Burning Man – Interview Fabian Hediger, CEO Worldwebforum

Burning Man Festival

Interview Fabian Hediger, CEO & Founder Worldwebforum
She is the «Queen of Black Rock City» for one week: reunion with Marian Goodell.

Mr. Hediger, this summer you have participated in the «Burning Man» festival in the Nevada desert. You are CEO of the Worldwebforum in Zurich, what took you to this event?

People are always surprised, when entrepreneurs participate in «Burning Man». They assume that this is a hippie event. That the participants take drugs in the desert, listen to strange music and act like artists for the week. That is how our audience reacted, when this January we introduced Marian Goodell as a Speaker at the Worldwebforum. Is there anything that Swiss entrepreneurs can learn from the «Queen of Black Rock City» – that is the official name of the festival site. Marian is the festival queen for only one week, 51 weeks a year she is a hard-hitting entrepreneur. She explained in Zurich that although «Burning Man» being a cultural movement , many entrepreneurs have realized that the 10 principles of the movement also work in their companies. This was impressive, and I wanted to experience «Burning Man» myself.

Looking at the pictures you have taken, one nevertheless gets the impression that above all «Burning Man» is a huge crazy party.

It is about party, about art, about society, about us people and the way we live coexist. Marian’s team insists that “Burning Man” is not a festival but rather a cultural movement. Personally, during this week in the desert town of Black Rock City I have experienced something impressive: «Burning Man» was for me the biggest experiment I have ever witnessed. A psychological, sociological and economic experiment.

One huge experiment: «Burning Man» 2017.
This is gifting: Build a tree and provide shadow for your fellows.

What did you learn from this experiment?

Most people are familiar with the principle of gifting that «Burning Man» maintains. The idea is that everyone does, what he does best or what he wants to do, and then shares the fruits of this work with others, gifting everything away. If you experience this, it gets you thinking. I lived a week in the desert and did not spent a dollar. Everything was given to me by people who like to give. This spirit of gifting and volunteering forces us to think about the way we live. For entrepreneurs success and profit are the main guidelines, this is quite clear. To experience in an experiment, how an alternate world could look like, is extremely impressive. The founders of «Burning Man» have defined 10 principles, which the movement maintains, lives after and tries to spread around the globe. Some of the principles are quite useful, as Marian explained at the Worldwebforum.

Which principles do you mean?

Immediacy and radical self-reliance are important values for entrepreneurs. I like the principle of immediacy, because it is difficult to implement. Immediacy means that each of us radically tears down all barriers that hold us back in life. There are barriers between co-workers, barriers between our customers and us, barriers between our competitors and us, and especially there are barriers between our environment and reality and us. How many entrepreneurs do you know who wear blinders and maintain a narrow, self-defined reality? These blinders must fall; otherwise, you will never achieve your objectives. The founders of «Burning Man» stipulate that we should also tear down the barriers to our own selves. This might seem esoteric, but there is something to it. Only when we acknowledge what we want to achieve as entrepreneurs, can we truly achieve our goals.

Radical independence is one of the principles of «Burning Man».

What does the principle of radical self-reliance mean to you?

Radical self-reliance means radical self-independence. This principle should be clear to every entrepreneur. We make the best of our own resources. We fight on our own and do not rely on the help of a bank, a cartel or the government. At the Worldwebforum Marian has incidentally noted that radical does not mean radical as in «without regard to losses», but as in «progressive and innovative» instead. As the founder of several companies, I know exactly what this means. You never rest, you are always busy with the next idea, and you discard business plans, and always carry on your own.

Which principles cannot be applied to companies?

Radical self-expression and gifting are beautiful principles that add to the charm and appeal of Black Rock City, when you are there. Back here in Zurich they collide with the fact that most companies are customer-centered and profit-oriented. Imagine, your employees come naked into the office and give away products free that you intended to sell. You realize that this cannot work. Leave no trace in another beautiful principle of «Burning Man», it is about respecting and looking after nature. Imagine this: 70,000 people celebrate a weeklong festival and leave the desert in the same state as it was in the first place. That is fantastic. The social pressure around leaving no trace is immense though. If you see a piece of waste and do not bother to pick it up, people around you will scold and force you to pick up the trash. Leave no trace – if I look at the state of the kitchen nook on our office floor – it would be convenient, if that principle worked in the company. However, it does not.

A difficult principle to transfer into the corporate world: radical self-expression.
At the «Burning Man» festival the principle «leave no trace» works.

Ruedi Noser, member of the board of Worldwebforum and Member of Parliament, joined you on your trip to Nevada. What kind of experiences have you shared together, and what did you learn for the Worldwebforum?

Ruedi and I have seen each other every day, but only briefly. Most of the time we went our own separate ways, and we have not had the time yet to have an in-depth discussion about our experiences at «Burning Man». It is hard to plan for things at the festival, well actually I advise strongly against going to Black Rock City with a plan. Bear in mind: Immediacy and radical self-reliance imply that you let go, and follow the flow of the events and of the people around you.

