Ten years ago today (June 22), Chris Anderson, a former British magazine publisher who had made and lost a £300m fortune, took a decision that would change the world forever. The man who had become curator of TED made the first six TED Talks available free online. To his astonishment, the of 18-minute podcasts quickly went viral.
Within three months, they had reached more than 1million views: "At that point we thought 'OK, I guess we're no longer just a conference'..." TED became "an odd, quirky media company in the service of ideas rather than news or gossip". Today, TED Talks are very much better known than the conference which spawned them - and have so far attracted almost 4bn views globally, with more than 3m views each day, across a variety of platforms, from TED's own site to Netflix and iTunes. TED is a global movement.
The conference had originally been launched in 1984 by architect and graphic designer Richard Wurman, to explore the growing convergence of ideas across "Technology, Entertainment and Design". The first conference included demonstrations of a new device called a compact disc, 3D graphics from Lucasfilm, and a talk by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot on mapping coastlines using his theory of fractal geometry. But the event lost money, and it was six years before Wurman and his partner Harry Marks tried again.
The 1990 conference was a huge success and TED became an annual event in Monterey, California. Presenters including scientists, philosophers, musicians, business and religious leaders, and philanthropists who attracted a growing worldwide audience. In 1998, Chris Anderson discovered TED. He attended what was still an invitation-only event for the nobility of Silicon Valley. He was enthralled to find himself in conversation with dreamers and optimists like himself, talking about the relationship between human evolution and technology, and the future of mankind. "I felt I'd come home," he says.
So much so that three years later, he took over TED. Since then, under his direction, it has evolved from a small gathering of thinkers into a global phenomenon accessible by people everywhere. More than 2,000 talks are available on the main TED website. There's no advertising, no sponsorship and the TED Talks podcasts are free.
Over the years, notable speakers have included Bill Gates, Edward Snowden (who addressed a TED conference from Moscow in 2014), Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Thandie Newton, Annie Lennox, Richard Dawkins, Larry Page, David Cameron, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Gordon Brown, Thomas Piketty, Jimmy Wales, Bill Clinton, and Bono. And there have been hundreds of other 'thought leaders' you may not have heard of but would - I bet - still be stimulated by what they have to say.
That is a taste of the magic of TED.
The annual conference, held now in a custom-built space at the Vancouver Convention Centre, is a five-day event. Tickets range from $8,500 to $125,000 for 'TED patrons' (the latter paying for a five-year membership). TED is a non-profit organisation, so revenue goes to fund production facilities and spin-offs including TED-Ed (video lessons aimed for teachers), a TED fellowship, the TED Radio Hour and a TED prize.
The most significant spin-off has been TEDx, in which local organisers are licensed to run their own conferences, with the talks posted on YouTube. On any given day, there are some up to 10 TEDx events being held around the world, hosting talks on a very wide range of subjects and promoting "ideas worth spreading". TED employs more than 150 full-time staff, but Anderson says "the secret sauce" is an army of 40-50,000 volunteers around the world, staging TEDx events and providing translations of talks into some 100 languages.
Anderson believes that - as big as TED has already become - it will only get bigger. "If you don't completely discount the voices of Silicon Valley, in five or 10 years' time, there will be pretty much ubiquitous low-cost broadband internet connection around the world. And, in pretty much every village, on the planet there will be someone with a smartphone device, connecting to any human being that is on the internet.."
Listening to the slightly shy, nerdy Anderson, it is easy to believe he was born to guide TED on its way to becoming a uniquely influential global movement. He was actually born in a remote village in Pakistan. His early years were spent in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan where his father worked as a missionary eye surgeon. "I think of TED as fundamentally a global organisation. Ideas know no borders, as they say, and that 'global soul' identity definitely came from my childhood."
