Fast Company

How CEOs Do Burning Man

For about $10,000, Keith Ferrazzi offers C-suiters a version of the weeklong Nevada desert freak fest (which started Monday), complete with direct flights and a kitchen staff, of course. Could it be the new corporate retreat?

Billionaire executives have the luxury of vacationing anywhere in the world. And yet in recent years, Burning Man, the weeklong party held in the Black Rock Desert--it’s part electronic craft fair, part pagan cult, part rave--has attracted the world's premier tech leaders. Facebookers (rumored to include Mark Zuckerberg himself) and the entire executive team at Google have joined the dreadlocked of hair, the tattooed of face, and the pierced of nipple. Cofounder Larry Page was reportedly spotted one year in a skintight, shiny silver onesie.

Why?

There’s the urge for suits to hang with the cool kids, of course. And in recent years, the cultural oddity of Silicon Valley bohemians has flourished. But for the most part, the business elite aren’t strapping on thongs and diving into the throngs. They’re watching the Burn from a bubble, and possibly discovering their next big ideas in the process.

"If you are into creation and design, Burning Man is not a bad place to go for inspiration," says Keith Ferrazzi, author a Never Eat Alone, founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research and consulting firm based in Los Angeles; and the creator of a Burning Man camp for C-suiters. His guests spend about $10,000 for a week’s stay in relatively secluded areas and fly directly in and out of Black Rock City airport, where they're greeted by Ferrazzi’s staff. The camp itself (which Ferrazzi says turns no profit) employs a professional kitchen staff of 25 (including a sushi chef whom Ferrazzi says worked for Wolfgang Puck) in a custom kitchen Airstream designed especially for the experience. Plus, there are two water trucks, a full generator system, and, of course, fine dinner settings for chowing down on gourmet meals. But in keeping with the gathering’s communal spirit, no one is ever turned away from the camp itself. Any participant, could, in theory, leech off the camp for the entire week (only a few have abused the generosity over the years).

The camp, the dinner table, the Buddha.

Guests of Ferrazzi might enjoy structured activities (Ferrazzi employs a person year-round to plan his camp). But, aside from safety and structural concerns, Burning Man itself is a loose situation. When it comes to the art and experiences there, it’s a living exercise in crowdsourcing—the principle behind some of Silicon Valley’s most valued products. In an interview with a participant who piloted an early version of Google Maps at Burning Man, Google Engineer Michael Favor explained [PDF], "The power of Google is that they don’t do all the work. People posting content do. The same is true here at Burning Man. Citizens create the vast majority of things." In an example of the "Gift Economy" at Black Rock, someone might just give away her body-painting or lecturing skills only to later find a free doobie passed her way. And is that so different from the experience on Facebook, with whom you freely share scads of valuable personal data, only to be pleasantly surprised later by a picture of your distant cousin’s new twins?

In exchange for learning more from Ferrazzi about why CEOs are attending Burning Man, we agreed not to reveal his guests’ names. Here’s what he shared.

Burn Notice

"Nobody goes expecting a spiritual experience," admits Ferrazzi, who says that the executives' initial motivation is just to satisfy their curiosity itch or earn the badge of coolness that comes with attendance.

Indeed, Google Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired now-Chairman Eric Schmidt based in part on their common love for the Burn.

"Larry and I searched for over a year, and managed to alienate 50 of the top executives in Silicon Valley. Eric was experienced and the only one who went to Burning Man. Which we thought was an important criterion. He's a great cultural fit. We hang out together. We discuss and decide on stuff together. More companies should look at cultural fit," said Brin, in an interview supposedly transcribed by former Harvard Berkman Fellow, Doc Searls in 2002.

Attendance is proof that an executive would spend his or her valuable time in the inescapable creative anarchy of the quirky art festival. "Attending there is different between paying lip service to saying you want creative people in the company and actually showing that you genuinely appreciate creative people," says Ferazzi camp alum, James Schroer, the former head of marketing at Chrysler and Ford.

Adopt-A-Weirdo

Burning Man, first and foremost, is a festival for the proverbial right-brained. Cut off from the grid in the desert, there isn’t much of a schedule to abide by. Meetings are far less formal. And a “hard stop” means something completely different here than it does on a conference call.

Hordes of elaborately costumed Burners roam the grounds of themed camps in trucks-turned-art cars. At night, art cars are transformed into makeshift multistory techno dance clubs-slash-conga lines. Burners are advised to wear blinking lights so as to avoid getting hit, as the cars wind haphazardly over the grounds, often with drug-fueled partiers gyrating behind them.

