Fast Company

A Brief History of Our Time

Offices in closets and homemade lasagna are just some of the highlights from Fast Company's formative years, as told by founding editors Alan Webber and Bill Taylor, and others who were there at the beginning.

In the early 1990s, Bill Taylor and Alan Webber were editors at Harvard Business Review. They had traveled different paths--Webber in government and academia, and Taylor in advocacy work with Ralph Nader. But they came to share an interpretation of the rapid changes in work, the economy, and society--a view that eventually found voice in Fast Company. Here's the story of the magazine's birth, in the words of Taylor, Webber, and others who were there.

Bill Taylor, founding editor: I spent a lot of time in the 1980s and early 1990s in Silicon Valley. It was very much the era when the semiconductor and personal computing were transforming not just the technology landscape but the competitive landscape. The logic of the technology itself, which was speeding everything up, decentralizing how computing worked, and putting processing power lower and lower in the organization, was reshaping both competition and leadership.

Alan Webber, founding editor: The seminal event for me was a trip to Japan in 1989, at the peak of the bubble there. I had gotten this fellowship with the idea of meeting the next generation of leaders there--in business, government, bureaucracy, and journalism. What I came back with were very clearly formulated ideas about these themes I thought were transforming business.

The first was globalization. In 1989, people were still in denial about opening up borders. But there really were no boundaries in terms of the movement of money, ideas, and talent. The future was going to be all about global competition and cooperation. The corollary to that was a generational shift of bright young leaders. We were seeing the baby boomers become leaders. My hypothesis was that this generation was different from the one that came before. They had different attitudes and aspirations. They were interested in finding meaning through work.

Taylor: So Alan and I had something we were desperate to say--a set of ideas not just about where the world was going but about where it could and should go, a collection of best practices and a cast of really compelling characters who represented a better, more rewarding way to do business. We imagined a magazine that took the power of ideas very seriously, but we wanted to lend to that a performance that had a generational impact and also a sense of fun and wit that made it friendly and accessible in a way that businesses were but other business magazines were not.

Webber: We raised $550,000 from 11 individuals in 1993 to do the prototype. It took nine months to do that, simply because it's hard to ask for money and it's hard for people to say yes.

George Stalk, senior vice president at Boston Consulting Group and an early investor: In my gut, I thought I'd never see the money again.

Webber: We sent the prototype to influential people, put a feedback sheet in the middle, then used that in our second-round business plan.

Mark Fuller, chairman of Monitor Group and an investor: They made a statement that summed up to a view that we live in a world where all these 19th-century collective views of the workforce--where you're categorized in cohorts and treated like digits, where you sacrifice your individuality and become a company man--that era was over.

Stalk: It was a really weird magazine. A guy senior to me said, "You've lost your money, George. It's gone."

Webber: Now it was time to make a deal to launch the magazine. That's when things got seriously nitty-gritty problematic, because we were talking about $10 million. We approached virtually every publishing company in America.

Taylor: We spent an awful lot of hours in a lot of meetings. For a while, we thought that represented progress. The reaction was very respectful, very enthusiastic. But ultimately, they weren't interested in doing business.

Tom Peters, consultant/guru and an early investor: It took them so long to get money. The coolest thing about the Webber-Taylor saga is that they didn't give up. I kept saying, "Hang in there," and it's a miracle that they did.

Taylor and Webber eventually scored an introduction to Fred Drasner and Mort Zuckerman, who owned U.S. News & World Report.

Taylor: It took exactly one meeting for them to realize they should be doing business with us.

Mort Zuckerman: Their basic idea somehow or another just struck a chord. It just seemed the right time for this sort of magazine to deal not with the technology of this new era but the culture.

Webber: They had one magazine and excess people and energy. So they figured if they had another magazine, there would be more to pump through the pipes. We were a solution to a problem.

Taylor: We signed the deal in April 1995. Fred Drasner insisted we sign the papers on April 1. It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. Honest to goodness, we had no idea how much we didn't know about putting out a magazine.

