Alan Webber and Bill Taylor created more than just a magazine--it's a movement, coming at
a time when the economy is exploding and business journalism is hip. Not everyone gets Fast Company, but those who do are hooked. The editors even have a name for it.
Bill Taylor, one of the two founding editors of Fast Company magazine, is holding the world's largest tuna fish sandwich. "This thing must weigh four pounds," he announces while he tries to unload half of it on anyone who wanders by. He is standing in an open space that multitasks as the magazine's lobby, kitchen, lunch counter, TV room, library and reception area. It being lunchtime, there's lots of traffic but no takers. So Taylor, dressed in jeans and a dark-blue shirt, walks into his office, settles
in behind his desk and begins to chow down. Children's drawings hang on the wall along with a photo of Bruce Springsteen, torn from the pages of Rolling Stone, with the pull quote, "People deserve the right to work. It's an enormous part of life." The third-floor office windows look out over a huge construction site, testament to a shiny new Boston, which on this grim winter day is looking dirty and old. Taylor, who doesn't seem to miss a move, spots a staff writer and yells, "I loved what you did!" In response, the writer, who is heading out for a non-tuna sandwich, yells back, "After lunch I'm going to tell you why I think you should think that the piece sucks." This is one of those instances--and there are more to follow--when the differences between the insular world of New York magazines and the out-there reality of Fast Company hits you like an "a-ha! moment."
A-ha! moments have been essential to Fast Company's jaw-dropping success since its launch in November 1995. Associate editor Heath Row, who runs the magazine's 25,000- person-strong fan club, the Company of Friends, says that every reader has such a moment--and then they're hooked.
The brainchild of Taylor and Alan Webber, this magazine of and for the New Economy has been a hit from the get-go in the two camps where it matters most--advertisers and readers. Its numbers zing: In 1999, ad revenue jumped 139 percent, to $37 million, and ad pages were up 61 percent, to 1,685, according to Publishers Information Bureau; circulation increased 57 percent, to just over 400,000. The magazine has consistently exceeded its yearly business plans, and word is that after only four years they are making money. Word also has it that Mort Zuckerman, who signed on as the magazine's financial backer in April 1995, entertains monthly offers from would-be suitors. Zuckerman, whose other publications (U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic) are more attention deprived, just giggles when Fast Company's litany of successes is recited. "I'm like the 80-year-old man who's the defendant in a paternity suit; I'm thrilled that people think I'm guilty." It has won a pile of edit awards, among them Adweek's "1996 Startup of the Year" and Advertising Age's "Launch of the Year" (1996) and "Magazine of the Year" (1998). And it has taken home a slew of design awards as well as the publishing world's pie-in-the-sky prize: a 1999 National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Its Web site has been singled out by broad-based publications and Webcentric organizations alike for its look and content.
All this attention for a magazine that is as confounding to traditional businesspeople as it is beloved by the upstarts. Just what makes it so successful?
For all its big numbers and size worries, the true secret of Fast Company's success is its ability to speak one-on-one with its readers. The Company of Friends provides a forum for these same readers to get together and talk about those issues. "The magic that happens when people get together face-to-face just doesn't happen online," says Row, who has been the driving force behind the group since it began in 1997. In talking to these members, you realize the degree to which they take the magazine's message to heart and the way in which it has made a difference in their lives. Hiroyasu "Ichi" Ichikawa, an account executive at U.S. Frontline News in New York, first saw the magazine in Tokyo in 1998 when he was working at a hot line for the non-Japanese community and feeling burned out. It was a sighting that changed his life: "I knew I had to come to the States," he says. In May of that year he traveled to Amherst, Mass., and made a point of stopping at the Boston offices, where he spoke with Row. "I could find in Fast Company magazine what I long looked for a new way of doing business doing exciting things while making a profit," says Ichikawa.
Similar testimonials arrive at the magazine's offices from old and new subscribers. One e-mail came from a woman who had just discovered Fast Company. "I'm not sure where the copy of your Jan./Feb. 2000 issue came from What I wanted to tell you was that since obtaining this creative little publication it has not left my desk at work except to go home with me. As one breezes through the articles there is a sense of urgency and movement reminding us all how quickly the world and the way we do business is changing. I can't wait to get the next issue."
