On the Fast Track
After teetering in the post-dot-com era, Fast Company expects 30-percent revenue growth this year.
Some publishers want to talk strategy, share metrics and demonstrate platforms. Christine Osekoski wants to tell stories: China's push into sub-Saharan Africa, the ugly truth behind bottled water, "tech-doping" at the 2008 Olympics. Exciting and unnerving - if they share a core message, it would be "what you thought was true maybe isn't so" - these stories open up new vistas of pitfalls and possibilities. They also have a lot to do with the recent success of Osekoski's magazine, Fast Company.
"Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek are firmly defined in the space of, ‘How do I make more money? How do I make my company more successful?'" says Osekoski. Fast Company's approach, however, "is, ‘How do I change the game? How do I create something that's different?' ... I think that's [why] people are really enamored with the magazine, because we are talking about the future of business, not the bleeding edge that is not relevant, but relevant steps that people are taking."
Fast Company has its own dramatic story, one that begins during the dot-com bubble. The name evokes growth, energy, risk - all the things that made the business climate of the late '90s thrilling and, ultimately, unsustainable. Like its peers The Industry Standard, Business 2.0 and Red Herring, this business book teetered after the tech bust, then fell - to be caught at the edge of the abyss by investor Joe Mansueto, who purchased it in 2005 from Bertelsmann's Gruner + Jahr division along with sister publication Inc. for the comparatively paltry sum of $35 million.
"People were wondering, ‘Will Fast Company still be alive or will it be relegated to a Web site?'" recalls Osekoski, who came on board a few months after the purchase and was promoted from national sales director to publisher in August 2007. "There were people who thought we would fall off the planet, and the readers stayed true to it because they were still seeking what it was."
When Time Inc.'s Business 2.0 ceased publication in October 2007, advertisers weren't sure if this boded well or not for Fast Company, she says. "We had to go back and tell advertisers, ‘This is still a vibrant book, it's always been a vibrant book to readers, [and] it's our job to communicate to you that it isn't just a dot-com book.'"
Osekoski speaks of the magazine with the pride and pleasure that comes from watching a product "arise from the ashes," as she puts it, to achieve success: exploding revenues (up 23 percent from '06 to '07, with growth this year expected above 30 percent), awards (two Loeb Awards in a row, most recently for the 2007 article, "Message in a Bottle," on the environmental impact of bottled water) and double-digit newsstand growth. It's a 21st-century success story wrapped in what many still see as a late '90s brand.
"We proved everybody wrong," Osekoski says. "When I came on, [Publishing Director] Jayson Goldberg said, ‘Are you afraid?' [and] I said, ‘Are you kidding? There's nowhere to go but up!'"
Osekoski believes Fast Company's emphasis on producing a quality print product is an essential part of the magazine's ability to keep and attract readers.
"There are a lot of questions in the ad marketplace about media mix," she says. "Most advertisers regale print as [a] great medium; however, I think with newsweeklies and business books, [advertisers] are wondering what [information] the consumer is already seeing [by the time the print publication comes out]. I'm a consumer, I read the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, I get news online .... We have a challenge because we're a monthly, so we have to close earlier and make sure our stories are fresh."
Fast Company's goal, therefore, is to truly be an idea leader - offering "not just information, but ideas and inspiration," Osekoski says. "We are starting the conversation, and that's a buzz phrase that a lot of people use, but I feel strongly that we do it so well, and we deliver on that promise," she says.
The magazine certainly delivered with this summer's ambitious "China in Africa" report, which delved deep into China's growing influence and investment in sub-Saharan Africa in the context of a (nominally) postcolonial world of diminishing resources and possible environmental crisis. The report spawned similar stories from several larger news outlets; CNN anchor Lou Dobbs called it the most important magazine story he had read in years.
"It was a risk-taking story," she says of the nearly 20,000-word feature, "because it is so long, and how do you get somebody to spend a couple of hours [reading] it? It was a complete departure from what Fast Company usually delivers, which is pithy, entertaining stories .... [Editor] Bob Safian has the ability to take chances because we have an owner who is really investing [in quality]."
For the September issue, MySpace approached the magazine to break a story about its response to new competition in the video realm (it's adding functionalities in the music area - leapfrogging, to some extent, obvious contenders like Facebook to directly take on Apple).
"These are the stories we are telling that BusinessWeek will carry after the news hits, and maybe Fortune will have covered it," says Osekoski, "but you know what, I will probably have already read that in the newspaper, I will have already read that online - that's where all these media - mix questions come into play."
