February 20, 2020
What’s It Like Being a CEO at Burning Man?

What’s It Like Being a CEO at Burning Man?

Welcome back to Basement Dwellers. The show where we talk to CEOs about their lives back in basements before they were famous before they’d made it. We’re joined here today with Tim Chang partner at Mayfield Fund. Thank you for joining us Tim. Thanks for having me. So your resumé doesn’t really read like most of my other guests. Masters and a business degree in engineering and then a Stanford with honors MBA and just an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School. Correct? So did you ever have a time period where you felt like you were in basements or like a mental basement so to speak where you kind of feel you know “Where am I going? What’s going on? Feeling a little bit lost or was it always kind of like you know what you’re doing. Honestly I think my path has always felt a bit random and all over the place. You know if you look at my resume I grew up in Michigan, and then I was supposed to be a Ph.D. candidate. Got a taste of the working world out in Japan decided “I dont wanna be an academic”, Dropped out of my PhD took a Master’s and headed straight over to Japan and began working which seems kind of random. So yeah I’m not in the US..why Japan? Started working as an engineer. I had no real reason other than I just kind of wanted to see the world and then um I thought that having some Asian experience might be interesting. Back then you know Japan had been on top of the world. They took over the automotive industry and all these other things Back then for you is this 90s or This is the mid 90s. and you know this was coming out of a period where Japan was they were like China is today. Yeah. They were coming at all these places they were vying at places like Hawaii and whatnot. And I didn’t really have a game plan other than I grew up loving video games and Nintendo and watching you know samurai movies and thinking of Japan be a cool place to go I loved manga and anime. But in my heart of hearts I really wanted to be a musician and also do some acting. So I harbored all those things while worrying that I’d be able to pay the rent. So maybe I’ll work as an engineer. Classic kind of yeah passion versus money. Exactly. Night I was on and weekends, it was all about playing with bands and trying to get gigs or you know kind of doing acting things Things like that. Was trying to juggle the two. And so I’ve always had that notion of feeling a bit like an outsider imposter or balancing two different “Masters” if you will. Yeah. That’s probably been the story my career is just a lot of seemingly disconnected random things that I’m not just going by gut instinct or by feel just kind of trusting that somehow it would make sense in the end. Can you talk a little bit through your exploration into music because it seems like that has run as a pretty constant parallel to your professional career. It has and um interestingly it didn’t start off by my choice. Like the good product of Asian tiger parents I was forced to play classical piano and chained to that darn thing like learning Chopin and all this for competitive recital. How old were you when you started? Gosh probably five or six. Yeah. All the way up through high school. I quit piano after I saw Back to the Future. So Marty McFly go back in time introduce rock and roll guitar and get the girls.. That dude! Yeah. To my parent chagrin I quit piano picked up guitar and taught myself lots of rock and roll and pop. Led Zeppelin Van Halen all this stuff. Yeah I was impressed by the amount of metal I guess in your list of bands you like. Yeah I think there’s something rebellious about it. But also back then you know metal and rock had all the most advanced guitar solos. Right. And part of it was a bit of this gunslinger attitude of like I can do this I can do anything challenge of it. Did you have long hair? No I tried to — my parents would always threaten to cut it off. The most I got was a little lock in the front and I like where. The emo – the emo flow. Yea I had the emo thing and I would peroxide it because I was also into skateboarding back then all the things my parents hated. But maybe it’s a sign of my rebellion. But interestingly you know rock guitar kind of saved me in many ways because I grew up in a really small town and I was one of two Asian kids in the whole school. So you know I dealt with my fair share of racist remarks and things like that. And ironically I had a rock band in high school we performed the big school assembly and you know we did songs like Metallica or living color cult personality stuff like that. Suddenly a lot of the burnouts who used to torment me suddenly became my friends and like hey give me guitar lessons. So it’s really interesting that it was way for me to find an identity in a place where I felt very much like an outsider. And that led to all these bands I ended up having in my life and that became a really important process because I realized that notion of finding your own voice it is the hero’s journey. Every single person goes through whether you’re a cook an artist an entrepreneur. We’re all here just trying to figure out “What’s my unique voice? What’s my angle?” What’s my you know kind of story? And your angle is the Stanford MBA who does scream metal.. right? It was just sort of all sorts of things that again this gave me a lot of angst earlier in life because I used to try to keep separate silos. I used to think in the business world I wouldn’t be respected if I’m seen as somebody who’s super into like acting or music or whatnot. But in the music world I will be seen as a suit or a square if I bring up business plans and MBOs and things like that. And then somewhere along the line of my late 20s I kind of started thinking why not just be more authentic and blend them all together. And to my delight I think people enjoyed it more connected with me more. When I was just authentic about it. Well this is one of things I really liked about you is I think you were one of the CEOs who did Burning Man before it was cool so to speak. I was kind of a bit more weird then. But yeah I had a lot of friends in the creative community who’d been going since the late 90s. So for them I was late to the game but it was life changing for me. You know to kind of taste that freedom and see just how amazing people’s creativity can be when it’s unbridled and without judgment. And that’s the thing that’s kept me going back and bringing other friends. My partner Rishi just went for the first time this year and I’m so glad he did and I think it’s pretty life changing for him. Can you like tell us like like what’s your most memorable experience from Burning Man? What I love a Burning Man is you are the programming you’re there to contribute to others. There is no right place to be. There’s no schedule. There’s no money. There’s no hierarchy. It’s the one place that people don’t really ask you what do you do. Do you think more politicians and CEOs should go to something like Burning Man? I’d take the whole world if I could and here’s why: I think people are their most authentic if they let themselves really show when they are deeply at play or under extreme stress and Burning Man is a place that’ll put you in both.

1 thought on “What’s It Like Being a CEO at Burning Man?

  1. watch another video of Basement Dwellers:
    An Interview With Angel Investor Jake Gibson

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