TED: Changing the World, 18 Minutes at a Time

Power posing. Underwater sea creatures. Reinventing the education system. Most of us have watched a TED Talk – but how did it grow into a global phenomenon, and is it really just one big bubble?

TED Head Chris Anderson on stage at a recent conference
TED Head Chris Anderson on stage at a recent conference

A Brief Overview: Technology + Entertainment + Design

The brainchild of architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, TED was born in 1984 as a one-time conference dedicated to the convergence of technology, entertainment and design. Since then, it has grown under the helm of new media entrepreneur Chris Anderson into a global set of conferences and other events that seek to cultivate the exchange and spread of interdisciplinary ideas, broadening from its original three themes into cultural, scientific, academic and other topics. The organization is non-profit and run by the private Sapling Foundation, and is supported by 140 employees based in New York.

At the heart of TED is its main annual conference, previously held in Long Beach, California, and now held in Vancouver, Canada. Over four days, “leading thinkers and doers” are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present “the talk of their lives” in the most compelling way they can through innovative storytelling, with the goal of generating awareness and inspiring action from participants and viewers.

TED Talk from HBS Professor Amy Cuddy

Aligning Operating + Business Models to Cultivate “Ideas Worth Spreading”

We talk a lot these days about network effects, and although TED is a non-profit, it is, in many ways, a perfect example of a massive network with highly engaged users that drive its growth. Its talks have been viewed more than a billion times, and with the help of a volunteer project to subtitle talks, have been translated by more than 38,000 volunteers into more than 100 languages. It is accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. From the perspective of its operating model, TED is distinct in several ways that can be distilled down to its brand, its distribution and its community.

TED’s brand in fact starts with its business model: it is non-profit and non-partisan. This allows it to operate independent of any corporate, political, religious or other influences. TED generates revenues ($45 million in 2013) through charging participants upwards of $7,500 to attend its invite-only main conference, screening for prominent thought leaders and influencers in their fields who can support and spread the ideas they see on stage. TED also solicits sponsorships from companies such as Google, Coca Cola and GE, allowing them to host, for example, pre-event activities or social spaces during the conference while maintaining strict separation of church and state to ensure sponsors have no influence on content. A portion of its funding also comes from video advertising, licensing fees and book sales. This funding strategy gives TED the financial capability and  reputational prestige to attract exceptional speakers – a la Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Bill Gates and Bono – for free (as a policy, TED never pays any of its speakers). This, in turn, draws highly interested and engaged participants, feeding the cycle.

Let’s consider the next two aspects – TED’s distribution and its community – together, as they’re closely intertwined. As a disclaimer, I am a big personal fan of TED, helped launch the inaugural TEDx conference at Penn during my undergrad years and am active in the TED New York community. Yet I’ve never attended an actual TED conference (although I have attended TEDActive, a live simulcast that happens in parallel with “big” TED). Much of what I’ve learned from TED happens not on-site, but online – and that integration of online and offline communities through an open distribution format is at the core of its growth. In 2006, TED decided to offer all of its talks online for free, something that was viewed as extremely radical at the time. This contrasted sharply with TED’s early years, during which participants had to sign NDAs to prevent public discussion of conference ideas. The following year, it began to allow independent “TEDx” events to be organized by anyone who obtains a license and follows a set of guidelines, a move that was considered similarly bold. In 2013, it leveraged that community aspect one step further by crowd-sourcing its conference speakers through a global talent search.

Such structural decisions have allowed TED to become incredibly effective at building a global base by decentralizing a community that would have cost millions to create through traditional methods (e.g., marketing). More than 10,000 TEDx conferences have been organized to date. As another proof point, take the example of Khan Academy, the online educational video platform – after its founder Salman Khan gave a TED Talk, the company’s site traffic skyrocketed, pushing its total views from fewer than seven million to more than 140 million.

“Conventional business logic would tell you that in a community like TED you have to keep your commodity scarce and expensive to retain brand value,” noted TED.com pioneer June Cohen in an interview with The New York Times. “But the same year we started releasing most of our content for free we raised our conference price by nearly 50 percent and still sold out in 12 days.”

If we think about TED as a network, then, its brand allowed it to establish credibility and obtain critical mass, and its distribution and community have allowed it to subsequently scale beyond the limited audience of its annual in-person conferences. All three advance TED’s business model of facilitating ideas to change attitudes, lives and the world.

The Wisdom – and Danger – of Crowds

As fascinating as TED’s success is the lessons it has experienced to get there. With success comes criticism, and TED has received its fair share of negative feedback. Three of the most common critiques are that it is too elitist, too simplified and too open. One manifestation occurred during a controversial episode in 2012, in which a scientific TEDx Talk from 2010 that received tremendous applause was later revealed to be largely gibberish and jargon. Widespread outcry among TED’s online community ensured after the discovery, and surfaced the question of whether too much openness (due to the TEDx format) and “dumbing down” of ideas (18 minutes is a relatively short time to convey a groundbreaking idea, particularly if it is technical) were hampering its business model.

Responding to Backlash and the Path Forward

TED’s online community managers, however, slowly rebuilt the trust of the public, showing that you cannot “manage” a crowd – or a community – through transactional exchanges or economic incentives (as there were none here). You need something stronger – a shared purpose by the community. Ultimately, TED can’t control every single talk – some will be brilliant and hilarious and moving, and others will be flat or, even worse, inaccurate. But it is also up to the same community that comprises TED to guide the organization in the direction it desires. Some uncertainty will remain, of course. But that is precisely where the opportunity exists for spontaneity and creativity to occur and spark the ideas that will be worth spreading.



