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August 11, 2004

Reader’s Remedies for Fast Company

Last week we asked if Fast Company (FC) was still fast. We received a lot of comments and suggestions from Brand Autopsy readers on why FC is no longer fast and how they can recapture their relevance.

One of the most prevalent comments was FC just doesn’t speak to readers like it once did. It seems many folks believe FC’s mission circa 1996 no longer resonates in the bottom-line reality-based business environment of 2004. Ed Berenger summed it up this way, “When FC began, people were looking for something new. Today, we have plenty of new, what we want is … hmm … less cleverness and more reality … more honesty … less spin … more groundedness … less demagoguery.”

I was especially taken aback by how many influential business professionals have let their Fast Company subscription lapse and are not compelled to renew. From the feedback we received, these influential business professionals are more into Business 2.0, Wired, and Inc. than they are into Fast Company. Interesting. Very interesting.

So … what should Fast Company STOP DOING, START DOING, and CONTINUE DOING to recapture their relevance? We asked our readers and hear is what you said ...

Reader’s Remedies for Fast Company

STOP

  • Stop trying to be Fast Company circa 1996 [Ed]
  • Stop promulgating a political bias [Ed]
  • Stop trying to be a movement more than a magazine [Ed]
  • Stop trying to be so trendy you become irrelevant [Skip]
  • Stop being all talk with no real world application [Danielle]
  • START

  • Start regaining its focus on the radically heartfelt personal side of business [Evelyn]
  • Start being Fast Company 2004 by finding a new edge to exploit [Ed]
  • Start honing in on a new long-term strategy [Danielle]
  • Start bringing back its fresh, different, and upstart magazine perspective [Steve]
  • CONTINUE

  • Continue having a unique perspective different than Fortune, Forbes, Inc., and Businessweek [Katherine]
  • Continue showcasing the community involvement of remarkable companies [Katherine]
  • Continue writing about unique companies who treat their employees as people and not tools [Katherine]
  • Feel free to continue adding to the STOP | START | CONTINUE list.

    Paul and I will send a complete list over to Fast Company once we add more of your thoughts.

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    Comments

    The Fast Company conundrum makes no sense to me. The magazine was a true original--and exactly right for the times. But the change in tone and tenor of the workplace (outsourcing, offshoring, white-collar automation tools) make FC more, not less, relevant than before. I was an early contributor, and wrote with Alan Webber the Brand You/Me Inc. piece. I never actually saw Brand You as "cool," I always saw it as nothing short of necessary in a changing world where neither AT&T nor IBM nor even Apple could guarantee 5 years of employment, let alone 25. Indeed FC (and me!), like Rich Karlgaard (Forbes publisher), were caught up in the unlimited potential of the Web, broadband, etc. Funny thing, all the hype is coming true X10, just a little later than some/we had imagined. So the relevance--and uniqueness--of FC is higher, not lower, than ever. I do indeed devour Wired--it has no relation to FC, instead it's a handy way, with decent writing, to stay more or less close to the front edge of cool stuff. Business 2.0 I skim, but seldom plunge into. I guess I also don't understand cancelling subscriptions. We all need all the help we can get. I inhale dozens upon dozens of mags-per-month, at least a half-dozen newspapers a day, patrol the Web-blogsphere an hour or two a day--and still find it nigh on impossible to even fake keeping up! Long live Fast Company, and the territory for which it stands! tom peters

    It is an interesting discussion. I am less optimistic than Tom about the future of the Fast Company. Publishing business has always been very tough and with the Internet bubbles burst, the newsstand sales dropped and advertising market for magazines has mostly disappeared. Most of the New Economy magazines like Red Herring, Industry Standard and Tornado Insider has been shut down. Others like Fast Company and the Time Warner's Business 2.0 barely survived. A true test would be to see how many publications would remain 12 month from now. Could Fast Company “re-imagine” itself or will it join the rest of the crowd???

    P.S. There was a good Knowledge@Wharton article about the ongoing turn around of this once high-flying publication led by John Byrne.

    I enjoyed Tom's response but his second sentence said it all ...
    "The magazine was a true original--and exactly right for the times".

    "Was a true original" - is exactly what many of the posts said in commenting on the future of FC. It was cutting edge in the beginning and some of it's predicitions have come through - but then was then, it's not the early days anymore. And saying it "was a true original" sounds more like a tombstone than a recommendation.

