At last year's Burning Man, a prominent tech investor was attacked by ninjas. "They were just a bunch of people dressed up as ninjas, riding around on bikes," says Garry Tan, Y Combinator partner and co-founder of Posthaven.com. "They yelled out 'ninja! ninja!' and then they tapped me lightly on the arm." As quickly as they'd appeared, the ninjas were gone. The bikes had been provided by Google as a gift to the festival.
The 28th incarnation of the Burning Man festival kicks off next week, but it’s come a long way from its origins as a performance-art celebration of radical self-reliance. Attendees build their own camps, cook their own food, and the exchange of money for goods is strictly forbidden. You’ll still see the gonzo art that gave Burning Man its reputation — but now there’s another, more business-minded element arriving from the tech world. So many venture capitalists attend the festival that it's said to be the worst week of the year for startups to try to fundraise.
Last year, Sergey Brin was visible on the Playa wearing a silver bodysuit
Both Sergey Brin and Larry Page are avid Burners, and they've joked about hiring Eric Schmidt as CEO because he was the only candidate who'd been to the festival. Last year, Brin was visible on the Playa wearing a silver bodysuit, and Page has spoken of Black Rock City as a model for the kind of techno-libertarian experimental space he wants to establish.
There’s no official word on whether Brin and Page will be headed to Black Rock for the festival next week, but even if they don’t, there will be plenty of luminaries in their place. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has attended, and there are rumors that last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made an art car for the festival. This year will also see Burning Man's third on-site TED conference, with speeches by "inspirational change agents" on the theme of paradigm shifts.
Zuckerberg helicoptered in for a day
Smaller companies have also gotten in on the action. Keen.io is an app analytics company that's taken in nearly a million dollars in funding from valley players like Techstars and 500 Startups — but next week they'll be setting up shop as "Amazecamp," with a walk-through aquarium and solar-powered speaker cart. Last year, they were right next to the Facebook camp, and saw when Zuckerberg helicoptered in for a day to help fry some artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. "They had a really nice setup. You can tell they're well funded," says Michele Wetzler, engineer for Keen.io. "There was a piano."
In 2011, Elon Musk was caught staying at a turnkey RV camp
But as tech players and tech money have headed to Burning Man, the festival has also seen a rise in so-called "turnkey camps" that let users write a check to skip out on camp duties like construction or trash collection. In 2011, Elon Musk was caught staying at a turnkey RV camp, which he paid to have stocked with Gatorade and rum. According to Derek Dukes, a 14-year Burning Man veteran, the situation has become increasingly common as the festival attracts a wealthier and busier audience. "For them, I think it's a resource-allocation problem. They look at the cost-benefit of what it would take for them to navigate the Burning Man process, compared to just writing a check," Dukes says. "It switches it from radical self-reliance to this new model where you show up and someone at the camp is going to look out for you."
"It forces you to think, to pivot, to finish."
The concern that business would spoil the fun was particularly strong among the startup crowd. Chris Messina, widely credited as the godfather of the hashtag, says he thinks Black Rock deserves better. "There's a Silicon Valley culture, and I think there's a give and take with Burning Man there," Messina says, "but I'm frankly afraid of the idea of 'startup culture' (whatever that is) affecting Burning Man. Burning Man seems to be closer to an idealized kind of experience than the high-stress, dog-eat-dog world of Startupville we inhabit."
Of course, that doesn’t mean eager entrepreneurs can’t pick up some life-hacking skills to be used on their businesses when they get back home. "It gets things started," says UX designer John Sutton. "It forces you to think, to pivot, to finish, to gauge satisfaction from the end user."
The anti-capitalist spirit has also made overt networking something of a faux pas. One source described a tech figure asking where he worked within a minute of meeting him, which "took me off guard despite being in the company of many Valley people." But for the most part, the taboo on networking is self-enforced. People are there to break out of routines, not to entrench them. As another Valley Burner put it, "This isn’t South by Southwest."
Adrianne Jeffries contributed to this report.