He attended boarding school in England. He graduated in philosophy from Oxford University, before turning to journalism where he became passionate about the emerging 1980s craze for computer games and technology. Within a few years, he had launched a first magazine Amstrad Action from his kitchen table. By 1985, he had founded Future Publishing with a £15,000 bank loan. For the next seven years, the fledgling British company doubled its turnover, profit and number of employees every single year.
These were boom times for magazines and for computer games. In 1993, less than 10 years after Future's launch, media group Pearson Plc bought the company for £52.5m. Anderson banked the cheque and moved to San Francisco where he created Imagine Media (a US version of Future) and a computer and console games website called the Imagine Games Network (IGN).
A few years on, Pearson sold Future to private equity firm APAX - and Chris Anderson again became chairman. The US and UK companies were brought together and floated excitedly on the London Stock Exchange in June 1999, just as media stocks were limbering up for the first dotcom boom. The IPO valued the company at £200m and early trading boosted it by 25%. But that was just the start.
The quietly-spoken Anderson was an unlikely media tycoon but demonstrated a sure touch by launching Business 2.0, a magazine for the 'new economy' whose title had been suggested by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in conversation at TED in 1999. It became - briefly - one of the fastest growing magazines in the US, notching up 2,000 pages of advertising in its first year. Future Network Plc was on fire and was worth £1bn within 12 months of IPO.
Investment analysts were momentarily euphoric about Future, which peaked at more than 100 tech-driven magazines in six countries selling 5m copies every month, with some 2,000 employees. Turnover hit £250m as the Playstation generation made Chris Anderson and his company rich. But it was all too good to be true.
Along, with hundreds of 'new economy' businesses, the company suddenly faced demands for short-term profits instead of promised long-term growth. The share price collapsed, along with magazine sales, investor confidence, and revenues. Only debt was rising. The market valuation, which had scaled the heights of £1bn, now struggled to reach £25m.
Anderson's 24% shareholding, which had briefly been worth £300m, fell to £6m. But there was worse. Future was forced to scale-back both its magazines and its workforce by 40%, in order merely to survive. It was a bloody 2001 as the founder rued the day he had befriended private equity and the stock market.
The stumbling company was effectively rescued by AOL Time Warner, which paid a life-saving $68m for the suddenly-lossmaking US edition of Business 2.0. It was, literally, just in time to save Future.
Anderson left his company in 2001, armed with IGN (later sold to News Corp), and the TED conference which the departing chairman's Board colleagues were relieved to offload to him for £4m - less than half of what they had paid for it, as an adjunct to Business 2.0 magazine
TED is conquering the world, the once-soaring magazine is no more and Anderson is clear about the lessons of failure: "Business 2.0 succeeded and failed because it tracked the excitement around the internet very well. So, for a brief moment of time in 1999, it was an idea whose time had come. Then it crashed and burned with the NASDAQ. At the time it failed, my journey as an entrepreneur had very largely been up and to the right--one success after another. So it's easy to drink your own Kool-Aid and get overconfident. In most success stories, there's a huge element of luck. Never forget that, and know that success may not last forever."
Now, 15 years later - after three more share price meltdowns and three lost chief executives - his former company Future Plc has a UK stock market value of less than £30m, which is about 80% down in the past 10 years, never mind the heady days of 2000.
Perhaps, he will be remembering today that it is 30 years since the fledgling company moved into its first "proper" offices, a converted house in the city of Bath in England's south-west. But it is also the 10th anniversary of his "lifesaving" sale of IGN to News Corp for $650m. The deal was a less well-known component of Rupert Murdoch's early digital disasters: the subsequent sale of IGN to Ziff Davis for less than £100m made fewer headlines than the $545m Murdoch lost in six years as owner of MySpace.
As Chris Anderson contemplates the future, he is reminded daily about the distant days of his former corporate life: TED's New York office nestles in the local headquarters of Pearson Plc, the UK-based, global company which delivered his first fortune 24 years ago. Now, he's the giant.
Happy Birthday, Ted Talks.
Media Fortune, Fame & Folly