    The real question is how many people consider today's FC "a true original" and how many of us will be thumbing back through today's issues five or more years from now and say "Wow! They were right!"

    To quote Tom's own prophetic words from "Re-Imagine, p 33" when discussing the great companies of the future - "They will be built to yield something of value - and once that value has been exhasted, they will vanish..... Make a Big Impact and then a Quick Exit"

    FC was a great mag, it's lessons are still applicable today ~ but it seems that the consensus opinion here is that it's no longer that same magazine.
    Nobody's saying the territory isn't still important to cover it
    just doesn't seem that FC is covering it the way it use to.So in the phrasing of TP himself -Blow It Up ~ Or Make A Quick Exit!

    As for the question about cancelling subscriptions - the best way to vote in our world is sometimes with the almighty dollar and when FC lost it's focus it lost my vote (and my recommendation to others for their votes).

    Steve

    It's funny that Peters still pines for the good old days. When FC was last relevent, circa, mid-90's Peters was on the best seller list. He might want to fix his own brand first. In pursuit of wow!

    I used to tell people about Fast Company and clip out many articles to share. The past year? Only one. I let my subscription lapse.

    I'm a fairly new convert to FC (hiding down here in Sydney we sometimes miss what's hot... by about 8 years!) and started reading at the insistance of rather brilliant people like tom peters & seth godin.
    I've been an Inc. reader for the past 2 years, and am a diehard fan (especially Norm!) and so it gives me great pleasure to explore (& love!) my new find.
    long live FC I say... it helps us down here in the colonies stay just a little bit less far behind...

    Living in Lisbon - Portugal, I also let my FC subscription lapse.
    Why? Not because I moved to Business2 - although I was also a B2 subscriber, not any longer.
    But because I find FC less relevant to these post-bust times. B2 is dry, and IMHO I still much prefer FC,
    but as someone already mentioned, we now need a FC more focused on the down-2-earth business reality
    of these bottom-line-is-what-counts times.

    I disagree with Tom Peters "I guess I also don't understand cancelling subscriptions. We all need all the help we can get. I inhale dozens upon dozens of mags-per-month, at least a half-dozen newspapers a day, patrol the Web-blogsphere an hour or two a day--and still find it nigh on impossible to even fake keeping up!"

    Well, I guess that not all of us have neither the time nor the resources to subscribe to dozens upon dozens
    of mags, newspapers, etc. Not unless one wants to make a Quick-Exit on a job that supports a family ;))
    and relinquishes spending some quality time with one's kids. My solution:
    no to info-glut, yes to carefully selected sources of information.
    One last thing: FC's design is still delightful and keeps me coming back as a newsstand reader.
    Form over substance? Anyone?...

    Manual Trackback Below. Don't know why my trackback didn't work...but here's my last 2 cents on the FC brand saga. Actually it's my dashed-off entry to their brand contest. I only submitted an entry for FC as it's the only one on the list that I had an emotional connection to.

    http://evelynrodriguez.typepad.com/crossroads_dispatches/2004/08/fast_company_po_1.html

    My suggestion for what Fast Company should do is begin with an internal assessment of who their principal influencers are. Who are the thought leaders that they are following.

    Then they need to map out those relationships: who are they, what industry or field of business or research do they represent, where do they live, etc. Once you've done that try to establish both the idea and interpersonal links between all these people. Who are their intellectual ancestors, and if they know each other, how, why and where do they interact.

    Once that map is complete. Sit down and read Ron Burt's Structural Holes. It is about the social structure of competition. It is the flip side of social capital that builds on close, tight community relations. This is about creating genuine diversity. Then redefine diversity, look for people out of the mainstream innovation world, and begin to listen to them. Look for people who are trying to market themselves to get into the pages of FastCompany. Look for the people who are creating new things and are invisible, and need to be visible.

    In essence, broaden your network of contributors and influencers. And don't ask your current core leadership who to go to. Go find the people who are out of the in-crowd loop, and are ahead of everyone.

    FastCompany is a magazien of exploration. So, go explore, discovery, find out what is new.

    START using independent blogs like PSFK to spot cultural trends that will be affecting you: http://www.psfk.com

    I agree with what Tom said about FC, it was a true original idea and exactly right for the time. But as it happens with all, the world in which we are living is moving in such a rapid that FC has not been able to speak to those whom it use to. Mainly because of the fact that it is focusing less and less on the individual and more and more on the corporation. The corporation is no longer a valid idea and as per Tom, it’s the time of cool projects not cool giant corporations. If FC wants to revive itself, it has to re-focus itself from biggies to the ones that are making the difference in the economy. In the words of Tom, it’s the time for FC to re-imagine itself.

