How Ted Talks went from one to over 2600 events per year in 9 years

Jaime Arredondo
June 29, 2022

Whether you are a fan of TED talks or you find them a bit elitist, with over 1 billion views in 2012 from thousands of speakers, talks available in 116 languages and local events in 179 countries, you can’t deny that they’ve actually spread a lot of inspiring ideas that challenge the status quo.

That’s why today I’m going to show you the steps and strategy TED Talks took to grow from a closed conference that catered to a few thousand attendees, to a media powerhouse that took its level of success to another level when they decided to share its content and its brand for free.

Grab some tea, coffee, or whatever drink you enjoy these days, and get ready to open your mind to a pretty unlikely trajectory. TED is an incredible example of how to nurture not one, but multiple communities to scale your organisation and multiply your effort and impact phenomenally.

Step 0 : First promising try, but too soon to work

TED’s story started in 1984, five years before the World Wide Web. It began as a conference in Monterey, California, organized by architect and iconoclast Richard Saul Wurman.

Wurman was seeing the technology, entertainment and design fields start to blend together in interesting ways. So he went after the best and brightest of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and academia who could illustrate this convergence.

For that he organized the first invite-only TED conference for 1,000 people who could afford to pay $4,000 (and up) to view 18 minutes presentations, including a demo of the compact disc from Sony, the e-book, cutting-edge 3D graphics from Lucasfilm, and a demonstration of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrating how to map coastlines using his developing theory of fractal geometry.

Despite a stellar lineup, the event lost money. So TED closed its doors until 6 years later when Wurman decided to try again.

But despite this setback they had validated a new format of 18 minute conference without lectern that excited their crowd. That was enough to be confident that TED was onto something.

Here are some takeaways of the lessons learned from Wurman from this first event :

Step 1 : Second try, a small but impactful event

Six years later, Wurman and his business partner resurrected the conference by pulling out the same recipe. Curated speakers. Curated audience. And an 18-minute conference format, the limit of the human attention span.

This time the world was ready and it took off.

The TED Conference became an annual invitation-only event in Monterey, California. For 10 years it grew its influential audience and the number of disciplines it covered to include scientists, philosophers, musicians, business and religious leaders, philanthropists and others.

As before, they kept hand-picking their featured speakers among innovative thinkers, researchers and activists. But the real upgrade from their first event came from coaching their speakers.

Brilliant minds are not always the best public speakers. But in TED they’ve developed an internal guide to turn the biggest nerds with complex subjects into brave and compelling storytellers. To do that they’ve developed and honed a months-long process to write, edit, re-write and rehearse their stories.

It’s already extremely hard for an expert in a niche field like robotics or prison reform to give an accessible and engaging talk to thousands of attendees. That’s why TED had developed a consistent process to coach their speakers and deliver a compelling and engaging story with 99% certainty. As we’ll see later this step will be essential 6 years later when opening the TEDx format.

So keep in mind that some things take years to mature before they are ready to be put in place. For TED it took eleven years, from 1990 to 2001, to develop its initial concept: Finding and developing its network of great minds that had great ideas to deliver, and inviting audiences with influential networks to keep grow its reputation and its revenues.


Step 2 : Stabilize before growing and stress-test your procedures

In 2000 Wurman met a media entrepreneur, Chris Anderson, to discuss the conference’s future. Tired of running the conference, Wurman sold the rights to TED in 2001 to Anderson’s Sapling Foundation, and Anderson became TED’s curator.

Since then, Anderson turned TED into a non-profit and kept broadening the event to cover all topics and find new ways to share the content with the broader world well outside the city limits of Monterey.

So from 2001 to 2005, TED included two major additions to its already successful and profitable format:

  1. A new conference, TEDGlobal, held in different locations around the world
  2. The TED Prize, a $1 million grant to support the efforts of one particularly inspiring TED speaker each year

Organizing more events was an excellent occasion to test the procedures they spent 10 years polishing in their Monterey event to spread to other locations.

At the beginning a leader and a small team can control every aspect of an event. But once you start spreading to other places you can no longer control what’s going on simply by being there. So to “replace” their expertise and competence, the TED team documented and created checklists for every step of organizing an event. Things such as looking for a venue, for sponsors, for speakers, and coaching them to deliver a compelling story.