With Fast Company's growth coming predominantly from print, according to Osekoski, the approach seems to be working.
Steering the Conversation
An important element in Fast Company's strategy moving forward is FastCompany.com, a separate but complementary venture run by Mansueto Ventures' digital division, Mansueto Digital. Print and digital each have their own, dedicated sales teams, but, notes Osekoski, the sales teams often partner to offer fully integrated packages to advertisers.
The Web site foregrounds user-generated content while attempting to integrate such material with staff-produced articles and blogs. According to Ed Sussman - president of Mansueto Digital - the goal is to create and facilitate conversation around ideas relevant to Fast Company readers.
"The print magazine produces great content that we will use to create discussions on many levels," Sussman notes. These include member groups, live and time-shifted Q&As, questions from the editors directed to the readers, and polls.
"Journalists also blog about the stories they've written and answer [readers] questions or comments directly on the article comment section," he says. "Plus, readers can find our journalists' member profiles, and request to add them as [Fast Company] ‘contacts,' so they can send messages to them directly."
The Web site also generates ideas for the magazine, Sussman says, through excerpts of user blogs, material collected from readers and ideas suggested for stories or follow-ups.
Osekoski says conversations are categorized to match elements of the magazine's core message: the innovation of business with a focus on technology, sustainability and design.
"You can go in there, and if you're just interested in the innovation of design, you can go into the design channel and talk to people within that community," she says. "Social networking ... is not just bolted onto our site, it's actually packed into the site - it's not a side item, but it's part of that whole [core] element."
Sussman sees FastCompany.com as offering alternatives to the chaotic feel sometimes generated by social-networking sites.
"Think of a pure, big, social network as a big house party," he says. "You might meet interesting people, you might not. You might love the crowd scene, or you might not. Think of ‘social publishing' - which is what I think this is - as a dinner party thrown by a great host who takes great care in who gets invited, who sits next to whom, and what gets served as the meal."
Mansueto Digital's latest venture is FastCompany.TV, a network highlighting technology trends and innovators. The channel was developed with celebrity blogger Robert Scoble, who serves as managing director. His Scobilizer TV, already well known among the tech crowd, features interviews with people who develop or influence the course of new technologies. The show is currently joined by Fast Company Live, which allows viewers to ask interviewees questions in real time; WorkFastTV, which examines productivity issues; and the more lifestyle-oriented PhotoCycle.
With the spread of broadband and dramatic decreases in video-
production costs, the time is right for FastCompany.TV, Scoble says, adding that emerging interactive media capabilities also make the network a good fit with the aspirations of FastCompany.com.
"We did a video with Elon Musk, chairman of the board of Tesla [Motors], and we had about 1,000 people participating live with a cell-phone produced video," Scoble says. "MySpace, Microsoft, Facebook, CERN and many other interesting conversations have been on FastCompany.TV already that match what you'd read in a cover story in the magazine. In the future, you'll see journalists from the magazine show up on our shows, and other ways to build a tie into the overall approach of FastCompany.com and Fast Company magazine."
Emerging From Inc.'s Shadow
According to Osekoski, when Joe Mansueto bought Fast Company and Inc., there was little doubt that the latter would continue publication, while the future of Fast Company was definitely up in the air. Executives realized that the magazine needed a separate, though related, identity if it was to survive.
The missions of the magazines are different, she says, with Inc. more of a service publication for small-business owners. "Inc. is very much ‘how I did it,'" she says, while Fast Company focuses more on "how an idea was created and the spirit behind the idea."
"If each of the editors [of Inc. and Fast Company] did a story on the same [topic], it would come out a different story," she says. Therefore, the magazines do not share content, though the company is happy to accommodate advertisers who seek to be in both.
"Fast Company is not a small-business book at all," she says. "We talk about the larger companies. We talk about GE ... we do Disney and Procter & Gamble.
"It's the people behind really fast things going on at fast companies," Osekoski continues. "When I say that, it could be the fast parts of slow companies, it could be small, nimble, fast companies ... from someone who's turning the technology of ABC online around ... to a mechanic we covered in November who can decrease emissions on a Hummer and actually increase its miles per gallon. So it isn't limited to the top people."
The magazine has succeeded because it managed to update, rather than totally revamp, its dot-com-era ethos, she says.
"I think [that] how it still remains the same is ... [that] it still talks about the people behind the ideas, not just the CEO, but who is really driving the change ... and it tells a story that is entertaining, that's fun for you to read, that's inspirational, but still gives you a lot of information about how people have changed business tactics or have created a new business."