For almost a decade I've been enjoying the TED conference. For those of you who haven't heard of it, the TED conference is a mind-blowing gathering of deep thinkers from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design (plus any number of fields in and around Technology, Entertainment and Design). Over the years, the audience has become almost as star studded as the speaker lineup -- folks like Matt Groening, Paul Simon, Al Gore, who once graced the stage now show up to listen and be a part of the broader TED community. The result is 4+ days of mental over-stimulation, followed by exhaustion and then a countdown until next year's TED.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of TED. The conference started as a small gathering back in 1984 and has grown over the years in both scale and notoriety. Up until a few years ago, TED grew by virtue of word of mouth. Folks like myself who had the good fortune of finding our way to TED would inevitably return signing its praises and bring a few friends with us the next year and the next year and the next year. That all changed when the TED organization decided to release videos of the TED talks into the World Wide Web. Since that time, TED talks have been viewed over 100 Million times and awareness of the TED conference has skyrocketed, as has demand for the conference.
In response to rising demand and the logistical challenges associated with TED's old venue in Monterey, California, the TED organization moved the conference this year to the Long Beach Convention Center. In many ways, Long Beach could not be further from the quaint, upscale TED tradition in Monterey. For one thing, the old Monterey theater held a mere 500 people, whereas the new Long Beach venue accommodates 1,700 in the orchestra alone. Long Beach is a city. Monterey, a town. For those of us making the transition from the TED of old to the TED of new, the contrasts were great and comparisons near impossible to avoid.
Given all that, it is not surprising that many of the TED old guard expressed deep concern about TED in Long Beach. They felt that it was too large, too impersonal, too lacking in community. They objected to the new, bigger theater. They complained about the impersonal character of the city of Long Beach. And they weren't too fond of the food either.
So why am I not surprised by these complaints? And why do I think that the TED organization should not be too concerned? Those of us in the startup world have seen this play before. When companies succeed, prosper and grow, there inevitably comes a time when they need to move out of their quaint, nostalgic offices and into new, bigger, often less-personal digs. The employees who have been with the company since its inception bemoan the change, pointing to it as evidence that the company has lost its bearing. They are certain that the company will not survive the transition intact. And while some of those early employees may not make the transition themselves, the growing and prospering company usually does.
Those companies that manage to transition best from small, gutsy startups to large, established companies are the ones with the strongest corporate cultures. While growing companies inevitably have to make certain adjustments to their traditions to accommodate their increased scale and trajectory, the heart of their corporate cultures remains vibrant and continues to support the companies' expansion.
So too with TED. The TED culture is a powerful one. Indeed, the culture of TED has continued to grow over the two and a half decades it has been in existence. That powerful culture has been reinforced by the philanthropic bent of Chris Anderson, who has been TED's "curator" for almost a decade now. People attend TED, not only to have their minds expanded, but with high hopes for helping build a better planet. And with that overarching goal, the TED culture remains vibrant.
I suspect that some long-time TEDsters will drift away as a result of the move to Long Beach. But there will be plenty of eager participants ready to take their place. And those of us who remain will continue to be treated to a dizzying mental carnival, surrounded by an eclictic community of friends, old and new alike.