Is Burning Man Just Work?

It’s that time of year again. Summer is over for most people and has just begun for San Francisco. And this week, the city becomes emptier than a VC parking lot at 5 p.m. as many of SF’s denizens head to Burning Man, a festival that celebrates human expression — importing over 70,000 people to Black Rock City, Nevada, to party.

And because many of these “burners” work in the tech industry, notably Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Drew Houston, the festival has a hoard of tech press attending this year.

Nick Bilton, from his relevant new post at New York Times Fashion & Style, has already written about how the tech nouveau riche are using the conference as some sort of Versailles. He referred in that article to a $25K per head posh camp that boasts a suspect 2:1 servant-to-camp member ratio.

Because the attendee line-up is better than your average tech conference, Re/code is sending someone to cover it, VentureBeat is sending someone to cover it, Valleywag is sending someone to cover it, and we, in addition to the die-hard TC burners who attend of their own volition, are also sending someone to cover it.

One of our writers is in a camp with three other tech bloggers. “Great. You all can write about each other,” I said when she mentioned it.

Gore Vidal (or perhaps Leonard Cohen?) once said that you need to try drugs to be able to write convincingly about them, so I was a burner a couple of years ago just so I could one day express a well-informed opinion on the subject — and have fun. I didn’t see any of the crap that Bilton wrote about even though I had a relatively fancy, at least upper-middle class, experience.

As ridiculous as it seems, there is a rationale behind the pile on of investors, founders and executives that use the festival as a networking opportunity: Yes, you can win “deals” at Burning Man. Yes, it’s easier to ace a job interview when you’ve glowed and tripped and watched a burning effigy of Wall Street with the hiring manager. After all, Eric Schmidt got his Google job because he could hang.

Don’t hate the Playa, hate the game.

Think about it this way, startup people: Have you taken something that was supposed to be a spiritual experience, an opportunity to commune with nature and your fellow man, and turned it into work?

I’m not talking about legitimate work like the thousands of hours spent building art cars or icebergs or cheese sandwich restaurants in the desert, or the months of coordination and planning it takes to set up a well-functioning camp, I’m talking about work like positioning yourself in front of your bosses and/or deal flow and trying to build sources. Networking is networking, whether you’re exchanging business cards or Ecstasy.

So ask yourself as you push your bedazzled bike across the white sands of Nevada: Am I here to party or am I here because I think it’ll benefit my career? Could I justifiably expense this? If your answer to the latter is yes, consider not going. Go to Hawaii instead.

Image by Bryce Durbin; cyclist silhouettes via Shutterstock