In other words, Burning Man is a happy anarchy. The kind Silicon Valley likes to celebrate. Google Doodle was conceived at Burning Man.

Among the many planned activities at Ferrazzi's Camp, participants are asked to spend time with the most outrageous person they can find—call it a weirdo internship. The goal is to help them break their own stereotypes and find value in a person they ordinarily would have dismissed as crazy.

Ferazzi says his attendees develop a newfound appreciation for the creatives on their teams. He recalls one executive who came back from Burning Man and liberated his designers from the business development team. "He got more return on innovation from that group when he trusted and respected that group to unleash its creativity," Ferrazzi says.

[Image: Flickr user Ilovetrees]

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36 Comments

  • Charles Sotelo

    It seems like the perfect place to hear a wackjob blab about crazy ideas then go home and take credit for it.

  • Jorge Pesqueira

    Hi do you know if there are any camps this year offering the same type of package? Been "roughing it" for the last five years and would like to try it a different way this year and compare

  • tmachine2point0

    Been to the Burn 9 times, stopped going when it became such a hassle to get in and then out afterwards. Also it was starting to offer corporate sponsorships a while ago, maybe they stopped that since I've stopped going.

    But here's an interesting fact or two to ponder: Larry Harvey has a chef and camp crew when he's on the playa, and he will stay in the hotel in Gerlach
    sometimes too. Met him there myself.

    And fyi, Burning Man LLC is a for profit business.

    Perhaps what these corporate types are there to find out is just how
    does he get all that volunteer labor to build his money making playground each year!

    Pretty amazing experience just the same, and when I can afford the flight and pre-filled, delivered and removed RV, I will go back. Burn on how ever you choose.

  • Cassiopoea

    Well, so what?  Plenty of rich people come and build amazing stuff for us all to enjoy.  Here's the thing, though... too many plug-and-play camps and corporate retreaters will eventually lead to less theme camps - the supply of tickets IS limited, so if these rich people buy up all of them, they will eventually one day arrive to a Burning Man that has only plug-and-play camps, little art, no cutting-edge music and no soul.  So... there ya have it.  And when that happens, they'll stop coming, and the po folk can have the event back.  It IS an experiment in a temporary society, after all.  

  • Stuartstuarts

    Uhhh I dont mean to get all 'I moved to oakland because of the tech buses' here (and i didn't) or the notion of Silicon Valley, "we are changing the world" one purchased internet gaming cow at a time. I understand its a tech based web site but fuck talk about some apps or the like. Maybe something that helped people connect during the festival or document a couple of people testing new gear. Oh for instance I would love to read an article on a journalist who went to burning man with a pebble watch and he/she would have wrote a funny observant article with timeline pictures included. No need to stir shit for the sake of it but I guess I spent the time commenting so you've stirred sum'it

  • Listfull

    Everyone is welcome at BM, including these guys. My only problem with it is whether they are giving back to the community. They are free to "take" inspiration from BM participants, but in my opinion, it's only fair if they are also "giving" something. What that is is up to them, whether they want to give away food and drink, host a party, or give something more hands-on. I can hope that what they do take home with them will change them for the better, may open their eyes to other ways of being and interacting. I'm sure many will not be changed, but will only use the experience to come up with new ideas for how to brand and market to people better, but hopefully at least some of them may change as people and become more reflective on what their role in society is.
    But yeah, as long as they are giving as much as taking I have no problem, but if they are just there to take, then fuck them. It's the gifting that makes BM different from other festivals/parties.

  • Muymalo

    $650 + "applicable fees" to sit in a hot ass desert and work with people who bitch about the fact you didn't build your own tent? Gee, sign me up kids.

  • GoldenBoy

    You get out what you contribute, and that does not include writing huge checks. BM is not just a big party, it is a gift economy and is about being part of something bigger and participating. Sorry CEOs, you all SUCK.  STAY HOME PLEASE!

  • Dybarro

     its ironic as you not only contribute to the machine yourself- i assume you are typing from some sort of technical device and this is not telepathically driven...your purchase behavior only contributes to the CEOS and other corporate american profits.  we are all part of the machine-  unless you walk or ride to burning man, live off the grid, make your own food and clothes you and everyone else including myself are all a part of it and pay into it with our dollars. we are a consumerist nation who is one to judge another in all of this.

  • Dcollins

    Indeed the irony is quite impressive!  Next year there will no doubt be a $100k $50k and $25k levels, perhaps with corporate naming rights and a store. 