This documentation step can look pretty tedious, but it is crucial to scale any project internally, but also externally like many open source projects. The real reason that everybody who wants to scale is that documentation allows you to no longer be the bottleneck for others to run things.

Think about this for a moment. The first step any project takes is to develop a prototype that works. But if you want it to scale, you then have to document it so you are not the only one who can make it. Once you’ve got documentation that allows others to get the same results you’ve been getting, then you’re ready to scale because you can get productive help on board.

Sounds boring or like a lot of work? It’s not.

In TED’s case, once they got the documentation down, it was much easier to open more venues, allowing them to showcase even more innovators to a growing audience, increasing the reputation of the event to new heights.

This helped increase the non-profits revenues, which would then be reinvested in a $1 million TED Prize. This very Prize attracted even more up and coming innovative speakers who can deliver stories with a unique perspective, and increased even more the prestige of the event.

So it all comes down to this: documenting what the initial TED teams did so others could reproduce it lead them to deliver more talks in more venues. More venues equals more eyeballs. And more quality speakers with field-tested coaching processes equals more quality content that attracts more people and generates more word-of-mouth, reinforcing an already strong virtuous cycle.


Step 3: From $4000 per seat, to free content for all

After successfully spreading to new cities, they still wanted to get their conference ideas showcased to an even broader public. But how could they do it?

They tried and failed to get TED onto television. The BBC told them it was too intellectual.

So rather than insist in getting TED on television, they thought about bringing it to the Internet.

In 2006, with the arrival of online video, a year after Youtube went live, they started TED talks as an experimental video podcast. By doing this they discovered that people who watched them really loved them, and that the videos were starting to go viral, transforming a once-exclusive conference into a viral global phenomenon.

The first six TED talks reached one million views, and proved so popular that TED’s website was relaunched around them, giving a global audience access to some of the world’s greatest thinkers, leaders and teachers that were previously only available through their $4000 invitation-only event.

As Chris Anderson says: “ It did feel risky. People were paying a lot of money to come to TED, so to give it all away for free … But at TED in 2005, people like Clay Shirky gave talks about the web’s ability to facilitate collaboration, so we kind of drank our own Kool-Aid.”

By 2009, a little while after Anderson and its team cracked the fear of giving content for free, the number of TED Talk views had grown to 100 million views, making Internet heroes out of unknown speakers like Jill Bolte Taylor and Sir Ken Robinson.

Making their content free completely changed their business, taking them from an event organizer to a media platform. At this point, as we saw, they were really good at organizing events, attracting audiences and coaching interesting speakers, so it must have felt really risky to step onto such a different ball game.

Now even if they would keep their conferences, they would have to invest money in building a new site with the sole purpose of distributing all the talks for free, and building relationships with sponsors to create new revenues for the media platform. But this is the point from whichTED really exploded, and what made you discover their conferences. I’ll walk you through it below.

But first let’s recap some takeaways:

Step 4: TEDx: Open sourcing the TED method

After releasing their content for free, the people at TED became obsessed with radical openness and giving everything away for free. A couple of years later that led them to also giving away the TED brand itself to independent organizers in the form of the TEDx conferences.

In step 2 we saw that TED honed its processes and templates to scale to new venues. But this Event Guide would also be useful outside of the organization. So in 2009, Lara Stein, TEDx cofounder, went on to formalize it and published it to the whole world to see they could successfully organize an event.

This guide includes super strategic information. Things like

This is as if McDonald’s or Coca-Cola shared their recipes for anyone to see them.

But giving the brand away with TEDx has not weakened them. It just made more people want to go to the conferences and more people want to watch the videos.

How is that possible?

Well, that’s the magic of open source, that if you want to take, you have to also give back, creating real win-win relationships for everybody.

When TED gives their Event Organizer Guide and its brand, independent organizers can re-use the guide and make money with no strings attached.

But if they want to re-use the TEDx brand and the attraction power this carries with it, they not only have to respect their branding rules, but also give back the content produced at their events in Creative Commons.

This way TED has the right to also share the content produced by others on their platform, allowing them to produce events and quality content at a much faster pace that they could on their own.

TEDx’s open format has brought two incredible benefits to TED. First, getting more quality content increases the audiences and the sponsorship deals they can get. And second, having anyone in the world be able to launch a TEDx has taken them from one event a year, to 2600 events a year. Spreading their message and their mission faster and further than they could have ever dreamt of.

