This year, just before Burning Man, the New York Times published an expose on rich people trying to one-up each other at Burning Man with luxury camps and paid employees. They featured an interview with an insider, Tyler Hansen, who worked for a large luxury camp as a sherpa. Not a Big S Sherpa, one of the noble mountain people of Nepal; a small s sherpa, someone employed as a guide. Before this high-profile NYT article, I had never before heard the word sherpa in conjunction with Burning Man. Now it seems every Commodification Camp has a team of sherpas. How did this word enter Burning Man’s lexicon?
After Caravansiclery wrapped up, we heard from another sherpa who worked at the luxury plug-n-play camp created by mega-rich Burning Man Director Jim Tananbaum. According to documents from Megas Inc, camping spots cost $13,000 per head. According to the whistleblower, it was $17,000. What was the difference – tips? Or were some “products” provided that weren’t suitable to be listed in the contract?
The camp featured Mistresses of Merriment, some of whom claim “playmate“, “pasties”, and “no pants” in their profiles.
KBand published a list of people involved with Caravancicle, something we have decided not to re-post as it could be considered “doxing”, an online practice that is frowned upon. You can search out the list for yourself. We reference it because it contains a link that inspired this story – one that connects Commodification Camps, BMOrg, and Sherpas.
Burning Man’s Social Alchemist and Global Ambassador, Bear Kittay, is named in the list of Caravancicle associates. What was his role in the camp?
Despite being paid to be a Social Alchemist, Bear is not permitted by his employer to make an on the record statement to social media. He camped at First Camp, and doesn’t know why he is named in the Caravancicle list.
A silent ambassador? Sounds more like a secret agent to me. Why does BMOrg need secret agents to spread its culture, if it’s all for charity?
Bear’s mentor is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whom he brought out to the Playa to do deals. Shervin Pishevar, formerly of Menlo Ventures, has now branched out on his own with a new $154 million startup. Its name? Drumroll please…
Is this merely yet another ironic coincidence, like BMOrg Directors selling luxury elite camps on K Street while brochures for the same type of amenity-laden retreat are being handed out in the Souk? How many more coincidences do there need to be, before all these connections seem like more than just random chance?
Here’s some of the back story. Who is Bear Kittay?
Bear Kittay is a social alchemist who exists to activate human potential. As Burning Man’s Global Ambassador, Bear initiates global experiences with cultural pioneers from the realms of entrepreneurship, government, science, and art to accelerate innovation and cultural transformation. As an entrepreneur, he’s founded, discovered and currently advises several venture-backed Silicon Valley technology companies, including Shaker, Organizer, and Sponsorfied. He’s raised more than $20M in early stage venture funding from top tier firms including Founders Fund and Menlo Ventures. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Bear’s secret sauce is his music. He’s studied and performed music in venues throughout the world and founded Music for Democracy, a PAC organizing musicians for progressive causes
From The Burning Man Project:
Bear Kittay serves as Social Alchemist and Ambassador for Burning Man Project, visiting burners around the world, capturing their stories and sharing information from other groups creating positive change around the world. So far Bear has attended AfrikaBurn in South Africa, KiwiBurn in New Zealand, Nowhere in Spain, and visited burners in Australia, Maui and London. He has represented the Project at the SXSW premiere of Spark, at a festival on human rights in Croatia and at a social innovation festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s just recently returned from a whirlwind trip that included KoreaBurn, Burning Japan and Burning Seed in Australia.
He was also sent this year to Midburn, a Burning Man event which humbly aims to bring peace to the Middle East.
