Burning Man 2013
Serial entrepreneur and Haight district resident Richard Titus was
trying to finish a deal last year between his company and Yahoo, but he kept
butting heads with Yahoo's very stubborn London lawyer.
In late August, they both e-mailed each other to say they'd be on vacation and that this potentially doomed negotiation would just have to pause.
A few days later, Titus was riding shirtless on a dune buggy that had been decorated to look like a scorpion when an attractive young woman jumped in and sat on his lap. Slowly, he started to recognize her voice.
"I said, 'Don't freak out, but what do you do in the real world? Because I think we might know each other," he said. "She was like, 'I'm a lawyer at Yahoo, why?' "
"After that, I'll tell you what -- negotiations went much smoother," said Titus, who's in his mid-40s. "I like to think she even looked forward to my phone calls."
Burning Man, which gets under way Monday, is best known as a hedonistic week-long art festival 110 miles north of Reno on a dry lake called the playa. But almost imperceptibly over the last few years, it has become a place where CEOs, venture capitalists and startuppers can network (while wearing, at most, swimsuits). While neither money, branding nor barter are allowed, suddenly companies are getting funded, co-founders are meeting, and people are getting jobs right on the playa. Among the 68,000 costumed and dust-covered attendees are some unexpected names -- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg goes. So do Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. And Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Anarchists parking Priuses next to ramshackle tents and tarps are now sharing the sand with wealthy techies arriving, via private jets, at luxury desert camps fully staffed with cooks, masseuses and assistants.
Venture capitalist and legal scholar Dustin Boyer got a job while he was at Burning Man.
"How do you think I ended up working at Google? I met Larry and Sergey on the playa," said Boyer at a recent dinner party in the Mission District. "They were running around in full spandex bodysuits, so no one could see who they were -- it's hard to be a billionaire at Burning Man, even though there are so many of them."
Burning Man founders are happy about the changes -- even courting them. Those captains of tech also fund the enormous temporary art installations in the city center and support the Burning Man nonprofit efforts.
"What we're seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team," said Marian Goodell, Burning Man director of business and communications.
Like a corporate retreat?
"A little bit like a corporate retreat. The event is a crucible, a pressure cooker and, by design, a place to think of new ideas or make new connections."
She said that, contrary to what people may think, she is not particularly liberal and, as a sign of her conservative cred, added that "my sister's godfather is Antonin Scalia," t he staunchly conservative Supreme Court justice. "Burning Man on the outside has very liberal and socially strong principles, but I've been running it with very fiscally conservative policies."
These new burners, she said, are to be celebrated.
"If you're in the longtime Burning Man community, maybe it's easy to frown on certain types of people coming. But the more we have a variety of influencers -- folks from London and New York -- the better off we will be and the better off the Burning Man Project."
When Bear Kittay, 26, who runs a camp with an innovation theme, met five Israeli entrepreneurs in Barcelona, he told them to come to the desert. On the spur of the moment, the young men, founders of a virtual reality startup, took time off work and joined him.
On the playa, Kittay introduced them to Shervin Pishevar, managing partner of the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. And there, coated in desert dust, Pishevar agreed to lead the first round of funding -- $15 million.
That company, Shaker, won the prestigious TechCrunch Disrupt conference award for best new startup in 2011.
"It's a big testament to Burning Man," Goodell said.
At Burning Man, attendees often pick new names and wear costumes, which, some said, allows them to think more creatively about their careers.
Dr. Molly Maloof decided to quit her job as a pediatrician and go into digital health during her first trip to the playa.
"When I went to Burning Man, I was no longer a pediatrician. There were suddenly all these possibilities. The connections I've made there have helped me get every tech job since," she said. "People are like, you go to Burning Man to network? I'm like, listen, I go to Burning Man to have fun and meet people -- real networks are made from real friends."
Maloof, who is now helping to lead four health-related startups, thinks the connection between Burning Man and Silicon Valley is philosophical.
"The tech scene has this sense that you can do anything, build anything, no rules -- Burning Man is all about that, so it's a really conducive place for those conversations to start."
When Boyer, who calls himself a "venture communist," met the founders of Google at the festival, they "just talked and hit it off, as people first," Boyer said. "Burning Man is a space that is unconstrained by expectation."
The influx of capital is raising some concerns -- but only because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wants to tax it.
'The turnkey camp'
At Burning Man headquarters in downtown San Francisco, co-founder Larry Harvey, in dark aviators and black jeans, smokes Marlboros on the roof. He said the wealthy techies are bringing large staffs, which is drawing attention to Burning Man's increasing affluence.
"What people are noticing is the rise of the turnkey camp, where a whole economy of people come in to set up people's camps before the guests arrive and then stay as butlers, cooks, mercenary efforts," said Harvey, 65. "And now the BLM wants a cut of it."
This year, organizers will be conducting an extensive survey to identify exactly how many attendees are being paid to go as part of this burgeoning service economy. They'll have volunteers march through the city interviewing everyone who arrives before the event officially begins (if setting up art or particularly elaborate camps, you're allowed to show up early).
"We want to have conversations with some of the people who might be conducting business or hiring a staff," he said, but he doesn't want to intimidate the new tech philanthropists who are funding many of the art installations. "Well over $1 million in funding goes into the art. And we don't want to dictate how people live."
Titus, the Haight entrepreneur, was at the first Burning Man in 1986 -- when it was a messy party on Baker Beach (the ceremonial Burning Man didn't burn, and the cops were called).
"People always say, 'Don't you miss those old days?' And I'm like, 'No! No way.' Today it's way more interesting and powerful than ever."
He thinks the $380 festival ticket should count as a work expense.
"I've tried to write it off on my taxes for many years, considering how much business I get done out there. But my accountant won't let me."
Union Squared: Burning Man was a hot spot for couple, who returned to the festival to wed.
Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NellieBowles
(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
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