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How A Burning Man Camp Project Became A Multimillion-Dollar Business

Thousands of $1,500 Shiftpod shelters have been sold, and are being used in disaster relief areas globally. Now the company has its own cryptocurrency.

How A Burning Man Camp Project Became A Multimillion-Dollar Business
Further Future Festival [Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]

It began in the middle of the night: a nagging idea that Christian Weber couldn’t shake. That there had to be a better way. That he had the better way.

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After 20-plus years camping in a million different ways at Burning Man, the annual 70,000-person summer arts festival held in Nevada’s hot and windy-as-hell Black Rock Desert, in 2014, Weber came across something new: a friend’s hexayurt.

Increasingly popular on the playa (shorthand for the Black Rock Desert), the hexagonal shelter offers insulation, complete darkness, and respite from the withering heat or bitter cold. That helps explain why there are now well over 1,000 hexayurts in use every year at Burning Man. Weber loved the structure, the way several people could fit inside, and how cool the inside temperature was. He considered building one for the following year’s event, when he would lead a Burning Man camping group of 350 people.

Further Future Festival [Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]
Then the doubts started. He worried about how long it would take to put a hexayurt together, that they’re fragile and hard to store, and that you need a truck to transport them. So Weber, who at the time owned an oil company that deployed an environmentally friendly alternative to fracking, concentrated on planning his camp. He forgot about hexayurts.

Four months later, in the dead of night, he woke up at his home in Napa, California, his brain afire with inspiration. “I couldn’t get the idea out of my head,” Weber tells me during a recent interview. “I started to think about [adapting] the walls of a hexayurt together so they fold up into one piece. I thought about doing it with fabric. I got my origami book out and did some drawings.”

The result was the Shiftpod, a sturdy, insulated, easy-to-construct camping shelter that weighs 64 pounds but transports easily. At 77-by-13-by-13 inches, it’s big enough to fit a queen-sized bed and plenty of gear. Most people can stand up in it.

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Originally, Weber planned on making a limited number of Shiftpods for campmates. He told his friends what he was doing and posted an online order form, thinking that maybe 30 people might want one at about $800 a pop. “Someone leaked it on Facebook,” he says. From there, he adds, “people were sending me money, people I didn’t even know . . . that year, we delivered 300 units out to the playa.”

Arriving in the desert that August, in 2015, I saw a Shiftpod for the first time. As someone who, like Weber, had explored countless Burning Man camping methods, I was intrigued by how a Shiftpod could both keep the dust out and be set up in less than five minutes. It looked like a lunar habitat–conversation piece!–and you didn’t freeze overnight. There’s nothing else like it. So prior to Burning Man 2016, I bought one.

In my camp alone last year, there were five Shiftpods and more than 1,000 on the playa. By then, Weber had sold his green-fracking operation and launched Advanced Shelter Systems Inc. (ASSI), the Napa-based company that’s turned his late-night Burning Man lodging idea into a multimillion-dollar business whose market extends far beyond the U.S. festival circuit—so far, in fact, that it requires an entirely new currency.

[Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]

From Festival Hut To Rescue Shelter

Napa is most famous for being one of the world’s great wine-growing regions. Yet even a place dominated by miles of stunningly beautiful wineries has its share of nondescript office parks. And on a recent summer morning, I’m sitting in one with Weber to hear about everything that’s happened with Shiftpods over the last couple of years.

Although the shelters were built with Burning Man’s uncompromising conditions in mind, Weber told me that Burning man attendees, or “Burners,” now make up less than half of his customers. Attendees of other festivals have become dedicated buyers, as evidenced by a photo on the wall of a couple hundred Shiftpods set up at Further Future, an elite music and lifestyle event that the Wall Street Journal says should definitely not be called “Burning Man for billionaires.”

Originally sold for $800, Shiftpods have now progressed to a 2.0 model, and are currently available on sale for $1,299, down from their full price of $1,499. ASSI has also introduced a Shiftpod Mini (“A 110-pound [woman] can put that over her shoulder, hike that into a festival, take it on a plane,” Weber says) and a tunnel system that links two Shiftpods together.