In 2010 I brought two of my best friends to Burning Man for the first time, after trying for about a decade to convince them to go. They absolutely loved it, we camped with Villains and Vixens and Overkill. Bear was not so close a friend, but I had previously entertained him in my home in Australia and suggested he should go to Burning Man and experience for himself magic happening in real time. 2009 was his first burn. In 2010, he came to visit our camp in some sort of wetsuit with his dick hanging out of a flap in the front. Wetsuit cocking, a new one to me. Millenial innovation, no doubt. Luckily he brought a beautiful woman with him. She was immediately whisked into the fanciest RV on the Playa, while Bear remained with us drinking at our camp’s fully stocked bar. And yes, we too had top shelf vodka – $29 for a bottle of Grey Goose at Safeway, fancy. Show up, and we pour you a drink. Doesn’t get much more Radically Inclusive than that – although, if you want to use the bathroom in my RV, you’re gonna need a wristband.
In 2011, Bear created a Burning Man camp called Kundavi. It was tied to a real estate venture in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I joined them and pitched in where I could, mainly contributing the sound system. This was the first year I’d brought my own RV, an old one I found for a steal off eBay, an economical alternative to the nicer vehicles I’d rented previously. Bear brought out his parents for their first Burn. Dr David Kittay, a lecturer on religion and technology at Columbia University, later would host the infamous “The Founders Speak” panel discussion in New York with Larry Harvey, John Perry Barlow, and Peter Hirshberg, the recordings of which mysteriously went missing despite BMOrg’s promise to share them with Burners.
Bear brought some friends to Camp Kundavi that he wanted to get together for business reasons. Earlier in the year, Bear had asked Shervin, his mentor, what he should do with his life. Shervin had said “go and travel the world, and if you find any interesting startups, bring them to me”. In Barcelona (or was it Tel Aviv?), Kittay randomly met some young Israeli entrepreneurs with a social media startup called Shaker.
Shervin was the guy who did the Uber deal for Menlo Ventures, which turned out to be such a stellar success that he can probably trade off that one deal for the rest of his life. He brought celebrities like Ed Norton and Burner Will Smith in as investors in their Series B round.
Bear saw an opportunity – here was a deal he could broker for Shervin, and maybe get a piece for himself. And it could all go down at Burning Man.
Shervin showed up fresh from Las Vegas. It was his first trip to the Playa, and not his natural environment, but he was an “out there” VC, prepared to do whatever it took to close on the next big deal. He would shave Uber into his hair if that was what it took. Before hopping on his Black Jet he had spent 3 hours in the hairdresser, getting his jet-black locks turned into a rainbow mohawk.
Shervin was frustrated because he was in the closing stages of an $800 million deal, and his Blackberry reception was patchy. I lent him my satellite phone but it wasn’t enough, he needed to get back to Vegas to close this deal. Time was limited. Bear seized his opportunity to bring his mentor and his protegés together.
Here’s SF Gate examining Burning Man’s new role as a deal destination for the captains of tech:
Burning Man founders are happy about the changes – even courting them. Those captains of tech also fund the enormous temporary art installations in the city center and support the Burning Man nonprofit efforts.
“What we’re seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team,” said Marian Goodell, Burning Man director of business and communications.
Like a corporate retreat?
“A little bit like a corporate retreat. The event is a crucible, a pressure cooker and, by design, a place to think of new ideas or make new connections.”
She said that, contrary to what people may think, she is not particularly liberal and, as a sign of her conservative cred, added that “my sister’s godfather is Antonin Scalia,” the staunchly conservative Supreme Court justice. “Burning Man on the outside has very liberal and socially strong principles, but I’ve been running it with very fiscally conservative policies.“
These new burners, she said, are to be celebrated.
“If you’re in the longtime Burning Man community, maybe it’s easy to frown on certain types of people coming. But the more we have a variety of influencers – folks from London and New York – the better off we will be and the better off the Burning Man Project.”
When Bear Kittay, 26, who runs a camp with an innovation theme, met five Israeli entrepreneurs in Barcelona, he told them to come to the desert. On the spur of the moment, the young men, founders of a virtual reality startup, took time off work and joined him.
On the playa, Kittay introduced them to Shervin Pishevar, managing partner of the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. And there, coated in desert dust, Pishevar agreed to lead the first round of funding – $15 million.