Webber: Both Bill and I came away from HBR thinking that the most important thing in the world was the people you worked with and the environment in which you worked. We were going to be working 14-hour days, so we wanted to spend time with people we wanted to spend time with.

Taylor: We wanted to fill the place with people who didn't want to be working anywhere else.

Polly LaBarre, senior editor: I was at a magazine called IndustryWeek. I saw the first [FC] issue on a newsstand, coming home from dinner with a friend. It was the last copy, and we both looked at it and literally had a tug-of-war. I paid him $20 for it and took it home and read it cover to cover. I said, "Here's something I can engage with, something I can see fighting for." I emailed Tom Davenport [a consultant who had appeared in that issue] and asked him, "Who are these people and what are they doing?" Tom connected me, and within a week or two they had offered me a job.

David Searson, Web architect: I was working on the Net in Australia, and I couldn't find any decent work. No one was interested in the Internet. I found a tiny entry in a newsgroup saying, "We're looking for a Webmaster." So I sent off details, and Polly sent over a magazine. It was fantastic. I just thought, I have to work there. I borrowed some money to fly myself over for an interview. Then I came back to Australia, packed up my family, and sold off the house and the furniture.

Bill Breen, senior editor: I was hired in June 1995. It was pretty grim. It was a suite of offices in Boston that the U.S. News salespeople had used. Four little offices, three of which had windows. All the junior people were in the mail room, and three or four more were in the conference room. One woman moved into the coat closet.

LaBarre: I walked in my first day, and they very sweetly said they had a place cleared out for me. It was the closet, and the sad thing was, they had to kick someone out of there to give it to me.

Christina Novicki, staff writer: It was an incredibly charged place, almost beyond words. I was wide-eyed, and I came into this situation where I thought blasting music at work, dancing, playing football, throwing ideas around, being 23 and getting on a plane and interviewing CEOs was . . . normal.

Taylor: It was a loud, raucous, very musical place to work. Alan brought Bob Dylan, I brought Springsteen, the young women designers brought in dance. Al Green was . . . nobody didn't like Al Green. He transcended everyone's tastes.

Gina Imperato, staff writer: We were always working, in the wee hours of the morning, weekends. I really love to make lasagna. So one weekend, I made two huge lasagnas, salad, and garlic bread. And that became a closing ritual: Once a month, I'd bring in lasagna. Later, I wrote an article on gourmet cooking on the Web. We had these funny taglines, and Bill wrote that Gina has this great lasagna, email her for the recipe. I got 20 letters--and I didn't have a recipe. So I spent a weekend making lasagna and measuring everything out.

Searson: Alan would come out and say, "We need to get inspired!" He'd turn on Patton as loud as it could go. We'd watch this movie over and over. He'd replay the scene where Patton is up against the flag, giving that great speech. It was distracting if you were trying to make a phone call.

Breen: That summer in 1995, we couldn't seem to get traction. We were trying to turn these articles into what was in Alan's and Bill's heads. They wanted lessons, the ideas, the insights, to really stand out. They wanted to bring a different sort of language to business journalism. At one meeting, Alan was trying to explain this. And the more he talked, the more impatient Bill got. Alan loved talking about the pieces, decoding them. He was talking about some crazy piece about an Indian tribe, and after about three hours, Bill blurts out, "Aren't you just bored out of your minds?"

Webber: Voice was important. We wanted to be much more user-friendly and conversational and engage in a dialogue rather than preach or look down at readers. We also wanted to make a magazine that had a sense of design that was relevant to the time. Design was becoming more and more integral in business. But there were no cool business magazines.

Patrick Mitchell, art director: We spent a lot of time sitting at my computer with Alan asking, "What does this magazine look like?" We struggled with putting random people on the covers, but all those covers just lay there. Finally, we figured out that what was brilliant about those people wasn't who they were or what they looked like but what they were saying and thinking. And for Fast Company to truly represent their spirit, it was those ideas that had to be on the cover. So words became the MO.

Webber: We got caught up in creating our own language. We thought everything needed to be renamed. Because language matters. If you use the same words to describe the world, you're sending the message that nothing's changed. Change the language, and you change the way people think.