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But Weber’s story doesn’t end with the sale of thousands of high-end tents to festival goers. He remembers that when he returned home from Burning Man 2015, a fire was raging in Northern California that eventually killed four people, destroyed more than 2,000 buildings in several towns, and displaced thousands.

“I got back in my car and drove back to Burning Man [and] retrieved 20 Shiftpods . . . from storage,” he said. “We washed them, cleaned them, and rehabbed them” with the intent of donating them to the NGO that was coordinating relief efforts.

But he was rebuffed–the NGO only wanted money. Eventually, Weber donated a few Shiftpods to individual families, but the experience gave him a quick education in the realities of bureaucracy and process on the ground after disasters.

[Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]

A Place For The Displaced

From the beginning, ASSI had committed to giving away one Shiftpod for every 20 it sold. But now, Weber was inspired by a larger need for shelters for disaster and emergency management. “There’s 53.4 million forcibly displaced in the world right now because of wars and politics,” Weber says. “A lot of them are living in shanty shacks with blue tarps, so we’re trying to create a low-cost, easy-to-ship, easy-to-set-up unit that people can live in for up to five years.”

You can find ASSI shelters all around the world. They’re in Haiti, Japan, and Nepal. In Greece, they’ve been used to warm up refugees as soon as they emerge from the ocean. Weber says ASSI worked with a software company to donate 200 Shiftpods to the city of Honolulu for disaster response and to help house the homeless in the Nation of Hawaii. And last year, when a hurricane was bearing down on Florida, Weber got a call asking for a thousand units. “We had a few hundred,” he says. “We put them on a trailer and were ready to go.”

This past June, 40 local, state, and federal agencies got together in Cape Blanco, Oregon, for Operation Triton 32, an emergency management exercise geared toward training the military, police, and other local first responders in this remote area to prepare for what could someday be a catastrophic earthquake.

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ASSI was asked to bring some of its Shiftpods and new products, including the Shelterpod and Responsepod.

“We were pretty impressed as a whole,” says Jordan Fanning, the emergency operations center coordinator for the town of Brookings, Oregon. “Our first experience was meeting at the airport, and we hadn’t planned for [rain]. It was going to be an outdoor meeting. All of a sudden, there was a downpour. We had a Shiftpod. We ended up using it as our makeshift meeting room.”

Shelterpod container system. [Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]
But what everyone involved in the exercise really liked was how easy it was to set up the Shiftpods, Shelterpods, and Responsepods, especially for volunteers with no experience. “That’s really nice, when people can just figure it out on their own,” Fanning says. “You can’t really do that with a lot of the [bigger] shelter companies. There’s lots and lots of pieces, and you have to fit them together.”

Even better, folks from a couple of the Air Force agencies that were on hand appreciated the pods because they could be quickly set up after being flown in on helicopters. “When the Chinook landed,” Weber says, “we could set up a unit before the rotor blades even stopped turning.” 

And Shiftpods are sturdy: The force of the rotors never blew any of them down. (In a test at John Brown University in April, one of the shelters was put in front of a giant fan and subjected to increasingly strong winds. Only when gusts hit 109 miles an hour did the pod break loose and go flying.)

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Fanning says the city of Brookings is considering buying several dozen Shiftpods as a way to ensure that essential employees have shelter in the event of a major quake. “If we could stick 40 to 50 of these in [a shipping container],” he says, “then we have the ability to respond to the incident [quickly] without having to wait for FEMA or the state.”

[Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]
As Weber sees it, one of the biggest challenges in disaster response is that many of the organizations that spring into action end up competing with each other for resources. The result, he says, can be long delays before supplies arrive and hoards of people being forced to hole up in sports arenas, schools, or other big buildings with nothing more than blankets and whatever else they could grab from their homes in a hurry.

He wants to find a solution for that. “Our goal is to set up kits for individuals to take with them that have a shelter, water filtration, and everything you need for a family of four to survive for 30 days,” Weber says. “And to build systems for up to 1,600 people [that can be stored] in one container.”

