As last year, some of the die-hard TED faithful have been grousing about audience fragmentation and cliques-within-cliques at the conference since its move to Long Beach a few years ago. People — especially some from Silicon Valley– have pined for the days when everyone was stuck in the same hotel in Monterey and there wasn’t much else to do except listen to speakers, have great conversations and get to know one-another.
Until this year, the only option was inventing a time machine or another conference with the same panache, A-list attendees and editorial chops. Both would take time. So entrepreneur and conference organizer Francisco Dao has a more immediately feasible idea: Rent out a hotel in Monterey, sign up for the TED live feed, get a bunch of huge screen TVs and bean bags and invite fifty of the most interesting people he can find to virtually attend the conference together. The idea is brilliantly obvious: No one disputes the quality of the TED content, it’s the breakdown of the community that has some attendees in a funk. So Dao isn’t remaking or reinventing the content, he’s reinventing the community in the mold–and even in the location–of classic TED.
This is legal because TED allows anyone to buy the live feed at a cost of $500 per ten viewers, as long as you don’t charge for attendance. Dao is paying $2,500 out of pocket, and the 50 invited guests get to watch for free, they just pay for their hotel room. How do you get on the list? Go to and sign up for updates. He’ll vet you via social and real world networks and invite you if you seem cool. Service providers need not apply unless they want to pony up for sponsorship dollars. This is all about innovators, he says.
Dao has recently started a company called 50Kings that focuses on creating experiences for fifty interesting people in the tech and media entrepreneurship world. This is his first event out of that company, although unlike future events, he’s not making money off of this one to make sure he doesn’t run afoul of TED’s live feed rules. The events will be different every time. For instance, this summer he’s planning a cattle drive for 50Kings, and he’s mulling some sort of adventure in Europe after that.
Of course there’s a curse to success when it comes to high-level, VIP events: Good people want to keep coming and more good people want to get in. Few events can stay at just fifty people. David Hornik’s invite-only conference The Lobby — which Dao has modeled the feel of his events off of– has swelled to 200, and he’s struggling to keep it that small. The key is refusing to guarantee past attendees that they’re always invited, and that can ruffle feathers. Dao is hoping to get around that by purposely not trying to develop something for everyone. For instance, a cattle drive with fifty entrepreneurs sounds hilariously entertaining enough to me, that I’d be willing to risk falling off a horse. (Which would probably happen.) But Michael Arrington may prefer conferences with pampered pool time.