The new economy is out there, hiding in plain sight. from coast to coast, some 25 million Americans are citizens of Free Agent Nation. They've slipped the traces of corporate life, declared their independence, and discovered new ways of working and living. In the process, they've written a new bill of rights for business: Freedom is security. Work is fun. Working solo isn't working alone. You are what you do. To explore Free Agent Nation, Contributing Editor Daniel H. Pink took a coast-to-coast roadtrip. He also scoured the nation for the essential tools and resources that free agents — and aspiring free agents — need to prosper. We've assembled this material, including a special visit with the man who invented modern free agency, in The Fast Company Free-Agent Almanac. (No, it's not Jerry Maguire, but he's in there too.)
What's one thing that all free agents need? Copies! Plus slides, brochures, Internet connections, and a host of other services offered by Kinko's: The Free-Agent Home Office. The new world of work requires a new support infrastructure. That's where Kinko's comes in. It's the "Cheers" bar for Free Agent Nation: a place where everybody's there to help and everybody knows your name. By the way, Kinko's still makes copies — 12 billion in 1997, or two for every man, woman, and child on the planet!
Free agents don't talk about jobs. They talk about projects. And so, increasingly, do people who work inside companies. But how do you decide which projects to work on? How do you find out about hot projects? For answers to these and other practical questions, consult our guide to the most important project of all — Project: You.
Once you've read and absorbed all this advice on free agency, you'll be ready to give it a try. And where better to declare your independence than on the Web? After all, The Web Can Make You a Star! Meet four businesspeople who have used their expertise, charisma, and inside information to create their own shows — and to reach a potential audience of millions.
If all this talk of free agents leaves you feeling isolated, then let us emphasize the importance of community. Being responsible for yourself doesn't mean ignoring your connection to others — especially at this time of year. That's why Fast Company marks the season with a special Unit of One holiday edition: part giving, part giving back. What to Give highlights fun gifts in five categories: gear, travel, style, desk, play. Ways to Give Back offers hands-on insights from 19 businesspeople, who have found meaningful ways to contribute to their communities.
Of course, giving back isn't limited to the holidays. And good ideas about how to do it aren't limited to these 19 people. To keep the conversation going, we've created a special area on our Web site http://www.fastcompany.com/givingback . If you want to tell others about your best practice for giving back, this the place. We, the people of Free Agent Nation, may work on our own, but none of us is alone.
One last word on community. We've always believed that Fast Company is more than a magazine — it's a resource for a community of people who believe that they can make a difference in business and that business can make a difference in the world.
To help inform and expand that community, we're organizing Fast Company Real Time, the first gathering for Fast Company readers. It will take place in Monterey, California on June 15-16, 1998. For more information on this event, visit the Web http://www.fastcompany.com/realtime .
I love Kinko's. check that: I love Kinko's. It has always been there for me - whether "me" was an uptight student with term papers to copy or an excited groom with wedding programs to design. How much do I love Kinko's? Cut my arm, I bleed toner.
So as part of my search for Free Agent Nation, I asked to work at a Kinko's for one glamorous, glorious, 24-hour shift. In less time than it takes to say "double-sided, no staples," the company said yes. I was dispatched to a state-of-the-art operation in Houston, Texas.
What I found exceeded even my outsized expectations. Kinko's isn't just "the new way to office," as the company's ads put it. It's the "Cheers" bar for Free Agent Nation - a place full of quirky and compelling characters, strange stories, and lots of laughs. A place where everybody's there to help - and everybody knows your name.
8:30 a.m. I swing open the glass doors to my Kinko's, which is just off Houston's busy Southwest Freeway. Thirteen black-and-white copiers. Five color copiers. Thirteen computers. Six worktables stocked with office supplies. This must be what heaven is like. I get a little choked up.
9:15 a.m. I meet Jason, one of my coworkers. That's what we're called - "coworkers." I tell him about my article. He tells me about the store. "I hope it's as thrilling for you as it is for me," he says. Jason's head is mostly shaved. But just above his forehead is a tuft of hair that's carefully moussed and that points straight ahead, like a ship's bow. He's got sideburns that look like vertical Nike swooshes.
9:17 a.m. I get my name badge. "Kinko's - The Copy Center. Dan."
10:20 a.m. A customer hands a large drawing to Jason and asks him to reduce it. He does this complicated job briskly and efficiently. How hard was that? I ask. "It was supereasy," he says. Jason sounds exactly like Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
10:57 a.m. Shedric, a shift leader, shows me the LectroJog. It looks like a magazine rack hooked up to a life-support system. He drops a messy stack of 500 or so copies into the machine and flicks a switch. The LectroJog bounces up and down, looking not unlike the throbbing blur of a hardware-store paint mixer. Shedric turns off the machine and pulls out a perfect stack.
10:59 a.m. Shedric - he's got long fingernails, three gold rings, and a gold hoop in each ear - shows me the next stage of our project. We've got to cut this stack in half, and for that we need another machine. This one looks like a deli-meat slicer, or maybe a guillotine for extremely small people. Shedric positions the stack for me. I press two red buttons, and the supersharp blade splits the copies in two with the precision of a trained assassin. "Do you ever use this to slice roast beef?" I ask. "Nah," he says with a smile. I notice that he's got a gold tooth stamped with the design of a rose.
11:09 a.m. "Thank you for calling Kinko's. Powerful presentations start here. This is Dan. How may I help you?" That's how we answer the phone.