What did you do at the «Burning Man»?

Nothing – and everything. You walk around, meet people, linger around, you speak or remain silent. No matter where you are, people will embrace you. «Join us», I have heard that sentence several times a day. I am an early riser and like to go for a run before I start working in the morning. Let me tell you what occurred at «Burning Man»: I get up early in the morning, and I want to do a bit of running in the desert, before it gets too hot, and what do I see? There is a race going on, runners in ballet get-ups, naked runners. I could not believe my eyes! Somebody comes up to me and says «join us; this is the Burning Man marathon». Radical inclusion is another of the ten principles: anyone can join anywhere, and strangers are welcome. I ran four laps around BlackRock City.

This sounds crazy.

Well, it is crazy. Travelling to the festival is an experience in itself. I am not much of a flight passenger. At the airport in Reno, I had to convince myself to enter the small propeller aircraft. When we descended in the middle of nowhere, I felt queasy, and then I suddenly noticed this circular structure in the desert. Black Rock City. The plane landed on a sand strip, a white tent served its purpose as an arrival terminal. There we were. It was crazy.

What happened then?

You enter a bubble. That is why I do not think that «Burning Man» is an experience for everybody. However, if you are prepared to dive into this bubble, it changes your view of the world. The site is incredible. You are incredibly close to nature, you feel how strong and yet vulnerable she is. You realize that you cannot survive alone in this world.

Approaching Black Rock City.
The arrivals terminal of Black Rock City.

However, participating in «Burning Man» is a privilege of people who can afford everything and spend a week in the desert, trying to maintain the illusion that they can look after themselves in a world without money.

The entrance fee is 450 Dollar, and you have to add travel expenses. Here the principle of radical inclusion comes into play. Anyone can join and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to experience something new and to have an impact on society. «Burning Man» is rooted in the hippie movement. What makes hippies tick? Being a hippie is not about chilling; it is about questioning everything present and building something new. Then things become interesting. Ultimately, everything in Silicon Valley is intertwined with hippie culture. 50 years ago in California, they discovered a powerful means to get rid of old power structures: technology. They used electric guitars, synthetic drugs like LSD, and of course the personal computer as powerful drivers of change

Therefore, «Burning Man» is a hippie event after all.

There are party people, but the majority of participants academically oriented, they are very considerate people. Humor and self-irony are abundant, and everybody is very relaxed. Overall, it is pretty much the opposite experience compared to the typical Swiss management, which is on average white, male, and over 60 years old. At the Worldwebforum, we want to bring together both worlds. Essentially, the main task of an entrepreneur is to set up his business in such a manner that it can simultaneously handle the daily business efficiently and flexibly adapt to changes in the environment on the company. In research, this is called ambidextrous organization. At the Worldwebforum 2018, we are proud to present Jerome Engel of Berkley-University and Charles O’Reilly of Stanford University, two leading experts in this area of research. They will show how Swiss force of implementation force can be paired with Californian-style inventiveness. This will be inspiring speeches.

Close, strong and yet vulnerable: the Nevada desert.

Did you return as a changed man from the Nevada desert?

This sounds melodramatic, but I see my role in society differently. Before for me as a CEO everything always revolved around results, my years of experience as an independent IT contractor had taught me that. Now, I see the people behind the results more clearly. I try to live my role differently and to direct more time and attention to our employees. People perform better, when you look after them.

Therefore, eventually, it is still all about productivity, sales and profit.

It is about the goals that we want to achieve as entrepreneurs. We do not measure our success in ticket sales. No! We at Worldwebforum want to change Switzerland. In Silicon Valley, almost 100% of the economic output originate from business models that align to new, future-oriented paradigms. Let us call them disruptive business models. In the greater Zurich area their share of economic output amount to probably around 20%, the rest of the output is generated by old, long established business models. If we do not manage to increase the share of disruptive business models, the Swiss economy will go down the drain. Look at the German car industry. The managers sense that the era of manually driven cars with combustion engines will end. However, they are unable to align their corporations to the new paradigm and to transform. The financial market has recognized this, these days investors prefer to buy Tesla shares. Elon Musk sells not a lot of cars today, but his vehicles embody the future. From this point of view, Tesla shares are even undervalued. By the way, Marian Goodell assures me, that Elon Musk visits «Burning Man» every year, even if it is only for 24 hours. “Burning Man is Silicon Valley” she likes to say.

Yes, it is also about party.
The 10 principles of «Burning Man» are already posted in the Worldwebforum office.

Is Worldwebforum going to be «Burning Man»?

The Worldwebforum 2018 will be more of an experiment; the whole experience will be more fluid. Immediacy, radical Inclusion, tear down all the barriers, radically involve all participants, I like this idea! Yes, we could actually introduce some «Burning Man» principles or even invent our own principles. Radical Self-Expression! Whoever wants to attend the Worldwebforum in suit and tie, because it reflects his inner self, is allowed to do so. As long as people radically interact with each other and creative sparks fly, it is fine by me.