Astonishing, isn’t it?

Some Takeaways:

Step 5: Reward your community, promote their work, and give others the tools to build on top of your idea

Around the same time they launched TEDx, TED embarked on the Translator program, creating the infrastructure for TED Talks to be translated into 100+ languages.

Passionate viewers around the world started asking if they could translate talks in order to share them with friends and family. In 2009, 200 volunteer translators created 300 translations in 40 languages. In 2018, more than 30,000 volunteers have published more than 126,000 translations in 116 languages (and counting).

So this simply started with people offering their help. But by giving them the tools to integrate volunteer translation, TED could multiply by hundredfold the amount of people who can watch a TED talk.

These translators have given TED access to world-wide audiences but have also given world-wide audiences access to exclusive TED talk ideas’ that translators care about. So everybody wins here.

We could consider event organizers and speakers as other members of the community who contribute voluntarily, since they are not paid or allowed to directly promote their products.

So why are they doing it and how is TED rewarding them?

Event organizers gain battle-tested processes to organize an event and a brand that serves as great social proof and influence to find sponsors and attract speakers. This also helps the organizers benefit from TED’s Halo Effect and create local networks of like-minded innovators and “world-changers” as them.

And for speakers, even if they can’t be paid for their talks or promote their products or books, the events are often filled with deep-pocketed investors, philanthropists and entrepreneurs looking to fund or support inspiring ideas.

Bryan Stevenson, a prison reform activist, had never heard of TED before he was convinced to give a talk in 2012. After his 18 minutes on stage, which included a touching personal anecdote of an interaction with Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, Stevenson was approached by people who ended up donating $1 million to his cause. That's one instance where a TED talk was truly life-changing.

So once you open your project to other’s contributions, make sure there is something in it for them. Otherwise you’re just adding documentation that nobody will ever use. And once people start offering their help provide them with the necessary tools to make it easy for them.

This way TED went from organizing one to eight events on their own. Once it opened to the outside world it was able to organize over 2600 events. Do you even realize what that means?

TED multiplied by more than 200 the number of conferences they were able to make on their own!

And it took them from no translations to 130,000 translations in 116 languages of their over 2600 talks. And all of this means more views, more speakers, more independent organizers, more sponsorships and of course more tickets sold for themselves, but also for their independent organizers.


Step 6: Did it make financial sense to give all of this for free?

So here’s the kicker.

Making the content available for free has not only not devalued the conference, but it has actually helped increase TED’s prices.

In 2006, attendance cost was $4,400 per person and was by invitation only. The membership model was shifted in January 2007 to an annual membership fee of $6,000, which includes attendance of the conference, club mailings, networking tools, and conference DVDs. The 2018 conference was $10,000 per attendee.

How is it possible that people want to pay $10,000 for the very same conference they can access for free on the Internet?

There are many reasons. The more a conference is viewed because it has compelling content and is free to view, the wider the audience becomes. And the wider an audience becomes, the higher demand goes, and the more likely it is that richer people will compete for a limited number of seats to see the speakers and exclusive audience in person, ultimately paying more for a ticket.

Once you’ve broadened your audience to richer sphere, there is a second effect here.

Imagine that you have CEOs of multinational companies and influential politicians in a room. Would other influential CEOs and politicians be willing to pay to attend?

Having a conference crowded of increasingly wealthy and influential people, creates a space where valuable deals and partnerships can be created, making the tickets to your conference become even more valuable.

So free content has not only not depreciated the value of its offer. It has actually allowed it to more than double its price, and increase exponentially its audience, making it possible to strike increasingly big sponsorship deals and get more donations from the community.

In 2017 TED made $66 million, of which 40% came from sponsorships, 35% from donations, and 25% from conference tickets.

That’s the virtuous self-reinforcing cycle TED has created for itself.

So if you have a project that’s working well and if you want to spread its impact, document what you’re doing and give them tools to reproduce your success and help you. It has a serious chance to multiply the value of your efforts and impact without any significant investment by at least tenfold, as it did for TED.

Written by:
Jaime Arredondo
Creator at Bold & Open. Deconstructing how to turn radical ideas into transformative impact.

Want more inspiring stories and case studies on open leaders like this one?

This Bold & Open newsletter has you covered:
Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.