  • Weid

    Why is it ok for some top ranked dj to show up and play but not for these guys? I've heard stories that some of the djs get paid for tickets and flights etc (don't know for sure just rumors). But I know its all relative. I've had people look down on me cause I was in an rv and someone made a comment about a guy not dressed up to later find out he built this massive art structure. If it gets you there cool... if there are specific issues of them being dicks than lets discuss that

  • Syren

    People who say rich people ruin everything or that these CEOs are missing the point are just jealous or something. It's absurd and awesome that they are drinking from crystal or whatever and flying in. Burning Man is a big party in the desert, not a religion or something. Nobody, not even me after going 13 years in a row and having been knocked down by the dynamite they used to keep in the haystacks at the base of the man in the first few years, gets to tell anyone what Burning Man is, should be or shouldn't be. If you are inclined to go, then go. Do it your way. Have an amazing experience unlike any other ever. If you're there, then it's your burn too.

    Rich people get to do stuff we don't. And I'm happy for them.Long live Black Rock City!

  • Sparkle

    I have been to Burning Man twice and although I may not be dubbed a veteran, I do not understand the backlash against the CEO types. Yeah...I agree with you all...I've welded, helped with chores around camp and have tried to participate as much as possible, when and where I can.  I spent hours walking around the playa close to BRC and deep past the temple perusing all the amazing art.  I've wandered into random camps close to the esplanade and around the outskirts (anything past the F circle) and chatted and befriended an awesome and weird assortment of motley friends.  You could also find me dancing around with my dusty family at Distrikt, Disorient or chasing Robot Heart.  I have my memories of returning home exhausted, spiritually fulfilled, and revving with new ideas about how I can make my next visit even more amazing.  I have my misgivings about the 'turnkey' camp phenomenon but I for one am glad the CEO types even want to attend.  I think the CEO types should try to be more driven to actually partipate as well, but ultimately I am happy to share this experience with them.  Otherwise how can they even begin to understand the Burner culture without having some kind of introduction to it?  Hopefully somewhere down the line they'll jump in and participate in some way.  Maybe it will affect positive change in their hearts.  Some veterans always complain about how big and how different the burn is from when they first went but ultimately every burn will always be different and to them last year will always be the best burn.  I say your experience at Burning Man is whatever you make it and I am not opposed to sharing it with anyone, blue collar or CEO-type alike.

  • Lara Feltin

    I love this article for the pure irony of it!

    I'm an 8-year veteran (first burn 2001). Five of those years were spent camping with a 70-person theme camp on the Esplanade, where the summer months were filled with work parties creating an interactive art piece that we gifted to the Playa.

    I've also traveled first class on the QE2. Which means I'm a big fan of 5-star treatment and there lies the irony.

    The Burning Man tenant of Radical Self Expression is joined by Radical Self Reliance and Radical Participation. Tourists are frowned upon because their participation rarely strays beyond observing others' participation, and any watered-down attempts to join in dilute the experience for those of us who come prepared to immerse ourselves fully in the weirdness. 

    There's nothing intrinsically wrong with flying into BRC in a private plane, eating meals prepared by Wolfgang Puck and embarking on the quest to Adopt-a-Weirdo. In fact the irony of each of those is brilliantly aligned with the spirit of Burning Man. 

    (I was attended a 5-course meal on the Playa complete with white table linens and glass stemware -- prepared by a Michelin chef -- where everyone in attendance was wearing some variation of a rabbit costume.)

    But it's like spending a week in Rome at the Hilton, catching some ruins through the window of a tour bus, and eating Americanized spaghetti at the hotel restaurant, then coming home and saying you totally "get" Italy. There's a million ways to experience Italy and a short trip to Rome is more authentic than a stay at Caesar's Palace in Vegas, but it could be argued that your trip was a far cry from any "true" Italian experience.

  • Hetta

    yeah, you see the problem is that the corporate culture is born nurtured and fed by money.

    Burning man not so much.

    corporate culture where can't be your "natural self," as human beings with all your quirks and uncorporate culture habits need to be safely hidden under a suit.

    Burning man is kind of the opposite.

    Also - if you want to go down the rabbit hole - do it - with mushrooms

  • Makese

    Going to Burning Man with "a professional kitchen staff of 25" is ridiculous.  The whole point is to leave civilization behind and enjoy a week of the experience, the people and just enjoying being alive.  If anyone thinks this article sums up what Burning Man is all about, stay at a Holiday Inn because you'll never make it in the Black Rock Desert.