An obvious customer would be large companies in earthquake zones (like Silicon Valley) that have big parking lots and plenty of space to both store and set up emergency shelters. “You could literally walk out the door, pop open the [container] doors, and set up camp,” Weber says. “All the systems—radio, satellite communications—spool up, turn on, and you’ve got a disaster camp in a box.”

He calls this the Shelterpod Disaster Camp, and you can draw a straight line between it and his Burning Man camp. The kits, Weber says, are “basically our 40-foot shipping container that we use at Burning Man. And every year we unload our camp out of the container and use our container as our kitchen. It literally has fold-down tables [and] air conditioning . . . and when we’re all done, we throw it back in the container, and it’s ready to go for next year.” ASSI would lease the kits to companies or agencies, or donate them to organizations that need them when disasters strike. 

[Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]

Sheltercoin

While ASSI is willing to eat some of the costs of its donations, it’s still a for-profit business with a bottom line. That’s why, in searching for ways to help subsidize costs, the company created an all-new cryptocurrency.

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Meant to be launched in the coming weeks, ASSI’s Sheltercoin will be modeled after Bitcoin and similar systems. If enough value can be vested in Sheltercoin, ASSI would be able to recoup a lot of the donated funds, even as it helps streamline the process for putting money into the hands of those on the ground in disaster areas.

To start, ASSI will hold what’s known as an initial coin offering, or ICO, in which people will buy Sheltercoin with dollars. In conjunction, the company plans to offer Shiftpod customers “steep discounts” if they buy with Sheltercoin instead of dollars.

If a significant number of people buy Shiftpods with the cryptocurrency, Weber hopes, that will prop up Sheltercoin, and ideally raise the currency’s value. The more the value increases, he reasons, the lower ASSI’s true costs on the Shiftpods it donates. “The more people use the coin, the higher the value of the coin, because there’s a limited quantity,” Weber says. “The higher the value, the more equipment we can purchase, the more people we can train, and the more product we can have ready to ship.”

At the same time, Weber hopes to be able to use Sheltercoin as a way to put money in the hands of relief workers who would otherwise have to wait days, or even a week or more, to receive funds sent through traditional methods. “With blockchain [the technology underlying the cryptocurrency], I can send it right to somebody’s phone,” Weber says. “And they can take it to a local company that takes bitcoin for cash and transfer the funds to them in exchange for the local currency.”

Currency exchangers, he adds, are often some of the first people to arrive in emergency situations.

Will it work? Weber thinks so, arguing that Sheltercoin could be the first cryptocurrency backed by a solid company with a global mission and an actual product. He believes a lot of new cryptocurrencies are nothing more than an idea or concept. “We are a well-established company with a hot product going into a huge market,” he said. “So we should be able to create a lot of demand for the coin.”

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Heather Vescent, a futurist and expert in alternative currencies, agrees that the thirst for cryptocurrencies these days is “ridiculous.”

Vescent, who doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of ASSI’s plans, lauds the company’s strategy for building a cryptocurrency around its social values. But she cautioned that ASSI and those using Sheltercoin would have to be disciplined and not allow the coin to be used in ways that are counter to those values.

And while she noted that there’s plenty of potential for a new coin to have huge gains, volatility in the cryptocurrency market could very easily lead to big losses for Sheltercoin’s backers.

[Photo: courtesy of Advanced Shelter Systems]
Weber is aware of the risks and is ready to shoulder losses should Sheltercoin collapse. But he’s convinced it’s the best way to propel ASSI’s mission of getting the company’s shelters where they need to be–and in turn, helping as many people as possible.

As for when he will launch the ICO, he says he’d initially kicked around the idea of doing it the same night that the Man (Burning Man’s namesake effigy) burns. The festival, and its community, he says, are “our roots, so we’re not going to forget where we came from.”

“I always thought going to Burning Man was my release and my hobby,” Weber continues. “Now I’m able to take a lot of stuff I’ve learned out there and turn it into a product I can share with the world, and help a lot of people not only have fun, but who need help and shelter.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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