Why JetBlue Is a Fast Company

This month's letter from the editor.

My first car, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, was a triumph of function over form. It got me where I had to go (and it got there pretty fast), but it was hardly elegant. Just a big, boxy hunk of iron. Even then, I understood its aesthetic shortcomings: This was no Mustang or Thunderbird.

Well, let's consider JetBlue Airways, the subject of this month's cover story. In the short span of five years, JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman has built a remarkably innovative company that has changed the rules of competition in its industry. JetBlue has gone from scratch to nearly $1 billion in annual revenue since 1999, and has forced its entrenched rivals to change tactics and strategies.

But Neeleman's next step will clearly be a doozy. JetBlue will confront the classic challenge every business faces if it's lucky enough to be truly successful: Can the founder scale himself and his organization? The answer to this question is relevant to leaders of companies large and small. It's at the heart of how you make the leap from good to great. And it will be part of the drama that makes JetBlue a compelling story to watch.

After all, Neeleman has never led a company as large as JetBlue is now. And his ambitions for his company and his team loom large: Over the next seven years, Neeleman expects to quadruple his workforce, growing from 6,000 to 25,000 employees. And he's adding a new plane to JetBlue's fleet every three weeks. It all makes for an extraordinary test for Neeleman and his young organization.

A year ago, we published the 10 make-or-break questions that address what a fast company is today. They're worth repeating in the context of our decision to put JetBlue on the cover. Why? Precisely because Neeleman's affirmative answers to these questions help define the airline that he and his team created.

  1. Does your company create an emotional bond with its customers?
  2. Does your strategy stand out from the crowd?
  3. Is your company a fun place to work--and a fun organization to do business with?
  4. Are you built to change?
  5. Do you embrace the value of values?
  6. Are you as disciplined as you are creative?
  7. Are you winning the battle for talent?
  8. Do you use technology to change expectations and reshape your business?
  9. Are you built for speed?
  10. Have you built a company of leaders?

JetBlue is the rare company that meets every one of these tests. But it still must meet one more--perhaps the most important and most difficult of all:

  1. Can you scale?

I'm rooting for Neeleman. His present challenge takes me back to my early days as a journalist at Business Week in the mid-1980s. I had just taken on the job of management editor, and guess who my very first cover subject was? Donald Burr of People Express.

The charismatic Burr was then at the same inflection point Neeleman has reached today. He had created an organization that broke many of the old rules of leadership, innovation, and strategy. There was much to admire in his accomplishment and the passion that he so openly brought to his job. Yet my reporting made me skeptical that People Express could successfully scale. The cover headline "Up, Up and Away?" conveyed my doubt. Sadly, that was the right call.

This time, we think Neeleman is doing things better and smarter. And that's why we have much to learn from this enterprising innovator and his post-bubble fast company.

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