That company, Shaker, won the prestigious TechCrunch Disrupt conference award for best new startup in 2011.
“It’s a big testament to Burning Man,” Goodell said
Typical BMOrg, claiming credit for any thing any Burners do any where. We’ve gone from “commerce is banned at Burning Man” to “we never said we were against commerce” to “if commerce happens that’s a big testament to Burning Man”.
The Burning Man component of the Shaker deal was no more than 5 minutes of conversation. Here’s how it really happened.
Bear brought Shervin and the Shaker team together, in the shade provided by my RV. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the meeting went down right outside the window of the main early-stage tech investor in the camp, or perhaps this was all part of some master plan. Later, off Playa, I did offer to make a token investment into Shaker but by this stage I was small fry, they were on to bigger and better things after winning Tech Crunch Disrupt and a $15 million round led by Menlo Ventures. Like most of these Millenial-led tech companies that boast how they don’t need anyone’s advice or money, they haven’t amounted to much. They did a partnership deal with Live Nation, whose biggest shareholder owns QVC (Home Shopping Network), home of Burning Man Director Matt Goldberg. Last I heard Shaker had “pivoted”, and is now an online gaming play.
Shervin didn’t actually do the Shaker deal in Black Rock City, but he made plans to meet with the guys in San Francisco the next week. Tech Crunch Disrupt, which was featured in Mike Judge’s hilarious Silicon Valley show, occurs the week after Burning Man. As arranged on the Playa, Shervin met the guys in the morning before the competition and at the end of the meeting they shook hands on a deal. Later, when they presented and won, Tech Crunch founder Michael Arrington said he wanted to invest also.
Here’s Shervin describing how it all came about to Uncrunched:
here’s the crazy story of how I met them. I was working on scouting a Jedi Council retreat in Cabo. I met these amazing guys from Mexico at Summit Series who are were working on an entrepreneurs resort. I began mentoring one of them, Bear. He wanted to learn how to become an investor and VC in the future. My advice was to go forth and travel around the world scouting for amazing startups and bring it back. I didn’t expect to hear from him for months. Instead, a mere 3 weeks later he had traveled to Egypt and Israel, and I flew into Burning Man. He said, “Shervin, I listened to you! Thank you! And I found this amazing startup, Shaker. And they are flying into the Playa tonight and they are competing in Techcrunch Disrupt!” That night I met them and was very impressed with them and their vision. But with no connection I had to wait until the following Tuesday to get the demo at a Samovar in San Francisco. Within a minute, I knew what I saw was the future. I had been looking for this for years. Their product execution was nearly flawless. A very hard feat to accomplish given the vision. The next day I brought them in to meet the rest of the Menlo partners. They agreed and we were off! Meanwhile, while we tried to come to an agreement on an investment, Shaker won Disrupt! I actually got the term sheet done and signed from the streets of Haiti the following weekend while I was volunteering in Haiti for jp/hro! Hopefully, there will be karma in that and all of the serendipity that brought us together.
Pre-planned serendipity and engineered karma: is this Social Alchemy in action?
This year, Shervin has launched his new venture, called Sherpa Ventures. From Business Week:
Here’s what happens when you set out to profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar.
On Monday, July 7, Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, calls at Pishevar’s request to attest that the Iranian-born entrepreneur has brought him several high-profile investment opportunities and had a hand in introducing him to his future wife. On Tuesday, DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg rings to praise Pishevar as “a great networker” and says, “There is nobody more loyal.”
On Wednesday, Elon Musk, founder of electric-car company Tesla Motors is on the phone recounting how the pair traveled to Cuba last year with Sean Penn and ended up negotiating (unsuccessfully) with the Castro government for the release of an American imprisoned there. On Thursday, it’s Edward Norton, who says Pishevar advised the actor and his wife on building their charitable-giving website, CrowdRise, and later persuaded Norton to make an investment in the booming ride-sharing startup Uber. Finally, on Friday, New Jersey junior Senator Cory Booker calls to explain how Pishevar has become a crucial link between Washington and Silicon Valley—bundling donations for President Obama’s reelection campaign and spearheading an effort to create a new kind of “startup visa” for foreign entrepreneurs. “There are guys that can write big checks, and there are guys that can bring people together to write checks,” Booker says. Pishevar “inspires people to give and does it in a way that is not icky.”