Breen: They would come up with a headline and then write a story around it. That was really scary.

Linda Sepp, advertising sales manager: We were out there every day, trying to get to as many people as possible. Usually, they would initially roll their eyes and say, "Just what we need, another business book." Then you'd tell the story: Think about how much the world has changed, both in the tools we use and the kind of thinking going on there. And there was a role for a magazine about the best thinking and competitive tools that would be a strategic weapon. And they'd start to nod.

The debut issue of Fast Company finally appeared in October 1995.

Novicki: When the first issue came out, there was a newsstand at Boylston and Dartmouth Streets, and a bunch of us went down to see. We were stopping people as they browsed, trying to get them to buy the magazine. We were so fired up, we wanted people to share the excitement, and we wanted desperately to be a success.

Valeria Maltoni, reader, Philadelphia: My management director put a copy of the first issue on my desk and said, "This is something you may want to check out." The first thing I saw was "Work is personal." I couldn't believe someone would actually publish something like that. I was hooked right away. The tone and the language, the type of information dealt with a lot of things in my head, but I didn't have the vocabulary to talk about it.

"It was a trip. It felt like everyone was interested in what we had to say."

Brent Hodgins, reader, Toronto: It was kind of, yes, wow, I just read something that I had not been able to articulate myself--that sense of drive and ambition, this notion that the world was our oyster. If you want it, go after it and get it. It didn't matter how old you were or what your job was. This was about what was possible.

Imperato: When I called for interviews, I had this whole spiel: "I'm Gina from Fast Company, we were founded by two HBR editors"--and that would buy me one minute. "And we're funded by U.S. News"--and that would get me another minute. "And can I send you a copy?" I'd call the next day to follow up, and the call would go right through. Once people saw the magazine, they really got it.

Searson: I'd have people stop me on the train and ask, "Where'd you get that magazine?" I'd say I worked there, and they'd say, "Oh my God!"--this weird rock-star situation. It was a most peculiar time.

Imperato: We got story after story from people about how Fast Company changed their lives. It was like that everywhere you went. People had some story about how we had changed the way they ran their team or how they thought about their job, or got them to strike out on their own.

Mike Abrashoff, commander USS Benfold, profiled in the April 1999 issue: After that appeared, I was inundated with emails from people around the world, people I'm still in touch with. They wrote to tell me "Good job," to ask questions, to ask advice: "I can't get through to my boss, what should I do?" They came from Australia, Norway, Mexico, Brazil. I still get emails today.

Seth Godin, entrepreneur and Fast Company contributor: When my book Permission Marketing came out, Fortune wrote a complimentary review, and the reporter listed my personal, spam-free email address. I got three emails. Compare that with my "Purple Cow" article in Fast Company: I got 5,000 letters in 12 days. The magazine just did a really good job at communicating passion. When I got called by Business Week or Fortune, they kept asking, "How much money? What's the ROE?" Fast Company asked the questions, "What are you working on? And is it worth doing?"

Taylor: We detected several things right away. First, there was a real energetic response from the advertising community--because we were sensing things that they were onto themselves. And also people within big companies--change agents. We'd go out to talk to companies, and we found that the younger, more aggressive people were extremely excited about these ideas--and that the term "fast company" itself was gaining traction.

Webber: We didn't know what was going to happen, and to our credit, we thought we had to run scared for the first two or three years. We didn't think we had solved the puzzle of the universe. But when we did the Mort Meyerson issue on leadership, "The Brand Called You," and "Free Agent Nation," we began to develop reactions from the audience.

Taylor: It was a trip. It felt like everyone was interested in what we had to say.

Novicki: I called down to Al Green's church to see if he would play at RealTime, our reader conference. I thought that if I called Al Green to sing, he would come. That was the thing: We thought we could do whatever we set our minds to.

Webber: But we still were convinced we didn't know what we were doing.

Novicki: Al Green didn't come.

Fast Company published one issue in 1995 and five the following year. It went monthly in 1998. In 1999, it won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

Add New Comment

1 Comments