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Going to Burning Man — and the boss lets you expense it

Burning Man in 2013
The “Man” burns in Black Rock Desert during Burning Man near Gerlach, Nev., in August 2013.
(Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal)

When heading to Burning Man, the nine-day bacchanal-cum-art installation in the Nevada desert, people tend to bring along their friends, lovers or drinking buddies. Others go with their co-workers — and they expense it.

Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief culture officer of 15Five, this year decided to let employees at his software company who had never been to Burning Man file the $425 tickets on their expense reports. The idea, he said, is to help foster creativity and community at work.

The festivities have been formative for him. “What are the things that have contributed to our own heroes’ journey?” is the question he recalls discussing with his co-founder, Chief Executive David Hassell. “Burning Man is one,” he said, adding that it allowed them to cultivate an “integrated, authentic self expression.” Thus was born the reimbursed-tickets plan.

Although many companies in the San Francisco Bay Area resign themselves to lowered output and high levels of employee absence this time of year, a few are encouraging their staff to hit the Playa, as regulars call the stretch of desert where the 60,000-person event takes place through Sept. 3. Sometimes, it’s essentially mandatory.

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That’s what happened to Santiago Genochio, an events planner based in Britain. When he joined social network Faceparty in 2007, one of his first tasks was to buy Burning Man tickets, rent trucks and RVs to build a camp, and arrange for travel from London to Nevada for about a dozen people — pretty much the whole staff at the time, minus some IT workers who had to stay behind.

“It was very interesting, being there with a group of people who wouldn’t have been there on their own steam,” he said. Some of the more skeptical staffers ended up enjoying it the most. Genochio himself had gone several times before and was delighted to return at the expense of his new employer.

As a team-building and creativity-fostering exercise the trip was “amazing,” Genochio said. But the company didn’t get much chance to benefit. Faceparty, facing stepped-up competition from other social networks, fell on hard times financially, with most of the staff cut the following year.

Many technology leaders are known to attend or have attended Burning Man, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and former CEO Eric Schmidt; Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk; Uber Technologies Inc. co-founder Garrett Camp; and Asana founders Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein.

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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic-products company near San Diego, sends employees each year, from Cosmic Engagement Officer (or CEO) David Bronner on down. This year, the company is paying the way of about 11 employees because they went early and built the 320-person camp where Bronner and others stay.

“They are cranking huge overtime, and we only cover base normal weekly wage,” Bronner said. “The rest is their contribution.”

Most of the other people at the camp don’t work at Dr. Bronner’s and all pay camp fees to benefit from facilities and shared meals. Those fees are donated in full to the Zendo Project, a nonprofit that helps people manage the effects of psychedelic drugs.

The particular camp frequented by Bronner has become known for offering free showers to festival-goers, a welcome perk in the dusty desert environment, where for many campers the closest thing to a bathroom is a Porta Potti. The group showers are clothing optional, and participants are told that the experience is meant to be intimate but not sexual.

Still, as many companies clamp down on rituals as banal as holiday parties for possible human resources violations in light of the #MeToo movement, the unconventional interactions possible at Burning Man cause some CEOs to react in horror at the prospect of a company-sanctioned trip.

“That’s a horrible idea,” Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie said. “What about HR?”

A Box spokeswoman later said in an email that Levie was joking and has no problem with Burning Man company field trips. “We wish all of the Burners out there the best of luck,” he said in an email via the spokeswoman.

The start-up 15Five is, in fact, an HR software company. Metcalf said his employees can handle the free-spirited environment with integrity, and besides, Burning Man isn’t the only place where someone inclined to indulge could overdo it.

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“People are having sex all the time, even when they’re not at Burning Man,” he said.

Of 15Five’s 160 employees, largely in the Bay Area and Raleigh, N.C., four are taking the freebie tickets. One eligible employee who has so far resisted: co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Nazar Ivaniv. “Maybe next year,” Ivaniv said.


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