Between MBA programs and exclusive conferences, tech entrepreneurs with big dreams and ambitions to match can spend a fortune learning what it takes to bring world-changing ideas to market. But the Internet is flush with free resources to help founders sharpen their skills — and TED Talks are a great starting point.
Founded in 1984 as a single conference about Technology, Entertainment, and Design, TED has since grown into a global community with over 2,200 talks on different subjects in more than 100 different languages. Entrepreneurship is a common theme.
Below we've embedded 12 popular TED Talks about business and entrepreneurship. Watch them all and you'll come away with a tuition-free mini-MBA in leadership, innovation, and productivity, plus a few ideas for overcoming the barriers to success that plague every startup founder.
1. Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action
In this talk, author and consultant Simon Sinek introduces entrepreneurs to a concept called "the golden circle," centered around the question why?
"What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?" Sinek says. "Inspired leaders and inspired organizations—regardless of their size, regardless of their industry—all think, act and communicate from the inside out."
Watch this talk if you've yet to define the broader purpose you're pursuing as a founder or if you need help communicating your passion to investors and world-class talent.
2. Bel Pesce: 5 Ways to Kill Your Dreams
This 2014 talk from Brazilian entrepreneur Bel Pesce uses a clever bit of reverse psychology to help identify the habits that may be holding you back.
"Life is never about the goals themselves. Life is about the journey," Pesce says. "Yes, you should enjoy the goals themselves, but people think that you have dreams, and whenever you get to reaching one of those dreams, it's a magical place where happiness will be all around. But achieving a dream is a momentary sensation, and your life is not. The only way to really achieve all of your dreams is to fully enjoy every step of your journey."
Watch this talk if you're struggling to complete ambitious projects or spending too much time talking about plans that never get executed.
3. Scott Dinsmore: How to Find Work You Love
In this very personal talk from 2012, entrepreneur Scott Dinsmore explains the misery that led him to start Live Your Legend, a career community where he helps others find the work they love.
"As I'm trying to figure out what two-story window I'm going to jump out of and change things up, I read some altogether different advice from Warren Buffett, and he said, 'Taking jobs to build up your resume is the same as saving up sex for old age.' That was all I needed,"Dinsmore says.
Watch if your startup has yet to get traction and some much-needed inspiration would do you good. (Dinsmore spent years trying to get traction.)
4. Elon Musk: The Mind Behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity ...
In this talk from the main stage at TED 2013, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk sits down with conference curator and former WIRED editor Chris Anderson and explains the rationale for his bets on electric cars, solar power, and reusable spaceships.
"Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn't be able to get through the day," Musk says. "But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive."
Watch this talk to get a view into how one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs uses systems thinking to achieve world-changing results.
5. Regina Hartley: Why the Best Hire Might Not Have the Perfect Resume
In this talk, UPS human resources manager Regina Hartley explains why underdog candidates who look bad on paper—a group she calls "scrappers"—are sometimes the greatest achievers.
"Scrappers are propelled by the belief that the only person you have full control over is yourself. When things don't turn out well, Scrappers ask, 'What can I do differently to create a better result?' Scrappers have a sense of purpose that prevents them from giving up on themselves," Hartley says.
Watch if your lack of a premium pedigree is killing your confidence. Also good for founders of fast-growing businesses who'd benefit from hiring a few underdog scrappers.
6. Ludwick Marishane: A Bath Without Water
In this 2012 talk, South African business scientist Ludwick Marishane describes how packaging played a role in getting consumers to try his invention: the world's first lotion capable of substituting for a bath.
"One of the things we learned was that poor communities don't buy products in bulk.They buy products on demand. A person ... doesn't buy a box of cigarettes. They buy one cigarette each day, even though it's more expensive," Marishane says. "So we packaged DryBath in these innovative little sachets.You just snap them in half, and you squeeze it out."
