Is Burning Man the Ultimate Start Up?


As a founder or CEO, I believe that one of our most important tasks is creating and upholding a company culture that resonates with stakeholders and employees, something they can all buy into and uphold.

And the Fortune-500 seem to agree (phew), as when Harvard Business Review attended a seminar with the leaders of a Fortune-500 company, the word “culture” came up 27 times in 90 minutes. Business leaders believe a strong organizational culture is critical to success, yet culture tends to feel like some magic force that few know how to control.

I always have a vision for what I want my companies to look like, I then try to bring this vision to life by creating high-level documents, or ‘North Star’ plans as I call them. This forms the guiding light, the summit, which we attempt to navigate and scale.

A vision however can quite often only be seen by the founder. Company culture is a way of bonding the team together as we attempt the ascent. The difficulty however is upholding this culture, when the chain of interaction becomes weaker, the culture can become diluted.

“But what does Burning Man have to do with this?”

– You (Probably)

Once the dust has settled on my first trip to Burning Man, and by dust settled, I mean I managed to actually be able to perform any type of cognitive movement. I began to actively reminisce, and compare the reality against my preconceived thoughts.

Attended by over 70,000 people this year, people who volunteer endless time and effort to prepare for and contribute to the annual event. This is a culture that I have never experienced in both its form and bordering on religious following.

If you don’t know what Burning Man is then please click here to read this article on it, because it’s a festival like no other.

And if you’re now wondering what relevance this has to business. This is the festival where Larry and Sergey apparently came up with the idea for google maps, and wow, how useful maps would of been there!

Even Zuck has visited once, even if he did just go for the day (by helicopter) and give out cheese sandwiches.

Started by a man called Lee Harvey on a San Francisco beach in 1986, with just 30 people attending. Burning Man has 10 principles that, “were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.”

You can see these 10 principles in all their glory here. 

Now operating as a non-profit, the ‘Burning Man Project’ is a mix of top-down instruction and horizontal transmission. A Survival Guide is also produced, that spells out the ethos of the place and the guidelines that make it work. And the organizers, in all their communications, consistently reinforce the event’s ethos. But truthfully, the most powerful part of the cultural transmission happens from person to person. A sustained year long brand awareness campaign as people await and prepare months in advance of an annual event and then spend the rest of the year talking about it.

To build a movement that attracts people, you must present a simple vision for your members that will unite them and create a sense of purpose. Your vision should support the belief that together you can all achieve something greater and more powerful than the sum of your parts or efforts.

Burning Man does a phenomenal job at communicating how the culture contributes to the overall experience. And since participants value the overall experience, they work hard to adhere to the cultural principles. And equally hard to pass those principles on to newcomers.

That success has translated into the so-called “regional burns,” Burning Man-like festivals held in 45 states as well as Europe, China, South Africa and Australia.

“Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy.”

Howard Stevenson

Organizations that build great cultures are able to meet the demands of the fast-paced, customer-centric, digital world we live in. More and more organizations are beginning to realize that culture can’t be left to chance.

In a video on the Facebook Careers page, Mark Zuckerberg says:

“The reason why we’ve built a company is because I think a company is by far the best way to get the best people together and align their incentives around doing something great.”

At Facebook, it’s about making the world more open and connected. These drive the employees, guide the product, and energize the entire company. If an employee isn’t committed to the mission, it just becomes another job. And when it’s just another job, it usually means the employee isn’t happy.

A company book was created to help ‘explain our company’s mission, history, and culture to new employees’.

Zappos is another example of a company renowned as having a strong culture, being consistently voted in as one one of the top places to work. With Tony Hseish even writing a book ‘Delivering Happiness’ about how he created this culture from scratch.

Interestingly, they produced a set of core principles that the company and its team abide by, even more interestingly, there are 10. And from a company just down the road from where Burning Man is held. Coincidence?

A great culture is not easy to build — it’s why high performing cultures are such a powerful competitive advantage.

When you put a focus on culture, you’ll have guiding principles. People will know you for this. Employees will live by it. It’ll help get you through difficult times. You’ll base hiring and firing decisions on the principles. It’ll help get all employees working on the same company mission. In some sense, it’s the glue that keeps the company together.



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