It took us a while to figure it out. Part of the problem, surely, can be chalked up to the murky economic indicators of the time and part to tunnel vision: While most business press gets its mojo from Wall Street’s daily fluctuations, our aphrodisiac has always been new ideas. So for months after April 14, 2000, the day the Nasdaq market collapsed, marking the failure of the biggest new idea in decades, Fast Company — like most everyone — operated in suspended disbelief. The boom wasn’t really over, was it?
Even when we finally accepted the new reality, it was with bravado that, in hindsight, sounds not as much false as oddly misguided. (Some of our headlines from that time: “I Survived the Dotcom Crash!” and “The Web’s Kickback Economy.”) Only in February 2001 — with a mock dotcommer standing on our cover bearing a www.repent.com sandwich board — did we finally begin talking about the New Economy in the past tense.
We were presenting all the classic symptoms of mourning: denial, anger, reflection. So the next month — almost a year after the market meltdown — we proclaimed: “Get Well Now!” Only our clever attempt at healing seemed like, well, a Band-Aid approach. But here was the thinking: While everyone else was “counting up the bodies,” founding coeditor Bill Taylor explains now, “we needed to be a counterindicator to say hope beats fear, imagination beats conservatism, traveling the high road beats traveling the low road of job cuts and downsizing and giving up.”
The Band-Aid issue, in fact, represented neither sunny idealism nor cross-your-fingers-and-hope prognostication. It was one of the most realistic, back-to-basics packages the magazine had produced. Tom Peters, the Dr. Phil of management, slapped readers in the face with “Leadership Is Confusing as Hell,” dishing our 49 counterintuitive reminders about what a leader should and should not be. (Should: “Leaders listen intently.” “Leaders make meaning.” “Leaders learn.” Shouldn’t: “The leader is rarely — possibly never? — the best performer.”)
Next up was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to answer this question: If he weren’t running the planet’s dominant technology company, how would he go about starting a business? His observation: “There’s vision, patience, and execution [when building a start-up]. . . . It’s the patience phase that’s really not comfortable at all. Entrepreneurs in particular don’t have the stomach for this. They thought the vision phase would last forever.”
Enter Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, the granddaddy of corporate strategy. Did strategy still matter? “Some managers think, ‘The world is changing, things are going faster — so I’ve got to move faster. Having a strategy seems to slow me down,’ ” Porter said. “I argue no, no, no — having a strategy actually speeds you up.”
It may sound simple now, but at a time when startups were negotiating the downturn with the same pubescent impulsiveness that had won them fortunes, our message was profound: Slow is the new fast. And what was important before the dotcom intoxication is important still. Peters, Ballmer, and Porter, three of the most influential thinkers out there, left us with antibiotics for our postboom travels — a manifesto not lacking in optimism but tempered with hard truths.
The issue represented not just a new chapter for the economy, but for Fast Company, as well. In their editors’ letter, Taylor and Alan Webber noted the recent purchase of Fast Company by Gruner + Jahr U.S.A. Publishing: “We regard this change of ownership as the start of a wonderful new chapter in Fast Company’s legacy.”
Or so we thought. Four years later, Gruner + Jahr has sold us once more — just another aftershock, some might argue, from the dotcom bust. Here’s hoping we get well soon.
“The vision stage is full of excitement, vim, and vigor. Everything looks big and rosy. At that stage, we don’t know what we don’t know. Then you get into the patience stage, and that’s tough.”
— Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, March 2001