Pishevar, in case it’s not already clear, is one of the most excessively networked guys in Silicon Valley. The former tech-entrepreneur-turned-investor has backed Uber, e-tailer Fab.com, and eyeglass purveyor Warby Parker, among other startups. Now he’s running his own venture capital firm, SherpaVentures, which has raised $154 million from a group of investors that includes Condé Nast and the private equity firm TPG Capital. In the process, he has turned himself into one of the most visible members of the California technology and media scene, frequently showing up onstage at tech conferences and backstage at Hollywood awards shows. When Obama met with a select group of technology executives last December to discuss revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, Pishevar was at the White House, standing Zelig-like next to tech luminaries, including Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer.
Pishevar, 40, embodies a new kind of venture capitalist, bringing contacts and visibility to his startups in addition to—or perhaps instead of—operational or technical know-how. A tireless self-promoter who prefers a Los Angeles-style hug over a handshake, he’s based in fashionable San Francisco instead of the stuffy suburban enclave of Menlo Park, the traditional cradle of the VC industry. He’s also known for his public displays of enthusiasm: He once shaved the initials of several of his portfolio companies into his hair.
His exuberance and ubiquity have come at a price, though. The gossip website Valleywag once referred to him as a “humble-bragging, attention-grabbing startup financier” and suggested he’s obsessed with being liked and famous. Pishevar admits that a rival investor once called him “a clown” to his face.
A new kind of venture capitalist: the Burner capitalist. Burner Shervin even purchased a trip to space with famous pal Ashton Kutcher, who is also now a big-time tech investor in AirBnB and others.
The name TPG Capital has come up in this blog before. They recently invested $300 million in AirBnB, which now advertises rooms in Burning Man camps and boasts 2 of Burning Man’s 18 Directors as its full-time employees. So they’re backing both Sherpa, and AirBnB. A very powerful behind-the-scenes player.
What does Sherpa do? They’re “vague by design“. This slide from a recent presentation gives a clue to the opportunities they see:
From the Wall Street Journal:
Sherpa, in many ways, is representative of a new class of boutique firms: young, city-based, and striving to differentiate themselves from earlier generations.
Located in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown — many miles from the famed Sand Hill Road where many venture firms reside — Sherpa’s office of roughly a dozen employees is filled with plush Herman Miller chairs and black-and-white murals by local artists.
…Half of the group is an investment vehicle, SherpaVentures, and the other half is SherpaFoundry, a vehicle to incubate new companies and to connect their portfolio companies with larger, often public, companies.
“We felt like there was an opportunity to create a guild-like model,” says Stanford. “It’s our name. We like to be in the background making magic happen–hauling the bags up the mountain, enabling great success, the ones behind the camera at the summit.”
The Burner Capitalists are pouring in to the Playa – which is also by design. In 2012 Bear co-founded IDEATE, “Burning Man’s tech innovation camp”. Although the camp was conceived at the last minute, and chock full of virgins, they had no problem getting prime real estate next to First Camp, and all the tickets they wanted.
Here’s some recent coverage from Recode:
In yet another “cuddle puddle” — a sort of non-sexual group snuggling that seems to be the favored daytime activity at Burning Man — entrepreneur Tim West explained to me the mission of the 200-person tech and innovation camp, Ideate. (I’m also camping here at the annual Nevada desert festival this week.)
“It’s about bringing tech people to Burning Man, and helping them understand it,” said West, who was wearing an Air Force jumpsuit and carrying a headless Barbie in his pocket. “And then bringing Burning Man back to the default world.”
