Why TED Gave Up Control of Its Brand and Why You Should, Too

By sharing its approach, the conference company creates a pipeline for the future and makes its core product stronger.

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By Karl Ronn

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Imagine giving away your formula for success and your brand name in order to grow your business. TED did just that and prototyped its way into the future with TEDx.

What led TED down this radical path? In 1984 Richard Saul Werman foresaw the convergence of technology, entertainment and design and created TED to host the world's most elite conference, by invitation only and more expensive than any other conference.

When Chris Anderson bought the company, he pledged to keep the spirit of TED alive. But the great expansion of the Internet called for a new business model. The organizers realized that producing a great conference was no longer enough. People wanted to co-create with TED, not just sit back and listen. So while other conferences closely guard their content as proprietary, TED managers decided to open the brand first by posting free videos from TED talks.

How did the organizers know that this approach would work? They didn't. Rather, they conducted cheap, fast experiments and learned their way to success.

Related: 7 Powerful Public Speaking Tips From One of the Most-Watched TED Talks Speakers

With TEDx, a grassroots phenomenon that has caught on around the world, TED took another risk. Reaching out to potential partners, the organiation gave away assets associated with the TED brand to let anyone run a TEDx conference. Wherever people have "ideas worth spreading," as the company puts it, a TEDx conference is likely to pop up. TEDx organizers have full use of TED's success formula: the TED logo, the TED talk format, stage set, websites and existing talks -- that is, TED in a box.

TED's growth strategy -- giving away assets associated with the TED brand for mutual benefit and future growth over time -- gave the organization a huge competitive advantage that allowed it to rapidly scale up by building on past success while growing the core business.

In five years, TEDx expanded into more than 133 countries and has grown its effort to change the world with 40,000 "ideas worth spreading." Just about every day, a TEDx event happens somewhere in the world.

Along the way, TEDx has also solved a problem for the main conference in today's world of instant news. In 2013, Anderson used TEDx and the local organizations as a talent search mechanism to find the very best people to bring to the main stage at the annual conference. Brilliant innovation can come from anywhere, and now TED has the network to find it.

Related: The Video Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Control and curation is the new skill.

TEDx is not without its critics, who argue that TED could lose control of its brand, but they miss the point: Losing control is exactly what allowed TED to scale its business and rapidly expand into emerging markets. TED controls the essential core brand while keeping a curator's hand on TEDx.

As Anderson explained, "It's only by genuinely granting power to local organisers that TEDx could have achieved its current scale. Organisers learn from each other, and we are committed to empowering them with tools and advice that will allow each year's events to be a little better."

At the same time, TED maintains tight control of the main stage in Vancouver. The quality of this conference is critical for sustained success. Anderson knows this and adapts portions of the main conference live to emphasize the themes that are resonating with the 1,000 thought leaders who attend. This emergent process is a critical element of success. What spontaneously resonates at TED will be "ideas worth sharing" and ideas that attendees would never have realized were so ready to explode without the conference.

By giving up control in ways that many traditional businesses would find unimaginable, TED expanded its reach globally, outstripping competitors with the power of its brand.

TED lives one step ahead. As technology changed, TED reinvented its core business to capitalize on the accompanying social phenomena. It embraced the turbulence and transformed itself into a new organization through a reciprocity-based business model for creating growth that leverages future disruptions.

How can you leverage future forces to your advantage like TED? Here are some ideas:

Related: The Sharing Economy Holds Promise for More Goods to Be Offered at Near Zero Marginal Cost

1. Uncover your right-of-way.

Find an existing platform where you already have permission to innovate with authenticity. Which of your assets have value for others and could also help you create complementary business growth? TED packaged its right-of-way as "TEDx in a Box."

2. Find the best partners.

Locate the people who will allow you to accomplish what you could not do alone. Which partners will lower your risk, increase your innovation potential, and look out for you? TED reached out to passionate "TEDsters" around the world.

3. Learn by experimenting.

Give away assets intelligently in order to learn how to create value in new ways. The goal is to learn in an open, low-cost and iterative way that allows for time to discover which questions to ask. How can you and your partners learn how to make money in new ways within your right-of-way? TEDx began as an experiment in rapid prototyping to perfect a recipe for what to give away, what to control and what to curate.

4. Scale things larger after figuring out what works.

But keep things small until you're ready. The focus here is on how to make your new business big. Cloud-served supercomputing will be an amplifier for almost everything.

When you're convinced that your business is desirable, viable and ownable, you're ready to scale things. TED grew its brand globally by distributing the best TEDx talks through the cloud.

Over the next decade, cloud supercomputing, the rise of digital natives and gameful engagement will disrupt and reshape business as we know it. These future forces will require companies to totally rethink their marketing and branding -- and how they experimen and ultimately how they do marketing, advertising and commercials.

Related: Inspiring TED Talks Every Entrepreneur Should Watch

Karl Ronn

Managing Director of Innovation Portfolio Partners

Karl Ronn is the co-author of The Reciprocity Advantage: A New Way to Partner for Innovation and Growth (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). He is managing director of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Innovation Portfolio Partners, which helps large firms create new businesses and entrepreneurs start category-creating companies.

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