David Rae | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Rae

Background:  

TEDx Portland, located in the land of keeping things weird and kombucha home brews, has become the site of the largest TEDx conference in the country under the direction of David Rae. TEDx Portland is an independently organized TED event. In its eighth consecutive year, it has a rich history of spreading ideas, sharing knowledge and building community in Portland. This year's event will be held April 21.

The Mistake: 

I have hundreds. But one that comes to mind is good for a few laughs, because it’s kind of funny. In 2014, we decided to go really, really big. We moved the event into the Keller Auditorium for the first time. That seats around 3,000 people. For a frame of reference, we were in the Armory for the first two years, and then the Portland Art Museum. In 2011, the first year, we had about 700 attendees. So, 2014 was going to be huge.

We were so excited about the Keller. We produced a hardbound book. The speaker lineup was insane. But the one thing everyone remembers is the bag. We gave away a super-sweet Nike backpack. We put Stumptown coffee in it. Salt and Straw ice cream. It was the quintessential Portland swag, stuffed into a fancy $70 TEDx Portland-branded bag. Everyone loved it.

We created an expectation with the Portland attendee; we created the expectation of swag. Right or wrong, we created this massive expectation. No other TEDx around the world swags out their attendees like we do. We think it adds value to the event. We couldn’t wait to do it again. 

But – and this is a very big but – 2015 rolls around, and The Keller tells us that we can’t do backpacks again because it’s against fire code. So, we launch into this 59-email rabbit hole of a thread on what could work and we land on this design. We’re talking about 1,000 hours of time, and we land on a European carryall that I called the murse

It was a man-purse. It worked in theory. You could put your laptop in it. The fire marshal was cool with it, so people could bring it into the auditorium. We handed this loaded murse to our attendees at the beginning of the morning.

Unlike the super-popular backpacks that I still see floating around even today, I have only seen a murse once. It was 18 months ago at Powell’s bookstore, and I almost fainted. I asked the person, ‘Where did you get that?’ and that person replied: ‘I got it at Goodwill for $2.’ He was so proud, and I was so embarrassed. The murse will go down in TEDx Portland history as one of my biggest screw-ups. It was super well-intentioned and super-ridiculous.

The murse will go down in TEDx Portland history as one of my biggest screw-ups.

The Lesson: 

Last year, we returned to the backpack, which we gave out at the end of the day. It was an amazingly designed, $85 backpack, and I was able to let go of my vision that everyone would carry them throughout the day. They were fine to get them at the end and bring them home, like a goodie bag after a kid's birthday party. And the fire marshal was happy because they did not pose a fire hazard.

But I still wanted to up our game. It’s hard to live down that murse, at least internally. Last year we did billboards for the first time, about 25 of them. We have upcycled them this year, and we are so very proud of that. These billboards will have the faces and eyeballs of last year’s speakers, and they will be on this year’s bags, which will be totes, duffels and fanny packs. This will be the swag-bag this year, and it’s been a total evolution from the murse – and what not to do.

I am so stoked. I host the event, introduce the speakers, and make jokes during the day. I am excited to wear an upcycled fanny pack. And I am 100 percent going to make a joke about the murse. If we had not learned from that mistake, we would never have had the institutional memory and muscle to evolve the swag bag into what it is now. It’s thoughtful and functional and upcycled. Everyone will love it.

TEDx Portland is on twitter at: @TEDxPortland

​Photo of Davie Rae is courtesy of TEDx Portland

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