That’s a terrific analogy to your work in ed tech – in fact, I think education is one area in which this operating model can be most compelling (and a bit meta too – teachers teaching teachers!). You’re probably familiar with TED’s foray into this space with TED-Ed (http://ed.ted.com/), through which educators can create digital lessons and short snippets in the same style as a traditional TED talk (and with the mission of “lessons worth spreading” rather than “ideas worth spreading”). Certainly it is more of a supplementary / lifelong learning tool than a replacement for classroom lesson plans, but I find it to be a neat extension of the core business model.
In case you’re curious, here’s another great piece that addresses aspects of your question: http://www.fastcompany.com/3038626/why-ted-gave-up-control-of-its-brand-and-why-you-should-too
Thanks for reading! Certainly agree that other organizations can look to TED’s model in terms of building a community to drive growth. In the for-profit world, I almost think of it as a version of franchising, in which TED provides the brand equity and basic guidelines, and the TEDx host executes on the concept.
The community aspect is more prominent in the case of TED, though, and I think one aspect that the organization has managed very well is understanding precisely which parts of its business model to open up vs. keep closely held. To build on my response to Stephanie’s question above, the videos shown on TED’s website, for example, are still very much controlled – only about 1% of TEDx talks make it to the site for broad distribution.
You’re spot-on in that the question of control vs. reach becomes more and more of a pivotal question for TED as it continues to expand. I think the ideal outcome is that the broad reach can actually improve overall quality control, in that there are incrementally more community members who can serve as watchdogs. There are certainly structural aspects, though, that need to be in place for this to work – e.g., thoughtful evaluation process for TEDx conference host applicants.
In some ways, this aspect is akin to Wikipedia and the fact that the more open it becomes, the more chances there are for anyone to post an inaccurate or inappropriate comment, but the more opportunities there also are for the rest of the community to monitor and correct it.
A super interesting question and I certainly see parallels to Threadless. I think the value has evolved over time from pure idea-sharing to more of a balance between idea-sharing and community. In the beginning when the “business” comprised purely of a closed-off conference, the value creation was in the ideas that the speakers were able to disseminate to audience members.
Today, I think that is still a strong component (and likely still the single most valuable component, since without that, there would be no community), but particularly as the organization grows into a global phenomenon, it is the community aspect that has allowed it to scale as quickly as it has and has allowed it to reach geographic regions where it would be very difficult for the organization to host first-party conferences (e.g., prisons: http://blog.ted.com/ideas-on-lockdown-a-look-at-tedx-events-held-in-prisons/).
Such an innovative company, and excellent fodder for discussion above, too.
Agree with your point that folks don’t buy its glasses for the social philanthropy aspect – to that point, I recall reading an article last year about potential challenges that the company is facing in terms of its nonprofit partners keeping up with the growth that WP has experienced. It is a slightly different growth question than that faced by most startups, but I’d be curious to see how it chooses to scale its distribution partners in developing countries.
The other question I find myself asking – and this extends beyond WP to many companies with a philanthropic aspect to their business – is whether WP should focus on passing on its savings to its customers, rather than channeling it to its nonprofit partners. Particularly as it thinks about potentially going public, should its customers have the right to decide how to allocate that value? Personally, I think it comes down to a question of competitive advantage, and the fact that WP is uniquely positioned to generate the “most” social good through its buy-one-give-one program, but I do see some merit in the devil’s advocate argument that its competitive advantage is ultimately in its for-profit side.
Loved this post – I actually worked briefly with Airbnb from an investor perspective over the summer and am a huge fan. One longer-term critique that I’ve heard some in the industry make is that larger booking sites (e.g., Priceline, Orbitz) are just waiting for Airbnb to “establish” the market before coming in and taking market share for themselves by using their existing scale. Would love to hear your thoughts around how you think the longer-term ecosystem looks!
Big fan of Palantir and the niche it’s filling – I actually worked on Allen & Co’s investment a couple of years ago. Curious as to your thoughts on the scalability of its business model. Given its projects are so high-touch (as you mentioned), how well and how rapidly do you think it will be able to grow, particularly as its assignments become increasingly diverse outside of just the government sector? Would also be interested to hear your thoughts on its ability to continue attracting top engineering & dev talent, as that seems to be the other constraining factor.