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Live from #SXSW: Tim O’Reilly on the power of big ideas

If you want to build an enduring brand, don’t start with a great product, an ingenious business plan or a clever logo, says publisher, author and tech conference impresario, Tim O’Reilly. Begin with a big, audacious goal.

“I can’t think of a great company that doesn’t have a great vision,” he said during an on-stage interview with Jason Calacanis at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Friday.

O’Reilly’s core business is publishing technical manuals, but his company began life as a consulting firm. He noticed that his clients were consistently asking the same questions over and over again because technical manuals for programmers at the time weren’t addressing their needs. During a downturn in the consulting market, O’Reilly started consolidating answers to common questions into short books.

The company made its name in publishing after a friend helped some of the employees sneak into a tech conference they hadn’t been invited to with 30 copies of one of the company’s early manuals. By the end of the conference they had orders for 10,000 more copies.

When the company had started its publishing operations, it went to Sun Microsystems and asked if that firm would like to license all O’Reilly’s manuals for $25,000. Sun declined. One year later, after the company’s tech conference debut, Sun ordered $1 million worth of hard copies.

The manuals were different from what was on the market on the time, he said. Technical manuals were stuffy and difficult to read. O’Reilly wrote in the second person to make his directions more easily understood. The manuals also noted instances where a program didn’t work as advertised and would suggest workarounds, something no official manual at the time would do.

The books had strange black-and-white drawings of animals on their covers, a concept pitched by an artist friend of one O’Reilly employee, even though the artist didn’t know much about the company or technology. O’Reilly approved the drawings because they made the manuals seems less imposing, but also a little bit mysterious, O’Reilly said.

They “created a barrier to entry with branding,” he says.  The manuals are “not immediately apparent why they are the way they are — but if you know, boy, you’re in the club,” he said.

But the brand wasn’t in the unusual writing or the strange covers. It was in O’Reilly’s goal to help people change the world with technology. “Great brands have a core. They mean something,” he said. “Think of it as a train engine. it has be going someplace a lot of people want to go and … powerful enough to bring them all along as it builds momentum.” he added.

Since those early days, O’Reilly has made a name for himself by helping to popularize ideas such as Web 2.0, open source technology and cloud computing — even though O’Reilly is quick to add that in all of those case, he didn’t come up with the concept or the term, so much as he found a way to explain them and help them gain traction.

“I’m really only good at one thing … pattern recognition. I see people and stories that point to a bigger picture,” he said. “I have, I suppose, strong opinions loosely held and I’m good at meeting people and asking questions,” he continued.

Calacanis noted that O’Reilly greets every new person he meets by asking them what they’re working on.

“It’s not the entrepreneur that’s chasing a million bucks [you need to watch], it’s the guy chasing the big idea,” said O’Reilly.