12:30 p.m. Rebecca corrals me for my next project - another round of copying and cutting. Her badge reads "3 Years of Service." "This one's not due until the 15th," she assures Sean, an assistant manager. "So if he screws it up, we'll have time to fix it." Thanks, Rebecca.
12:44 p.m. Traffic into the store has slowed, so I rest against the front counter. Rebecca slaps me on the ribs. "Don't lean on the counter. It looks like you're bored." Time to find Jason.
12:45 p.m. Where are you from? I ask my coworker. "I'm from all over, man," Jason replies. By day, Jason tells me, he works at Kinko's; by night he plays in two hard-core bands. One is called The Cruelty of Mars. The other is called Boesasoka. "That's Japanese for street-punk-degenerate."
12:49 p.m. Kim, the store manager ("10 Years of Service"), punches up some data on the computer - 184 customers so far. Pretty typical.
12:51 p.m. Dan: 231 Minutes of Service.
12:57 p.m. "Dude, wanna see something cool?" It's Jason, who doesn't wait for the answer. He slips a thick black ring from one nostril to another. The ring wobbles a bit, straddling his septum.
1:38 p.m. Wayne, the only coworker with a ponytail, shows me the videoconference room. This guy is a master, the Roone Arledge of videoconferencing. He's setting up the room for the customer who's just arrived for a 1:45 appointment. The customer's name is Steve Martin. He's here for a video job interview. He's nervous.
3:00 p.m. The second shift begins. It runs until 11 p.m.
3:08 p.m. Steve Martin is done with his interview. He's chipper: "It went great."
3:53 p.m. "This is Kinkoid Central," says Sean. We're sitting in a windowed office just off the store floor. Coworkers buzz about. Sean opens a desk drawer and pulls out a green Excedrin bottle. He dumps the tablets into four palms that have appeared out of nowhere. "Kinko's Gold," he says. I open my palm too.
4:57 p.m. I'm bored. I lift the cover of a self-service machine and make a copy of my face. Daria, a second-shift coworker, catches me in the act. "You know," she says sternly, "that works a lot better on the color copier."
6:31 p.m. There's a putrid smell in the air. I wonder if anyone else notices it. I whisper my concern to Erik, a coworker. He looks to see if anyone is watching. Then he nods to a copier and whispers back, knitting me into his conspiracy: "I had to use degreaser."
7:26 p.m. A college-aged man has been photocopying samples of the Law School Admissions Test in the self-service area. He wants help punching three-ring-binder holes into his copies. I direct him to Daria, telling him I can't in good conscience help someone go to law school. A thought occurs: I may be Kinko's first conscientious objector.
8:35 p.m. A uniformed policewoman arrives to pick up her order - poster-sized laminations of news clips from Princess Di's funeral.
9:56 p.m. I'm tired. I lean up against the Roto Trimmer.
9:57 p.m. "If you got time to lean, you got time to clean," Thomas, another coworker, shouts at me. What is it with these people?
11:10 p.m. The graveyard shift began 10 minutes ago. The phone rings. A man needs PowerPoint slides for a presentation tomorrow morning. He's desperate. He has nowhere else to turn to. Philip, a second-shift coworker in computer services, says he can stay and help. The man is on his way. The store springs to life.
11:25 p.m. The man arrives looking worried. He tried printing his slides at the office. He tried emailing them across town. Nothing worked. So he raced to Kinko's. His name is Mark. He runs a small health care company. He needs to print 42 transparencies.
11:29 p.m. Philip gets things moving. He digs into a bag of pretzels and swigs some Sprite. He's a pro.
11:54 p.m. "Okay, first one's out." Mark has 41 transparencies to go.
12:20 a.m. Thirteen transparencies are out. Then the printer jams. Houston, we have a problem. Philip opens the belly of the beast. Mark looks on nervously.
12:24 a.m. Daria and Erik - whose shift ended hours ago - are still here. They're just hanging out. Erik is pulling grisly images of murdered and maimed bodies off the Internet in a futile effort to shock Daria. Two of their friends - one of whom used to work here - arrive to join the fun. Maybe this is the "Cheers" bar.
12:25 a.m. A man named Arthur comes into computer services. He's a T-shirt entrepreneur. His company is called P.O.G., Positive Outlook Gear. He comes in every night after midnight. And every night Philip - his work shift long since completed - helps him design materials on a computer.
12:27 a.m. Philip tells me he likes helping Arthur. "Besides," he admits, "this is where my friends are."
12:36 a.m. "Thank God for Kinko's," Arthur says. "I have the creativity, the ideas. I just need something to set them in motion. But being here at two o'clock in the afternoon wouldn't feel right. Right now, it's a good feeling - you know your competition is sleeping, and you're here working."
1:07 a.m. "Last one!" exclaims Mark as transparency 42 glides out of the printer. He's been here for almost two hours; his presentation begins in less than seven hours.
3:21 a.m. Terrence ("5 Years of Service") monitors a machine that is cranking out 66,000 copies for a local nonprofit group.
7:05 a.m. It's getting light outside now. The hold-for-pickup people start arriving. They're irritable. The sun is barely up, and they're already behind schedule.
7:53 a.m. Jason is back for another day. I see him across the store. He's operating the binding machine. Then he sees me: "You've been here for 24 hours, dude?"
8:32 a.m. I pack up to leave. I say goodbye to the coworkers. They are, I understand now, the yeomen of the Information Age. People trust them with their creations. People trust them with their ideas. People trust them with their lives. They do more than make copies. They manufacture dreams.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.