The head of TED says this talk saved the conference from the brink of extinction

Ted fellows retreat chris andersonMelia Robinson/Tech InsiderChris Anderson shares an awkward #tbt moment on stage at TED Fellows Retreat 2015.

TED sparked an intellectual revolution. The nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading” operates in 3,000 cities, and its 2,000-plus “talks,” or taped lectures, have been view more than 2.5 billion times.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for TED’s curator-in-chief, Chris Anderson.

The early 2000s TED looked unrecognizable to fans today. It hosted just one, invitation-only conference annually in Monterey, California. It would be years before talks were hosted outside the US or released for free online.

Still, TED drew a loyal following of influencers across many different disciplines. So when Anderson’s nonprofit, The Sapling Foundation, acquired TED in 2001, the community panicked. It feared that a newcomer could not fill founder Richard Saul Wurman’s shoes, or preserve the conference’s values.

Anderson relayed the story at this week’s TED Fellows Retreat, hosted in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California.

“What I discovered to my horror was that the majority of the TED community thought that because [Wurman] was leaving, TED was done,” Anderson said. “It was over.”

That bore out in the shocking state of next year’s registration. Usually, TED Conference tickets sold out a year in advance, according to Anderson. By the time he took the stage, 70 people signed up.

“I basically had one chance and once chance only [to show everyone] that it’s going to be OK,” Anderson said. “I went on stage, pulled up a chair, took a deep breath, and said, ‘You’re looking at someone who’s a complete loser.'”

Ted fellows retreat chris anderson talkTEDAnderson called himself a ‘loser’ in his 2002 TED Talk.

Anderson, wearing a wrinkled white tee and shaggy hair, described to the audience how the dot-com bust of 2000 had nearly destroyed him. Prior to founding his foundation, he spent 15 years building a computer-magazine publishing house, Future Media, that had just gone public at a valuation of $US2 billion. He was also a part-owner in Snowball, the last consumer web company to IPO before NASDAQ imploded.

He watched his endeavours crumble. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. His own net worth dropped about $US1 million a day, every day, for 15 months.

“The only thing that kept me from going crazy was reimmersion in the world of ideas,” Anderson told the packed house in Carmel-By-The-Sea. “TED was the only place you could come to where you could hear people from all these different disciplines and understand what they were saying. [I told them how] inspiring that was, and how important that was.”

Many people in the audience that day empathized with their new leader’s financial struggles. The dot-com crash had affected them all. More importantly, they shared his appreciation for “ideas worth spreading.”

An hour later, more than 200 people registered for the following year’s conference. TED went on to live another day. And another. And another.

You can watch Anderson speak at TED Conference 2000 below:

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