Take Two for August 27, 2013

Burning Man: A great place to meet a venture capitalist?

Burning Man

Brad Horn/AP

A rainbow is cast over the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., during the Burning Man festival on Friday, Aug. 31, 2007.

This week, a dry lake bed North of Reno is crowded with hedonists, retro-hippies and counterculturists: It's the annual Burning Man Festival.

A fixture in the Black Rock Desert since 1990, Burning Man is a celebration of community, self-reliance and expression. 

One of the central features of the gathering, which now draws as many as 60,000 participants, is its anti-commercial attitude. You won't find any giant billboards or corporate sponsors, and the emphasis is on giving, rather than selling.

Still, there is some pretty high level commerce taking place in Black Rock City. Along with the great and often literally unwashed, there are some big names who are regulars at Burning Man. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  The Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.  Tesla's Elon Musk.  

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Nellie Bowles has been writing about the evolution of Burning Man, where anarchists mix with tech entrepreneurs looking for a quick injection of cash.  And, she says, surprisingly, the organizers of the festival don't have any problem with the deal-making

Interview Highlights:

On why tech titans attracted to Burning Man:
"At Burning Man you have a lot of people who, in the real world, are separated out by different forces, and at Burning Man they can all kind of come together. And I think it would be a little bit hard to be a billionaire at Burning Man perhaps because you'd get approached all the time. Everyone would be wanting to chat you up.[Google founders] Larry and Sergei…wore full body spandex suits where it covers their faces too so it just looks like little spandex creatures roaming around, which is pretty normal. You can talk to people in a more human way than you would in a conference room and people are realizing that."

On how Burning Man organizers feel about the networking happening on the Playa:
"I went into those interviews thinking that they'd be upset by all of the people who've been telling me they were getting jobs on the playa, but in fact, the organizers were happy about it. They thought it was kind of hilarious and they thought that it was the natural progression of the Burning Man movement. What they're doing is not going out and camping. They're trying to build a city and so to have business and commerce moves in there kind of makes sense."

On the similarities between the tech industry and Burning Man:
"They're both super idealistic, they're both really creative and they're both a little bit insular. I talked to a lot of people who talked about themselves as communications ninjas rather than PR person. That kinds of language and playfulness comes from burning man."

On how Burning Man can make business deals happen:
"This guy who I meet at a dinner party, Richard Titus, he was telling me about this deal he was working on with a lawyer from Yahoo!. This super stubborn lady in London who he was emailing with and the emails were going nowhere.

"So eventually they both email each other and say they're going to be on vacation and the deal might be doomed, but it's going to have to pause no matter what. So he is riding on a dune buggy that has been decorated to look like a scorpion, when a young woman jumps on and they start talking. Soon she's sitting on his lap and he recognizes her voice because they've been talking on the phone. He's like, 'Don't freak out, but what do you do in the real world? I think we know each other.' She's like, 'I'm a lawyer at Yahoo!, why?'

"Apparently she jumped off his lap as soon as he told her who he was, but then she was like, you know what, whatever. They go back to their respective cities and the deal goes through. "

On the likelihood of Burning Man opening up to advertisers:
"They're pretty careful about actual branding. I think that would be a big leap, but things change and the leadership is turning over soon. Especially as they look to fund more sophisticated art projects, which they've been doing every year. You're going to see more of a push for funding."


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