    What a great discussion. We're always interested in ways to improve ourselves, so feel free to email me (or anyone else--email addresses are all on our web site) if you have any suggestions, complaints, or praise for what we're doing. Have read what's here and will take it to heart....

    Jena McGregor
    Associate Editor
    Fast Company
    jmcgregor at fastcompany dot com

    Agreed. We've even shared your feedback with John, the editor in chief. We appreciate your help!

    Even before I became editor-in-chief of Fast Company some 16 months ago, I had heard and read similar comments about the magazine. The upshot: we have reinvented Fast Company for a different time. It is not and cannot be the Fast Company launched by Alan Webber and Bill Taylor nearly ten years ago.

    But we still hold true to our founders' original mission and vision: to provide the ideas, the tools, and the inspiration to make a meaningful difference in a radically changing world of work. And we are dramatically different and, I would argue, still quite fast. But we're also sophisticated, provocative, edgy, and irreverent.

    Consider:

    * There is no other business magazine on the planet that would devote an entire issue to the topic of courage, putting the newly courageous Cowardly Lion on its cover. In the same month that Fortune's annual leadership issue honors power, we honor honor courage, the most important attribute of leadership and the least discussed and studied. There is no other business magazine out there that re-examine the ideas and concepts of the New Economy, criticizing itself in the process, and making this point by putting a wiser and more thoughtful-looking Sock Puppet on its cover.
    * Other business magazines cover the news, providing analysis and interpretation of that news. They don't exist with the goals to provoke action or change behavior as we do.

    * Other business magazines are filled with stock tables, profit charts, and marketshare graphs. Fast Company is filled with actionable ideas culled from stories that show how smart people work.

    * Other business magazines are still caught up with CEO celebrity. Yes, we write about the well-known mavericks of business, but we largely focus on the people who do the real work: the team that kept designer Michael Graves' business going when he nearly died; the off-the-radar folks who designed the first U.S.-made hybrid at Ford, the team that won HP the largest contract in its history and how they did it as an underdog.

    * Other business magazines cover the same companies and the same people again and again. In every issue of Fast Company, you'll discover people and organizations you've never read about before, from Kinetics--the 67-person company that makes those self-service kiosks at airports and has beaten all the big companies in that field--to Aveda--the socially-conscious body care company.

    * Other business magazines buy into the Wall Street logic of management. If the company's earnings fail to meet expectations, something is wrong. We care about the ideas and the people--not the quarterly profits. At Fast Company, we have strongly-held values that inform our journalism and that sets us apart from the conventional business press. It's worth repeating them here because other magazines simply do not have beliefs or values, other than to publish "the best news product." We believe that there is no greater force in the world than the power of an idea that can shape a person, an organization, or a society. We believe that work is truly personal, the ultimate expression of self. We believe that leadership should be inspirational, not dogmatic. We believe that organizations should be true meritocracies where people rise and fall on their merits, not politics. We believe there is more to business than just the bottom line; that business has social responsibilities. And we believe that bold risk-taking and very different ways of doing things inherently lead to competitive advantage. That is why we champion and often celebrate the bold, the maverick, the change agent--and aren't very interested in people or organzations that seek incremental change.

    Finally, a word or two about Business 2.0. Fast Company never was an Internet magazine. Though we often write about how technology changes the way we work and live, technology coverage does not dominate our pages. 2.0 is essentially the last remaining Internet trade book. It is a combination of ecompany.now, with which it was merged, Ziff-Davis's Smart Business, Red Herring, and Yahoo Internet Life, all failed publications from which 2.0 has bought subscription lists. 2.0 did not buy these lists to grow its circulation, but rather to meet the circulation rate base it gives to its advertisers. Substract out those readers who really bought Red Herring and Smart Business or what not, and 2.0 reaches roughly half of our readership. No wonder 2.0 is losing millions and under constant speculation that it will be closed by Time Inc. where as a trade book it is an anomaly.

