Black Rock Desert, NV - I've never been to Burning Man, but I hope....or rather I'm making an effort to attend next year. The concept of the Burning Man event is awesome. Burning Man is one of the most iconic festivals in the world. With 65,000+ attendees creating their very own 'Black Rock City' in the heart of the Nevada desert, it is a phenomenon like no other. This 2017 year’s event was unlike any other year. It was filled with many start-up marketing and showcasing their new ideas and products. But it also took the life of Aaron Joel Mitchell, who was 41 years old.
Sculptures flood the dusty expanse, creating an eerie, post-apocalyptic Mad Max atmosphere filled with excitement and uninhibited exploration. Everything from giants to temples can be discovered as the hordes of festival-goers embrace the ritual celebrations. Tickets are the most sought after in the world and the festival is an experience that will forever imprint itself on the minds of those who witness it.
Aaron Joel Mitchell, 41, was one of thousands at the annual gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, about 120 miles north of Reno. The weeklong event of pop-up installations culminates in massive burns of an effigy known as the "Man" on Saturday and the "Temple" on Sunday. Mitchell was a US citizen who lived in Switzerland with his wife, Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen said in a Sunday night statement.
Mitchell broke through two levels of security guards protecting the area where the "Man" was burning on Saturday night. Fire personnel attempted to pull him out but falling portions of the burning structure hindered their efforts. Rescuers had to wait until the structure fell before they could go back into the flames and safely extract him from the debris, the sheriff said. He was airlifted UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California where he was pronounced dead at the hospital. According to medical staff, Mitchell was not under the influence of alcohol and a toxicology screening is pending, the sheriff's office said. An investigation continues but the mass exodus of participants Sunday night made it increasingly difficult to gather information.
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 escaping your responsibilities rather than prepare to fulfill them, you’re in trouble.
For the past 10 years, there have been 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. Not necesssarily will you find representators from big time companies like Intel, NVIDIA or even Uber in attendance, but there are many that do attend on the low down. Damn druggies!
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.
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 is an exhibition for startups of all kind. 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.] 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.