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Every year, for one week, a patch of North Nevada desert becomes Black Rock City, America’s 410th largest urban area. That is, until it’s taken apart a few weeks later. This is, of course the Burning Man Festival. As a festival with over 30 years of history, Burning Man may be the blueprint for how to create your own startup.
Festivals are one of the enchanting aspects of summertime and can be very beneficial for their communities. This 2014 study of a rural festival illustrates how $3 million investment yielded about $6.6 million in revenue. Successfully running a festival can be exciting, creative, and lucrative. At the same time, festivals present massive logistical and planning challenges.
In 2017, a tech startup held a party to launch their new digital service and app. Instead of a large gathering of industry professionals and media representatives with a DJ, however, they organized a music festival with over one thousand planned attendees.
The resulting epic failure inspired two much-discussed documentaries.
What happened? Firtst, let’s put aside the actual fraud and false advertising. Basic infrastructure, like toilets, were missing. The tents for attendees weren’t set up before people arrived. And, of course, the infamous cheese sandwich picture captures the food situation.
But a critical problem was time (and timing). Fyre Fest organizers only had about 6-8 weeks to get set up. When they were warned they needed a minimum of six months, rather than respond, they simply fired the planners and hired new ones.
Added to this, Fyre Fest took place at the same time as another major festival on the island, Great Exuma: the National Family Island Regatta, which stretched resources too thin.
So how does Burning Man do it so well, every time? Let's take a look.
Despite its reputation for lawlessness, Burning Man is serious business. The organizers have a dedicated Department of Public Works (DPW), divided into several departments in charge of logistics, dispatch and heavy machinery. Planning for the next event begins as soon as the current one ends, with the Logistics team taking bids for services and equipment immediately.
The schedule of events is finalized several months in advance of the next festival and is used to preplan the movement of heavy machinery. This drastically increases efficiency, so a piece of machinery can work multiple projects along a route, similar in concept to order stacking.
In two months, an army of volunteers sets up a city, complete with hospitals, police force, and even a department of motor vehicles (DMV). The DPW dispatch trailer is the first structure on-scene, and the team (a mix of newbies and long-time veterans to ensure a balance of experience and fresh thinking), works 24/7 for the first month.
The founder of Burning Man discovered that boundaries were crucial. People need borders for a sense of direction. The city is a horseshoe-shaped radial grid, with the eponymous Burning Man as the focal point.
We’ve discussed the value of grid cities before, and this version of it has two key benefits: the Man serves as a fixed point of reference, and longitudinal axes can be expressed as hands on the clock for easy visualization.
Not that the festival organizers build everything themselves. Attendees are responsible for constructing most of Black Rock City, setting up tents and stores in the city plan, according to loose building codes. Burning Man is remarkably sustainable, thanks to the tireless effort of the organizers and other groups to educate people on principles of sustainability. Banning most cars also doesn’t hurt.
Environmental impact is a major consideration for any festival. The aftermath of a festival can lead to a hefty cleanup bill and restricts access to the area for months. Thankfully lessons from Burning Man can be applied to the next up and coming festival.
While festivals may feel like fun and games, their impact on the community (or patch of desert) is immense, and when things go wrong they have the potential to go catastrophic. Taking the necessary time to plan things out is key to making sure festival goers can reap the rewards of summer time.
And it can be a chance for you to test your business mettle, without having to get stuck into a startup first.