One subject we love to write about at Fast Company is competition. Competitive battles offer the chance to see strategy in action, to watch and assess moves and countermoves, to root for one side or the other. They offer narratives of real human struggle and drama, with triumph and failure, winners and losers, and lessons to be drawn—in short, all the makings of great stories.
We believe that any field on which rivals contend for dominance is fertile ground for us. And the breadth of the stories about competition to be found in this issue of Fast Company reflects that belief.
At the high-gloss end of the spectrum, there's Shanghai Tang and the sophisticated designers and savvy strategists who are propelling the fashion house onto the world stage. As senior writer Linda Tischler explains in her story ("The Gucci Killers"), they're attempting to build the first great luxury brand to come out of China. And while that means taking on the Guccis and the Pradas of the world, in a very real sense it also means competing against China's own past—the creativity-stifling weight of two-and-a-half generations of totalitarianism. If they succeed, it will mark a stunning development in the evolution of that country from centrally controlled agrarian society to clangorous factory to the world, and now, in this next leap, to glamorous center of design and innovation. Shanghai Tang may not be the one to lead China there—it has stumbled before in its efforts to expand—but the specifics are less important than China's relentless march up the value chain, with all its unsettling competitive implications for the rest of us.
You'll also read about several underdogs and upstarts who are battling much bigger, more entrenched rivals. There's a small furniture chain called Room & Board ("Hot Seat"), which is outmaneuvering the likes of Design Within Reach, and a test-preparation entrepreneur who's taking on the industry kingpin, Kaplan ("The Test Prince of Bel-Air").
This issue also offers a couple of unusual angles on the subject of competition. Check out Peter Diamandis, the man who created the $10 million X Prize for private space flight ("Fuel for Thought"). Convinced that cold hard cash is a great motivator for innovation, Diamandis is devising new prizes in fields such as genetics and transportation. And meet the CEO of Simplicity Manufacturing, who opted to pull his lawn mowers out of Wal-Mart ("The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart"). In effect, he decided that the world's largest retailer was competing against him and his vision for his company.
The 25 winners of our third-annual Social Capitalist Awards ("Social Capitalists") are all entrepreneurs with the competitive fire that characterizes the species. Here, though, they are applying that urge to a very different purpose.
Earl Martin Phalen, founder of BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), is the product of the Massachusetts state foster-care system—and, thanks to the support he received from mentors, of Yale and Harvard Law School. "That drives me," he says. "To know that somebody [supported] me, and all of a sudden, it took my life from going to jail to going to Yale." BELL, the rigorous after-school program Phalen started, now serves about 7,000 kids in four cities.
And there's PATH, a Seattle-based organization that offers simple, life-saving technology to the Third World—clean birthing kits, disposable prefilled vaccination syringes, and insecticide-impregnated bed netting. Simple, yes, but profound. The birthing kits prevent newborn death from infection; the syringes increase vaccination rates and prevent reuse; the bed netting helps combat malaria, which kills 40% of children under the age of 5 in Zambia.
These organizations are not conventional charities, and they do much more than merely dole out money. Like their profit-making brethren, they marshal deep insights into their "markets," they envision solutions that don't yet exist, and they demand results. And they, too, face fierce competitors. The only difference here is that they're fighting not the guy down the street, but mankind's greatest and most ancient rivals—poverty, disease, and ignorance.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.