Watch to spur your thinking about distribution. Would a simpler model get your innovation into the right hands faster? What could you change to improve the odds of your ideal audience finding your product?
7. Navi Radjou: Creative Problem-Solving In the Face of Extreme Limits
In a 2014 TED Talk, innovation and leadership strategist Navi Radjou talks about the power of constraints for unleashing breakthroughs.
"When you grow up in a developing country like India, as I did, you instantly learn to get more value from limited resources and find creative ways to reuse what you already have," Radjousays. "Take Mansukh Prajapati, a potter in India. He has created a fridge made entirely of clay that consumes no electricity. He can keep fruits and vegetables fresh for many days. That's a cool invention, literally."
Watch this talk if resources are thin and you need a bit of creative inspiration. What's usable around you? What could you borrow and who could you call on?
8. Joi Ito: Want to Innovate? Become a "Now-ist"
Talking from the stage at TED 2014, Joichi "Joi" Ito, an entrepreneur and investor who leads the MIT Media Lab, explains how, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake that rocked Okuma, Japan, he and a team hacked a system for tracking the world's radiation.
"The Internet caused innovation, at least in software and services, to go from an MBA-driven innovation model to a designer-engineer-driven innovation model, and it pushed innovation to the edges, to the dorm rooms, to the startups, away from the large institutions, the stodgy old institutions that had the power and the money and the authority," Ito says. "We all know this happened on the Internet. It turns out it's happening in other things, too."
Watch if you need ideas or inspiration for how to hack your process and innovate faster.
9. Travis Kalanick: Uber's Plan to Get More People Into Fewer Cars
In February, Uber's co-founder took to the TED main stage to talk about uberPOOL, his company's idea for making it easier for riders to share transportation and in the process reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.
"We saw a lot of people pushing the same button at the same time going essentially to the same place," Kalanick says. "So we started [wondering]: how do we make those two trips and turn them into one? Because if we did, that ride would be a lot cheaper—up to 50 percent."
Watch if you've had a breakthrough but wonder what's next. Does your innovation introduce new problems? If so, how can you solve it? And if not, what tangential problems could you address for customers by tweaking or extending your offering?
10. Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?
In this talk from the 2015 TED stage, British entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Dame Stephane Shirley explains what she learned founding and growing a company of and for women at a time when the marketplace was dominated by men.
"Let me share with you two secrets of success: Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like; and choose your partner very, very carefully," Shirley explains. "Because the other day when I said, 'My husband's an angel,' a woman complained—'You're lucky,' she said, 'mine's still alive.'"
Watch for creative inspiration as you assemble a team. Are you fishing in the same lake as your competitors? If so, why?
11. Joe Gebbia: How Airbnb designs for trust
Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia explains how careful design can overcome one of our deepest-rooted human fears.
"In art school, you learn that design is much more than the look and feel of something—it's the whole experience," Gebbia says. "We learned to do that for objects, but here, we were aiming to build Olympic trust between people who had never met. It turns out [that] a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust."
Watch if you've hit a growth plateau in your startup. Are there on-the-fence customers who won't sign up because of one or more deep-rooted fears? How could you redesign your offering to address their objections?
12. ShaoLan Hsueh: The Chinese zodiac, explained
In another talk given on the TED main stage in February, author and entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh illustrates how the people of the world's most populous country use the zodiac to make decisions—and reveals a flaw that should be of interest to startup founders.
"Tiger and Goat babies will face much less competition. Maybe they are the lucky ones,"Hsueh says. "I went through the Forbes top 300 richest people in the world, and it's interesting to see the most undesirable two animals, the Goat and Tiger, are at the top of the chart, even higher than the Dragon. So maybe we should consider, maybe it's much better to have less competition."
Watch if you're struggling to find ways to stand out in a highly competitive market. Could you pivot and find a home in a less-crowded submarket?
What are the most important lessons you've learned as a startup founder? Let us know by leaving a comment below.