What does it mean to be a fast company? How do you know a fast company when you see one? And perhaps most important, Is my company a fast company?
Those are the kinds of questions that you expect to hear when you are the founding editors of a magazine called Fast Company — and they are questions that we have been hearing since we launched the premier issue back in 1995. In this issue, we tackle them directly, in a special collection of articles designed to identify, explain, and extract lessons from companies that are undeniably fast — and that are shaping the pace and trajectory of business in the future.
The timing of this package is not accidental. Most of us have been consumed with the daily stresses of a distant war and its aftermath, and with a jittery economy at home. As business leaders, we can't control either the war or the economy. What we can control is how we conduct ourselves at work and how we prepare our companies for the future. These days, building companies that win big in the marketplace, that create value for their customers and shareholders, and that operate in ways that bring out the best in employees and executives is not just smart business — it's also an obligation of leadership.
Fast companies prosper by meeting that obligation. They compete on the originality of their ideas. They embrace the disruptive power of technology but understand that cutting-edge technology is most powerful when it's used in the service of age-old virtues: delighted customers, engaged employees, and productive operations. Fast companies know the value of values — the proposition that what a company stands for is just as important as what it sells. And, of course, fast companies are built for speed. That is not about a reckless rush from launch to IPO (the get-rich-quick perversion of a bygone era) but rather an appreciation that time is as precious a business resource as money or head count — and that the costs of hesitation and delay are just as steep as going over budget or missing a financial forecast.
Our special collection on fast companies begins with a powerful essay by Jim Collins on the growth of Wal-Mart and its implications for the rest of us. Talk about a must-read piece: The world's most respected thinker on business, author of the best-seller Good to Great, goes inside the world's most dominant company — a company that keeps getting bigger, better, and faster.
Following Collins's essay is a hands-on guide that can help you answer that one question that keeps coming up: Is my company a fast company? We present 10 attributes that capture what it means to be fast and highlight 25 companies that embody enough of those attributes to merit recognition as fast companies. It's a diverse, eclectic group that isn't held together by particular industry segments, or company size, or even short-term stock performance. What links companies such as Cisco Systems, Commerce Bank, Electronic Arts, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Starbucks is their commitment to a set of strategies and operating principles that define what it means to be a cutting-edge competitor today. One caveat: It is unlikely that any one of these companies embodies all 10 of the defined attributes. Fast companies are special, but they are not perfect.
To round out this special collection, we close with four in-depth case studies of companies wrestling with the challenges that will help define what business will contend with in the future. What is the right way for a company (LeapFrog Enterprises) to launch a technology product when technology itself has lost much of its luster? How does a giant, established company (Delta Air Lines) respond to cataclysmic changes in its environment and compete with the rise of a new generation of fast companies (such as JetBlue and Southwest) in its industry? What does it take for a company (Pottery Barn) in a brutally competitive industry to maintain an emotional connection with customers? Finally, is it still possible for a for-profit operation (Anglo American, the huge mining conglomerate with operations in AIDS-ravaged South Africa) to make a difference in fighting a massive social problem?
The world of business keeps changing — fast. The fast companies that we have identified in this special issue, and the strategies and practices that they stand for, are valuable models for what it takes to keep winning.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.