    That's why I have jokingly referred to the magazine as the Frankenstein of the Time Inc. publishing empire, a magazine that is composed of the body parts of four failed Internet publications, wounded and wandering lost in the media forest. It is still a technology-heavy trade book, not a magazine that inspires, that provokes, that delivers ideas that can change your life. Yes, it does more than technology stories. It does an oddball ranking of business schools, a la Business Week. It does an annual list of the dumbest moments in business, something you'd more appropriately expect in Fortune. It even tries to compete against Forbes magazine, by offering investment advice on its back pages and doing writeups on expensive toys--fast cars with fat pricetags--for men in the hopes of getting that kind of advertising.

    That's not what we're about. At Fast Company, we're constantly pitched stories by public relations folks. Some are good, many aren't. But we find that most of those pitches end up in 2.0. That's not our way of doing business. It never will be.

    So are we still fast? Against the more sobering, more conventional mainstream business media, and against the wannabes like a 2.0, we are hyper fast and, most importantly, we are very different. Can we be better? Of course. Have we run stories I wish we didn't publish? You bet. Have we missed some stories I wish we had run? Obvously.

    But the joy and the thrill of editing a monthly magazine is that you get another shot every month. We need more stories that inspire; we need in our pages more edgy people and ideas; and we need to consistently deliver lessons and concepts that can help people make a meaningful difference in their lives.

    I can tell you this, too: I bring 150% of myself to the job of making all of this happen for our readers. Work is personal, and this is my life. My team shares this great passion with me. We've involved, enthused, maybe even a bit crazy in the love we share for our work and this magazine.

    We believe, after all, that Fast Company is not merely another business magazine. It is at the core of a vibrant and involved community of deeply engaged readers, all keen on making a difference with their lives. They lead organizations and teams, small and large. They understand that business is a powerful force for good and for change.

    Nine years ago this November, Fast Company debuted with a manifesto: The New Rules of Business--Work is Personal, Computing is Social, Knowledge is Power, Break the Rules. We still believe in our creed, and we still fill our pages every month with the people, the organizations, and the ideas that are changing the world of work, breaking the rules. If you had given up on us after the bust, please give us another look. I think you'll see very quickly how unique and how fast we truly are.

    John A. Byrne
    Editor-in-Chief
    Fast Company

    I remember when Tom Peter's mentioned Fast Company in his syndicated column, "Tom Peters On Excellence," back in the early nineties. He tooted the FC horn loud and clear back then and well before the rest of the world knew anything about it. When his column hit the Chicago Tribune, I immediately raced out to buy a FC copy. I've been a subscriber ever since and in touch with Alan on and off, praising his brainchild. FC continues to remain an inspiring and insanely great magazine.

    Recently, I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with John Byrne at the Women Presidents' Organization annual conference in San Francisco earlier this year. He gave a keynote address to the audience who comprised of women presidents who have guided their businesses to over $2 million in annual revenue. Based on what I saw and what I heard, John will deliver on his promise of filling the FC pages with genius people, organizations and ideas that change the way we live and work. I also hope that one of the new edges he chooses to promote in future FC issues will be on gifted businesswomen.

    So lighten up everyone. The best is yet to come.

    All the best,
    Laurel Delaney
    ldelaney@laureldelaney.com

    Laurel, if the best is yet to come for Fast Company then what do you make of the past?

    It is tough to lighten up when WE are passionate about OUR Fast Company and don't want it to lose what WE believe Fast Company is/should be.

    From what I have read from and about John Byrne, I respect his passion and his pedigree. However, I do not envy his job. John has a HUGE task in front of him of delivering upon not only the high expectations of Gruner+Jahr (the magazine's publisher), but also upon the high expectations of the passionate over-achievers who read Fast Company.

    Like many companies seeking growth to please their stakeholders, John is going to need to solve for how to get big by being small. I'm reminded of a passage from the Visionary's Handbook (Jim Taylor, Watts Wacker) where the authors wrote,

    "The largest percentage of the market you are ever going to attract occurs at the very moment you begin to lose the customer who made it happen."

    All this chatter on Brand Autopsy from Fast Company readers tells me FC has lost customers that helped them get big in the first place. A bad omen to say the least.

    To address your comments more directly, by having this conversation, aren't we all exploring possibilities, pushing boundaries, shaking things up, making things happen, helping FC to get going, and hoping FC just does it? That is how you make mantra on your website (www.LaurelDelaney.com) ... right?

    I'm enjoying this conversation and I hope through this conversation, WE can help make Fast Company a better, more vibrant, and more relevant read.

    The comments to this entry are closed.