  • http://www.ted.com/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TED_(conference)
  • https://hbr.org/2013/04/when-ted-lost-control-of-its-crowd#
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/technology/16ecom.html?_r=2&ref=technology
  • http://nymag.com/news/features/ted-conferences-2012-3/
  • http://www.theverge.com/2013/3/5/4061684/inside-ted-the-smartest-bubble-in-the-world
  • http://www.forbes.com/sites/markfidelman/2012/06/19/heres-why-ted-and-tedx-are-so-incredibly-appealing-infographic/
  • https://www.american.edu/soc/communication/upload/Rosemari-Ochoa.pdf
  • https://www.techdirt.com/blog/casestudies/articles/20110217/01444113148/case-study-how-ted-learned-that-giving-it-away-increased-both-popularity-revenue.shtml


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Student comments on TED: Changing the World, 18 Minutes at a Time

  1. I never made this connection before, but TED definitiely reminds me of Threadless. With the Threadless case, we asked whether the company value was the community or the shirt making. Do you think the value of TED is the education/infosharing or the community?

    1. A super interesting question and I certainly see parallels to Threadless. I think the value has evolved over time from pure idea-sharing to more of a balance between idea-sharing and community. In the beginning when the “business” comprised purely of a closed-off conference, the value creation was in the ideas that the speakers were able to disseminate to audience members.

      Today, I think that is still a strong component (and likely still the single most valuable component, since without that, there would be no community), but particularly as the organization grows into a global phenomenon, it is the community aspect that has allowed it to scale as quickly as it has and has allowed it to reach geographic regions where it would be very difficult for the organization to host first-party conferences (e.g., prisons: http://blog.ted.com/ideas-on-lockdown-a-look-at-tedx-events-held-in-prisons/).

  2. I love TED talks because they pack quite a punch: if you watch a great one, you get a bite-sized nugget of wisdom on a particular topic that’s easily shareable in under twenty minutes. Like any good short-form content, It’s very easy to start binge-watching and I’ve often found myself glued to my laptop going through top-rated TED talks for longer than I care to admit.

    The concept of TEDx is interesting to me though. On one hand, I agree that it’s a great way to engage more people in the TED movement, but on the other hand, I do think it dilutes the TED brand to some extent when it’s perceived that anyone can basically give a TED talk. What are your thoughts on the trade-off between broad reach and quality control?

    1. You’re spot-on in that the question of control vs. reach becomes more and more of a pivotal question for TED as it continues to expand. I think the ideal outcome is that the broad reach can actually improve overall quality control, in that there are incrementally more community members who can serve as watchdogs. There are certainly structural aspects, though, that need to be in place for this to work – e.g., thoughtful evaluation process for TEDx conference host applicants.

      In some ways, this aspect is akin to Wikipedia and the fact that the more open it becomes, the more chances there are for anyone to post an inaccurate or inappropriate comment, but the more opportunities there also are for the rest of the community to monitor and correct it.

      1. In case you’re curious, here’s another great piece that addresses aspects of your question: http://www.fastcompany.com/3038626/why-ted-gave-up-control-of-its-brand-and-why-you-should-too

  3. Great post… and insightful comments too. I hadn’t really made the connection between TED and its network/community before. It’s fascinating, and provides a model that could extend to a number of other settings as well. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading! Certainly agree that other organizations can look to TED’s model in terms of building a community to drive growth. In the for-profit world, I almost think of it as a version of franchising, in which TED provides the brand equity and basic guidelines, and the TEDx host executes on the concept.

      The community aspect is more prominent in the case of TED, though, and I think one aspect that the organization has managed very well is understanding precisely which parts of its business model to open up vs. keep closely held. To build on my response to Stephanie’s question above, the videos shown on TED’s website, for example, are still very much controlled – only about 1% of TEDx talks make it to the site for broad distribution.

  4. I really enjoyed this post as well! I also hadn’t realized the extent/openness of the TEDx product, and it made me think about not only the quality control aspect of what gets posted to the platform (and its interesting to learn that only 1& make it to the site for broad distribution!), but also about controlling the message of the product and ensuring that audiences react to and use the talks in the most productive manner. If people understand the limitations and broader goal behind the TEDx talks, then they will get the most out of them.

    This idea of open knowledge reminded me a little of the Ed Tech company I worked with last year. Though it was a closed platform, the company’s aim was to democratize education and therefore published its content and lessons free of charge to the website. However, the company then worked closely with schools and teachers to determine best implementation practices and trainings on how to use the subject material in the classroom. Recently, the company experienced explosive growth due to networking/community effect as teachers around the nation found the content online and began to not only use it in their classrooms, but also posted youtube tutorials to help other teachers understand how they should use the content. While this attention and positive feedback is extremely exciting, the idea of controlling the message also comes into play. As creators of the content, the company believes that they have the most high level insights on how users can engage with the material in the most fruitful way possible.

    1. That’s a terrific analogy to your work in ed tech – in fact, I think education is one area in which this operating model can be most compelling (and a bit meta too – teachers teaching teachers!). You’re probably familiar with TED’s foray into this space with TED-Ed (http://ed.ted.com/), through which educators can create digital lessons and short snippets in the same style as a traditional TED talk (and with the mission of “lessons worth spreading” rather than “ideas worth spreading”). Certainly it is more of a supplementary / lifelong learning tool than a replacement for classroom lesson plans, but I find it to be a neat extension of the core business model.

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