Taylor and Webber met at the Harvard Business Review in the late 1980s; Webber was the managing editor/editorial director, and Taylor, who had graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Management, was looking for work in Boston (his wife Chloe had signed on to work for the Dukakis presidential campaign). The a-ha! moment--when they dreamed up Fast Company--is not so specific, although the Review was a place where both men were exposed to new ideas. "There were pieces of the future on the table," says Webber, trying to explain Fast Company's genesis. "And it was a matter of assembling the pieces into a picture that made sense and was accessible and fun and on the pulse of the time." According to the version of Webber's biography posted on Fast Company's Web site, the idea for the magazine came to him "one night when he tripped on a discarded shoe box and hit his head on an open desk drawer. On the desk were copies of Rolling Stone, the Harvard Business Review and U.S. News & World Report."
In fact, the idea grew out of a belief shared by him and Taylor that the business world was changing and that traditional magazines weren't speaking to these changes. "Nothing against HBR, but in their view of the world everything starts with The Company as opposed to the person," says Taylor. "Everything starts with size and respectability as opposed to 'We're a guerrilla army with a great idea. We may not dress very well or smell very good, but we're here to do something big.' "
Many people mistakenly assume that Fast Company is an Internet magazine. But the truth is that it is more a lifestyle magazine about work in a time when old-fashioned ways of doing business are being transformed by new technologies and the emergence of a truly global economy.
"Look at all the folks who are coming out of college and business school today that are 21, 24, 25 years old and going directly into really challenging work experiences," says Webber. "It's total immersion, and the question is, 'How do I play this game? What are the new rules? What are the best practices?' Conversely, 'I'm a 55-year-old who is supposed to be working with a 25-year-old newly minted MBA. How do I do that?' Hopefully, we're the answer."
It's the way that Fast Company has chosen to address these questions that has created a cult-like legion of readers--as well as some detractors. "We could see the kind of magazine we wanted to put out," says Taylor of the early days. "HBR just felt very anachronistic relative to the time we saw ourselves living in, so we looked at each other and said, 'There really is a chance to start a magazine that does something new.'
"Back then we said, 'We're not just a magazine, we're a movement,'" he continues. "We didn't know what it meant, but it sort of turned out that way."
"I can't believe I'm going to say this because it makes me sound like a such a suck-up," announces Fast Company's founding art director Patrick Mitchell, "but Bob and Alan are the closest things to visionaries that I've ever seen." This from a man whose breakthrough design is considered as essential to Fast Company's success as its editorial.
"Our definition of success is not, 'We really got someone. We really took Bill Gates down,'" says Taylor. "The premise of this magazine is to make a contribution to our readers so they can work better, lead smarter and have richer, more rewarding lives." But it is curious that two men coming out of a liberal political background have adopted a rah-rah kind of writing and reporting rather than the more hard-hitting, investigative-type journalism. One experienced editor, who was far along in the interviewing process for a job with Fast Company, finally decided against a job with them for just this reason. "I was pretty excited about working for them. But at some point it began to weigh on my mind that I was a journalist and they were very much not journalists They were cheerleaders."
The editors willingly cop to this. "We often get accused of being too optimistic," says Taylor. "And I plead a little guilty to that." Peter Carbonara, who freelanced for Fast Company in the early days and is now a senior writer for Money magazine, remembers this as their m.o. "Their point of view was anti-ironic. They really didn't want to be cynical."
Recently, some of the stories have taken a, if not cynical, then realistic approach to the world of business. Fast Company has begun to address some of the downsides of work in the new business world--which seem to be the same downsides of the old business world. In Nov. 1999, the cover asked the question, "Betrayed by Work?" Pam Kruger wrote about a California psychologist who had formed a support group for people (primarily women) who had given their all at the office and still found themselves, for any number of reasons, out on the street. The March 2000 issues raises questions about the new greed, which has become part and parcel of the new economy.
But don't think for a minute Fast Company is ready to join the Forbes and Fortunes of the business magazine world. Fast Company has been a wake-up call for business magazines that have a top-down approach to the working world. "People from traditional business magazines look at us and don't know what to make of us," says Taylor. "We write a lot about the Internet, we write a lot about strategy and we write a lot about marketing. But the personality of the magazine is such that we eagerly embrace the fact that this is a very emotional thing that we've all got ourselves into."
