Before there was a Fast Company, there was an event that helped shape its direction. And once the business magazine was launched, there continued to be live programs that built its brand and nourished its content.
In the first few lines of the introduction to Rules of Thumb: How to Stay Productive and Inspired Even in the Most Turbulent Times, Alan Webber lays the foundation for the book: “These are extraordinary times. In our work, our lives, and everything in between we are witnessing change that is so fast and unpredictable that our first challenge is simply to make sense of it. Globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have propelled countries, industries, companies, and individual careers into new and uncharted territory.”
That uncharted territory was the stomping ground for Fast Company (FC) magazine, which Webber co-founded in 1995 and then sold five years later — the second-largest sale in magazine history.
I recall visiting Webber at FC's Boston office after the first issue was published to talk about his vision for this new venture. The office's contemporary, open-space design was bold and colorful
— the perfect venue for the magazine's exciting, cutting-edge, risk-taking focus.
Since the sale of FC, Webber has written several business books in addition to Rules of Thumb, including his first ebook, 2010's The Global Detective, and spoken at conferences around the world. It's an environment in which he's a native rather than a visitor. After all, Webber helped establish FC as both a magazine and an events company. I was delighted to catch up with him in Santa Fe, where he now lives, to learn about the events side of the FC enterprise.
Let's dig right in. The world of meeting design and delivery in some ways remains stuck. Why do you think that is?
Most organizations do not keep up with change. At FC, we always referred to meetings as “gatherings,” as we were into creating a new language and into simple-speak. Words always matter.
Before FC existed, [FC co-founder] Bill Taylor -my partner in crime — and I decided that we would test a set of ideas behind FC by having a gathering. We found an underwriter to support an event that we called an “Advance.” Because a retreat, a commonly used term, means going backward, we preferred “Advance,” which looks forward.
We held the Advance in Santa Fe and invited 50 cool people from business, consultants, academics — thinkers, doers, and smart people. The organizing question for the Advance was “How do you overthrow a successful company?” The metaphor was that we [would] put your organization on the operating table and diagnose what was wrong. These were all successful companies, but what about their future?
The atmosphere was informal, interesting, curious, equalitarian, and freewheeling, leading to significant outcomes. The Advance confirmed our theory that it is useful to have another conversation about business that was not offered by established publications, helped grow our FC vocabulary, created a group of early adoptors, generated seed money, and began FC's evolution as an idea incubator. The real story is that before there was a magazine, there was an event.
Was there one event or several?
The Advance was our first event, and then we added several more. We were both a magazine and an events business. We hired amazing, committed, talented people to run the events, who were passionate about the magazine and the events. We were team-oriented and collaborative.
We continued the Advances by invitation. They were carefully designed and held in cool places. We sought people who demonstrated a particular quality of mind, curiosity, entrepreneurial thinking; people who were trying new things and were influential in their sectors.
The Advances were test kitchens, and after FC was launched, we did at least one Advance a year, recording them and turning the content into Fast Company articles. Events became a feedback loop.
We also created Real Time, attracting 1,000-plus people. Attendees experienced FC in real time. Instead of reading it, people were also doing it! Many of the speakers appeared in Fast Company's pages. It was a brilliant strategy, because it was an opportunity to listen to readers and they paid to tell us what they wanted to read.
Why did you make some events by invitation rather than open them to anyone who was interested?
The Advances were a very select group of people who provided ideas, served as influencers, and carried forward FC ideas. Interesting folks met and formed their own club or tribe. Many lifelong friendships and new businesses were started.
We learned that planners work as hard to deliver a small event as a large one. We always charged for every event to at least cover costs and often to make a profit.
From the first issue onward, we articulated Fast Company as the place for new business conversations. We insisted on having the first word and not the last. We were very explicit that we wanted to sponsor conversations that would fundamentally change how business was done.
Over time, readers would send us emails and say, “I am in Columbus, Ohio, and I love your magazine. Are there other subscribers in Columbus with whom I can connect in person?” So, The Company of Friends was created, which was our version of the Elks Club or Chamber of Commerce, but for people who were different in generation and thinking. They wanted to gather on their own terms, to develop a different vocabulary, feel, and design sensibility. We supported the organization of hundreds of Company of Friends chapters all over the world. The first one that I attended was in Paris.
So they would say, “Friday night at this restaurant, there is a Company of Friends gathering. One of the authors of a Fast Company article is in town; we will have a short speech and then a conversation about it.”
This format became so popular that we gathered the conveners and had a summit about how to make The Company of Friends an even stronger and more powerful tool.
How did you monetize The Company of Friends?
We didn't. It wasn't our goal. It did increase subscriptions, advertising sales, and contributed to FC's overall growth and health.
We wanted our advertisers to realize that we have the most involved and engaged readers of any magazine in America. We had loyalty from people globally who clamored to affiliate with us. We figured the money would take care of itself, and it did.
One of the things we learned at FC is that authenticity is very often the coin of the realm. You can promise all kinds of things, but you must match words to actions. Organizations have a short window to demonstrate authenticity of purpose, values, and a sense of why they are in business and what's in it for the customer.
Your organizing question at the first Advance was how to overthrow a successful organization. Why?
If you don't overthrow your own successful organization, then someone else will do it to you. We saw a world where young entrepreneurial startups were overthrowing large successful organizations because they had a very different and better business model. FC was based on disrupting the typical business model to ensure a better future.
We can disrupt businesses and events with a different design, look and feel, vocabulary, and a different connection to the customer. If we are disruptors, we will end up creating a more positive future. That is what we believed, and exactly what happened. You can go down the list of successful companies and note that the ones on the top are the disruptors. Twenty years ago, we were saying [that] everything you take for granted, all the assumptions you are making about how your business model works, how your employees and customers feel about it, how you make money, how you create value, where you compete — will all change. The same is true today about meetings and events. Planners