At Burning Man while your startup burns

There’s a difference between clearing your head, and ditching your dying startup to do drugs in the desert. If your ship is sailing smoothly, a vacation full of solitary introspection and artful inspiration could help you improve your decision-making. But if you’re using time off to escape your responsibilities rather than prepare to fulfill them, you’re endangering your company and the loyalty teammates will show you in the future.

Whether you’re going to Burning Man, Ibiza, SXSW, or some big international tech conference, the message you send is the same. If your startup isn’t succeeding, you’re skipping out on the dirty work while hoping some miracle revelation or networking connection will save you. And it probably won’t.

I’ve attended Burning Man for 10 years, and seen all levels of tech execs from unicorn CEOs to scrappy Y Combinator founders having fun in the dust. Some well-oiled startups even let the majority of their staff attend while a skeleton crew keeps the servers online. Burning while running a business can be done responsibly.

For those less familiar, Burning Man is when 70,000 people build a temporary city of tents and RVs in the Nevada desert where no money is exchanged, and instead everyone seeks to gift strangers with giant art installations, workshops, food, drinks, and celebrations. The typical day involves biking between huge sculptures and experiencing the provisions of different camps before dancing all night to booming DJ sets surrounded by people in LED-adorned costumes. And as the sun rises, the citizens stare out into the empty horizon, their inner fears and aspirations crystalized by the blank canvas.

Black Rock City, a gathering of approximately 70,000 people that is created annually for the Burning Man arts and music festival. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

You might expect some of the richer Silicon Valley attendees to show up in posh buses and refuse to lift a finger as they flit about like tourists. And indeed, some do. But I’ve also watched as billionaires cook grilled cheese sandwiches for passersby in the scorching sun, legendary hackers crawling in the dust to fix complex light art pieces, and elite project managers organizing logistics to keep hundreds of their friends healthy while they each give their unique talents to the burn.

In fact, Burning Man can be an exhibition for a startup’s technology. Nuvation Engineering’s Disco Fish art car features self-driving features to prevent it from hitting reveling pedestrians. And the talk of the 2017 burn was the Tree Of Tenere, and its thousands of LED leaves built by lighting fixture startup Symmetry Labs. [Disclosure: I helped the Tree team with fundraising, and Symmetry CEO Alexander Green and I were childhood friends.]

The Playa Players Collective orchestra plays Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” accompanied by ballet and fire dancers beneathe the “Tree of Tenere” art project powered by Symmetry Labs.

But I get a sinking feeling when I notice or hear about the leaders of a struggling startup trying to dance or dose away their troubles. There are certainly opportunities for epiphanies, connections, and stimulus at Burning Man and similar events, but they come at high costs when they might be attained more efficiently elsewhere.

Being out of a contact for several days to a week since there’s no reliable cellular connection and a stigma against phone use creates a decision-making bottleneck that can slow down your company. The massive required preparation and grueling physical exertion due to the harsh weather conditions can leave attendees distracted before and exhausted after the event. And since Burning Man is about gifting art and experiences, the effort one puts in can easily be mistaken for or used as satisfying procrastination for real work.

If you want to clear your head, take a meditation class where you live. If you want to network, ask your closest colleagues and long-lost acquaintances for introductions to people who can actually help. And if you want energy, catch up on sleep, eat healthy, and plan a night out with friends — not a week.

“I was helping co-organize a camp, but ultimately decided that I needed to stay focused on fundraising prep” says delivery logistics startup Onfleet’s CEO Khaled Naim. “I was asking everyone on the Onfleet team to step up and I simply couldn’t justify going to the desert for a week – seemed somewhat hypocritical. There’s always next year.”

Ex-Oculus founder Palmer Luckey here points out how juice presser startup Juicero’s founder Doug Evans took off to Burning Man for week. That’s despite the company recently admitting it needed to lower prices after Bloomberg reporters revealed you could simply squeeze Juicero juice packs by hand without the $400 machine.

In the middle of that week Evans was at Burning Man, Juicero announced it would suspend sales of its juicer and juice packs as it desperately tries to find an acquirer. While Evans handed over the CEO title to former Coca-Cola exec Jeff Dunn late last year, the company told TechCrunch “Evans is Juicero’s full time Founder and Chairman of the Board and very active within the company.”

When the ailing company and any potential acquirer needed the reassurance of Juicero’s sole remaining co-founder, he was taking photos of fire-breathing bicycles at Burning Man. We’ve contacted Evans through several channels seeking comment on his choice to attend at this pivotal moment for Juicero. Some pundits have dismissed criticism of Evans’ attendance as unempathetic, though others see the criticism as stemming from empathy for his employees whose fates are uncertain.

But it’s not just Burning Man or a tropical beach that can lure away captains from their sinking ships. Tech conferences too can be a way to escape responsibility, as Mark Suster wisely explains. Just because the programming agenda intersects with your business, or you’re speaking on stage, doesn’t make it necessarily beneficial. Between prep, travel, haphazard networking, watered-down speeches, and extended happy hours, it’s unclear what your startup gains beyond a hole in the chain of command.

SoundCloud’s former CEO Alex Ljung was known for gallivanting between conferences, music festivals, Burning Man, and party islands. Surely some fraction of the schmoozing and industry hobnobbing paid off, but it came as SoundCloud struggled to make progress while aggressively burning through limited venture cash.

SoundCloud CEO Alex Ljung parties at Burning Man 2015 as his business sputters. Image via Cai Griffin

It tooks years and years for SoundCloud to secure record label deals, sell subscription products, introduce advertising, and improve its still-clunky apps. A decisive CEO firmly at their desk from morning to night might have sped up the slow launch cycles, avoided putting their company in mortal jeopardy requiring it to lay off 40% of staff, and kept their job instead of being replaced as terms of an emergency funding round.

Augmented reality motorcycle helmet startup Skully went bankrupt as the founders allegedly blew cash on personal trips to Hawaii, and spent $13,000 in three days while participating in a startup competition in Las Vegas. Rothenberg Ventures CEO Mike Rothenberg was sued for allegedly not paying employees after having spent the fund’s money on lavish parties, sponsoring a racecar, and wiring himself cash.

Again, it’s not about hating on CEOs, but about wishing for more responsible stewardship of the livelihood of their employees. At the very least, executives must understand that their startups live or die on momentum. Openly blasting social media with their far-flung adventures while employees worry about their next paycheck and investors assess the team’s fitness can have a real impact.

If a leader needs downtime for personal reasons, keep it personal, not public. Creativity and an open mind are essential to founder success, but so is focus and discipline.

The definition of a startup is “a fast-growing company”. Fast is the operative word. That means executives must be fully engaged to maintain momentum. Everyone deserves a semblance of work-life balance, but startup leaders knowingly forgo some of that gambling for an outsized portion of the startup’s upside.

If your company is steadily in-stride, you should be able to recruit talented managers and deftly assign responsibilities such that you can take the odd week off in search of that creative spark. But whether you’re failing or in the thick of rapid growth, if everything’s already on fire, don’t go looking for more to burn.