James in 1986, is now an international draw for visual artists, social media influencers, tech billionaires, independent thinkers and party animals of all stripes.
Burning Man is always a singular experience in and of itself. Officially a commerce-free zone, it constitutes a gift-driven economy in the most literal sense. There is no buying or selling, no stands, no marketing. There may be smoothie shops and exotic grilled cheese stands at Burning Man, but everything is free – all products and services are offered by burners as gifts. The only things that can be sold are coffee and ice.
But that commerce-free experience only starts when attendants get to the playa and start setting up their tents. The ticket itself is a substantial investment of over $400, and then guests must bring everything they could possibly need for the two-week communal camping experiment, from food and water to toilet paper to sunblock. Not only that, but they often bring enough to share with others. For those bringing elaborate costumes, setting up massive art installations or offering free communal services like showers, meals and drinks, the costs can easily spiral into the tens and hundreds of thousands.
Then there are the always controversial “luxury burners” – billionaires, athletes, celebrities and their guests – who come to Black Rock City and create a private, roped-off area equipped with air-conditioned yurts, spas and gourmet meals on demand, right in the middle of the desert. Building all of that is not cheap, nor is the helicopter ride to access it, nor is the cost of removing every trace of it by Monday (cleaning up and leaving no remnants behind is one of the founding tenets of the festival).
All of that has been the background noise of Burning Man in the last decade – a series of interesting contradictions at an event that is part high-minded experiment in communal living and sustainability, and part isolated bacchanal that stands as a massive cultural monument to excess.
Which is not to say that every year doesn’t have its specific quirks – or that 2019 isn’t packing its share of oddities.
While Burning Man has been informally considered a Silicon Valley networking hub since its inception, some firms are deciding to formalize that a bit.
By making it expensable.
Burning Man as a Corporate Retreat
While many people have taken time off work for Burning Man, more than a few have no doubt bent the truth when telling their employer about their vacation plans. But at least one firm in San Francisco is encouraging its employees to go. In fact, it is actually offering to buy the tickets.
Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief culture officer of 15Five, a San Francisco-based employee feedback and management system, is a true Burning Man believer, and wants his workers to believe as well. Having personally attended the event 10 times, Metcalf believes Burning Man “brings to the forefront higher levels of creativity than you ever knew were possible,” and he wants to encourage his workers to broaden their minds. So Burning Man tickets are on the company this year – anyone who buys a spot can expense it to the boss.
“We aren't thinking about this as part of the perk war. I'm doing this because going to Burning Man … continues to be one of the most transformative and beneficial experiences of my life. I would not be the person that I am had I not gone to Burning Man,” Metcalf told Inc.
He views sending workers to Burning Man in the same vein as sending them to a professional development conference – in fact, he noted, there are literally hundreds of workshops offered every day at Burning Man, “on every topic you can imagine.” Granted, the event has more foam parties, electronic dance music, orgies, public nudity and psychedelic drugs than the average professional development conference – but Metcalf says that vision of Burning Man is vastly oversold. And besides, his employees are adults and able to chaperone themselves in the desert for a week.
And it should be noted that without Burning Man, Google/Alphabet might not exist in its current form. According to Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, the event is pretty much responsible for him ending up at Google in the first place.
“We all went to Burning Man together,” Schmidt told Stephen Colbert of the time way, way back when Google was more of an interesting concept than anything else, and the firm’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page really wanted to recruit Schmidt. After a week together on the playa, magic happened – though to this day, Schmidt is silent on the details.
And 15Five isn’t the first firm to use Burning Man as an out-of-the-box approach to a corporate retreat. In 2007, the social media startup Faceparty relocated nearly all of their team to Burning Man.
“It was very interesting, being there with a group of people who wouldn’t have been there on their own steam,” former employee Santiago Genochio recalled.
So, is it time to start planning the company retreat to the playa, or allocating the budget to send teams? Is this the best way to get on top of founding the next Google?
Not so fast – there are a few things to consider.
Not Every Group Building Experience Is Right for the Workplace
Wondering why you have never heard of Faceparty before? Well, about a year after the whole team went to Burning Man, the company went belly up, unable to compete in the rapidly consolidating social media environment. Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, didn’t make his maiden (and thus far only) journey to Burning Man until 2012, when Facebook was the dominant player in social media and he was a guest in a camp on “billionaire’s row.” Whatever value Burning Man had as a bonding experience, there might have been something to be said for staying home and building the social network rather than going out and socializing in the desert.
And not every Silicon Valley CEO shares Metcalf’s enthusiasm for sending workers into the desert for a week or two of fun on the corporate dime, since it sounds a bit like begging for trouble.
“That’s a horrible idea,” Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie said. “What about HR?”
A Box spokeswoman later walked back that comment a bit, saying Levi has no problem with Burning Man and wishes all burners the “best of luck.”
And, upon closer consideration, one might wonder if 15Five’s offer to its workers is actually quite the “tech firm makes Burning Man attendance mandatory” story that some new outlets have been reporting.
First of all, 15Five is not buying the tickets for their employees, but rather is letting employees expense their tickets after they buy them. That distinction is important, because tickets can be hard to come by. And the firm is only reimbursing the ticket price – the gas, food, costumes and everything else workers bring for the weekend is wholly on their own dime.
“We're not building a 15Five camp. We're saying this is an invitation to go have an experience that's famous for creating profound transformations for people,” Metcalf noted.
An invitation that, incidentally, not all that many people are actually accepting. After all, 15Five has not had to shut down for the last week and a half – because, according to Metcalf, only about four employees bought tickets. Everyone else is at work.
So is 15Five really trying to build a corporate culture of Burning Man enthusiasts because, as Metcalf said, they bring “a higher level of authenticity, self-expression and creativity?”
It is certainly possible – after all, anyone who has been to Burning Man 10 times in 12 years clearly believes in the mission.
But could it be that 15Five announced their Burning Man “perk” during the typically slow late-summer news cycle, in hopes that they might get some free advertising from all the news outlets?
That certainly seems possible.
But then, that is Burning Man: an expansive, extravagant and over-the-top celebration of communalism, anti-corporatism and living in accord with nature. It’s unsurprising that everything it touches has complicated – and perhaps ever-so-slightly conflicting – motivations.