"From the e-mail that we got when we launched it was clear that there are a lot of people in the new economy that don't want to settle for just a paycheck or a nine-to-five job," says Webber. "They really do believe that there's more to work than just making a living. They want to make a difference, they want to do something that matters."
At 51, Webber is the right age to have plenty of hippie left in him. Born in St. Louis, he moved to Portland, Ore., after graduating from Amherst College; he spent 10 years editing an alternative newspaper and then went to work for Neil Goldschmidt, the mayor of Portland. When Goldschmidt became Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Transportation, Webber went with him as a special assistant. In 1981, following Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan, Webber went to the Harvard Business School as a senior research assistant and coordinated a project on the auto industry in America. During his six years at the Harvard Business Review, it was a three-time National Magazine Award finalist.
Taylor, who is 41 and slightly behind that '60s curve,was born in Waterbury, Conn. He attended Princeton in the mid-'70s, when the anti-apartheid movement was at its height. He had no time for the student newspaper--he was too busy going to demonstrations and organizing campus political activities. During this time he met Ralph Nader, a Princeton alum, who tapped Taylor before graduation and asked him to help him co-author a book. Taylor spent three years in D.C. "I was 23, spending hours in the offices of the all-powerful CEOs talking about the nature of power, the nature of corporate responsibility. It was like, 'Holy shit.' My eyes were just opened as to how interesting business was."
Taylor and Webber love to tell the story of their first meeting. "I went over to talk to Alan about a job at HBR," says Taylor. "Literally in the issue that came out for my interview, he body-slammed the book that I had co-written with Ralph Nader." What bothered Taylor most was a nagging feeling that Webber hadn't even read the work he was dissing. "So I said to him, 'Gee, it feels like you didn't even read it,' and he said, 'Of course I didn't. Why would I waste my time doing that? Ralph Nader was the co-author.' Alan was the special assistant to Neil Goldschmidt when he was Secretary of Transportation and I was down there with Nader so my theory is that I was protesting under his window while he was up in his office smoking cigars."
This is a tale they have obviously told more than once, and yet they share it with strangers in a manner that is both deadpan (Webber) and droll (Taylor). In his defense, Webber likes to point out that it was a parenthetical negative review, that he would never review a book that he hasn't read. In the telling, Taylor is more animated and has one of the world's best laughs; Webber is less obvious and gives off a lower-key energy. But there is an ease to the way they complement each other that in an a-ha! moment hints at the way they have been able to make Fast Company the magazine of their dreams.
As grown men with families, both Taylor and Webber agree that the single biggest issue on their personal agendas for the next three years is the work/life balance. "How do I do what it takes to win but also lead a life that I'm proud of?" asks Taylor, who still remembers leaving the offices one morning at 4 a.m. with seven other staffers during a particularly grueling close. Ironically, the biggest-selling issue to date was last July, with a cover that screamed: "How to Design a Life That Works.''
They, more than most, are in control of designing such a life. And the secret may be in dealing with the issue that looms largest on the Fast Company agenda: How do they manage the magazine's success--specifically, how do they design an ad/edit ratio that works now that the magazine is reaching telephone book-sized proportions?
"It's a great magazine that really hit a nerve when it was first published, and it's continued to evolve," says Barry Lowenthal, media director at Kirshenbaum & Bond. "But it's gotten too big. We're concerned about the size, and now we give it a second thought." Lowenthal is not alone. E-mails poured in last fall from subscribers who were tired of not being able to make it through an entire issue. Taylor and Webber admit that they are struggling to find a solution. "We're very sensitive about what is the right thing for our readers," says Taylor. "But at the same time we can't be cavalier about our advertisers."
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution. Nor is there a magic number. Zuckerman admits they will set a limit on ad pages, although, he says, "it's not going to be 11."
Lowenthal wonders how effective the magazine can continue to be. "They should either go biweekly or, I can't believe I'm saying this, charge more per page."
It's an enviable problem, dealing with success.
"I had no idea that they would be so successful, but when I look back now I'm not surprised," says Carbonara. "They had an idea that sounded completely crazy, they were really driven and they worked really hard. That's what starting a business is about." n
Kitty Bowe Hearty has written for Premiere, Interview and Esquire