The special relationship between Burning Man and Silicon Valley is not an accident — it’s by design. A group of young tech entrepreneurs created Ideate three years ago, in collaboration with the Burning Man founders, to support the concept.
Its members are meant to serve as liaisons and teachers to the flood of new tech workers — and tech money — coming into the festival. In some ways, the camp was born out of an anxiety: The Burning Man founders are aging, and they needed to find a core next-generation troupe and ideas for the weeklong event’s next chapter.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that they chose a group of young people who are explicitly focused on entrepreneurship.
“The most important piece of why Silicon Valley exists in the first place is Burning Man — this is a place people go to confront problems and make solutions and prototype,” West said. “Why is innovation happening here in Silicon Valley more than anywhere else in the world? Burning Man.”
…”Ideate is where we can think of and test these ideas, and then bring them to the world. And people are ready for it.”
“Burning Man is not a sub culture anymore,” Delaune said.
“It’s the dom culture,” Hanusa added.
The Peninsula Press discussed Bear’s big role in Burning Man’s future:
While transitioning the project to nonprofit status, Burning Man’s directors are exploring ways to expand its culture globally, focus more on technology and innovation, and lean heavily on the ideas of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “We’re at an absolutely critical time in our change and our morphing, and we’re going to be relying on others to help us,” said Marian Goodell, one of the six project owners since 1996.
Conversations about the future have been brewing for months. Bear Kittay, a 27-year-old entrepreneur and musician, has taken the lead in organizing meetings for up-and-coming Bay Area start-up types with Larry Harvey, the founder and director of Burning Man, and Goodell. Kittay is also helping figure out how to spread the project’s 10 principles to other parts of the world.
Goodell calls Kittay their “hyper-connector.” His resume includes being the co-founder of a company called Organizer, which created a clipboard-like mobile platform for use during political campaigns, and a partner (and designated “social alchemist”) in the Avalon Hot Springs eco-resort north of Napa Valley.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Kittay organized a retreat at Avalon. He invited Harvey, Goodell and about a dozen others…
There are longstanding cultural ties between Burning Man and Silicon Valley. It is no secret that Google’s founders are avid “burners,” with entire walls at the company’s Mountain View campus covered in photos from the festival…
But the Avalon retreat initiated an active conversation between the two cultures and two generations of burners — baby boomers and millennials.
Those talks continued and led to the formation of the IDEATE innovation camp, which participated in this summer’s festival. Each camp has a different focus, such as dance, meditation and clothing swaps. IDEATE differed from typical camps, as it operated with an unprecedented mission: to be “an [ideas] incubator in the center of Burning Man,” according to Kittay.
Kittay said IDEATE brought together bright minds to figure out how to offer the tools of Burning Man culture, including collaboration, sustainability and inclusion, to start-up projects around the world.
Burning Man founders paid special attention to IDEATE, which was given a block of tickets even though the idea emerged long after tickets were sold out. Goodell placed the camp close to First Camp, where the founders make their desert home each year.
Goodell said her thought was, “We should take all this brain power around us in San Francisco—dot-com and entrepreneurs…[who] care about Burning Man, and let’s get them all together…and see whether anything could come of it.”.
The majority of the 210 people who camped at IDEATE were new to Burning Man and were young entrepreneurs from companies such as TED, a nonprofit committed to spreading worthwhile ideas; Summit, which hosts an annual four-day event for 1,000 of the world’s leading change makers; and Singularity University, which seeks to educate a new generation of leaders in technologies that will exponentially advance human capability in years to come.
So did anything come out of it? Well, Shaker got funded, IDEATE is still going and people there still have ideas, and now we have sherpas, Sherpa Ventures, Caravancicle, ironic real estate sales, real hotels, ironic AirBnB sales, real AirBnB sales, real gasoline sales, and a dedicated Burning Man staffer to manage the booming new market segment of Commodification Camps.
It seems that the starry eyed young Millenials see Burning Man as the next breeding ground for their commercially questionable deals, while the Baby Boomers who back them provide the financial clout and ostensible gravitas to underpin their shenanigans.
I believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way. From Peninsula Press:
The need for collaboration with the younger generation of burners was clear to Goodell, especially as Burning Man moves from being for-profit to nonprofit. The work to become a nonprofit organization by 2013 has been ongoing for two years, according to Goodell.
Serving the public good in this age of digital technology and rapid communication, she said, requires the input of the millennials, who have what Goodell called an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for sharing ideas. They’re also the ones who are representing more and more of the Burning Man population each year. In 2011, almost half of Burning Man participants were under 30, according to the Black Rock City Census.
Larry Harvey is in his sixties; Goodell just turned 50. She said the founders should look to hire young people, and young people should step up and “infiltrate the organization and be ready to take things over…and change the world.”
Goodell described Kittay as “not unlike Larry.” She called them both “pied pipers,” saying that, although neither is likely to be “the first one to hammer up a tent stake,” they both “can get really enthusiastic around ideas, and then people want to gather around and help.”
…Goodell issued a caveat concerning IDEATE and the millennial entrepreneurs as a group: They will be given more influence in the organization only if they do something with all their ideas. They need to maintain momentum and prove themselves as able to make it happen, rather than just talk about it, she said.
After the desert festival, which is held from late August to early September, Kittay traveled with Harvey and Goodell to Turkey, where they considered ancient history and its ties to modern life and talked about ways to make global expansion a reality.
There is talk of bringing Burning Man ambassadors to design projects and businesses across the world; holding urban and rural retreats in addition to the existing “regional burns,” or smaller-scale festivals; creating a social network for burners; crowd-funding design endeavors and sharing technologies that will help the world utilize some of Burning Man’s principles as tools, such as “radical inclusion” and “leave no trace behind.”
…Traditionally the project has been “below the radar,” said Kittay. But now is the time that Burning Man is ready to reveal itself as more than just “electronic, dubstep, naked—whatever associations that people have had superficially with it, and move into much more the space of what it truly is at its core,” he said. That core, according to Kittay, is built around “the philosophical principles of collaboration and of incubating human culture and community and experience.”
Although the organization as a whole supports change, some staff members have been a bit hesitant to make any big leaps, including Harvey himself…As the project expands globally into “a capitalist world,” Kittay cautioned, “it could so quickly lose its essence.”
…Goodell calls this moment pivotal. “There’s before IDEATE, and there’s after IDEATE, and then there’s 2013,” she said.
So, Burning Man’s Director starts a multi-million dollar Commodification Camp, employs sherpas, who are terribly mistreated. Burning Man’s Social Alchemist brings his VC mentor to Burning Man to do deals; after doing a big deal at Burning Man, the VC starts a venture called Sherpa. The big money behind Sherpa Ventures is also the big money behind AirBnB, who launched their product into Burning Man this year and directly employ two of BMOrg’s Board of Directors. Sherpa Ventures sees hospitality entrepreneurs as the new future trend to back.
The bottom line? Plug-n-Play is here to stay. Rather than being a fringe practice at Burning Man, it seems that this is BMOrg’s grand philosophical vision for the next century of Burns. Plug-n-play is what will attract all the New York and London moneyed set, who they need for The Project. Is it their money, their minds, or their souls that
Hellco BMOrg are most interested in capturing?
Sherpa Ventures, Pied Piper, Tech Crunch Disrupt, Elon Musk…Burning Man IS Silicon Valley…the coincidences continue. The invisible guiding hand of Total Randomness strikes again. Just remember, sheeple, there’s no such thing as conspiracies, they’re merely theories made up on the Internet. No-one in history has ever been part of any kind of plot. No politician has ever lied. Eat your GMO food, drink your fluoride water, and jab yourselves with all the vaccines you can get your hands on, it’s great. The government really cares, that’s why it’s called the Affordable Care Act.
C’mon Millenials! Save Burning Man from losing its essence as it expands globally into a capitalist world. It’s a do-ocracy…so just fucking do it already.