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Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and[…]

Alan Webber speaks from his experience at Fast Company magazine about the kinds of companies that win.

Question: What are the characteristics of fast companies?


Alan Webber: I think a lot of the attributes of a Fast Company circa 2000 are still the attributes of a Fast Company circa 2009 with some new tweaks like the Megan Smith proposition that it’s great to have all these attributes but remember how you conduct yourself on top of it. We actually had a list of about 10 crosscuts that we were using or lenses that we’re applying.

Now, the other thing that I, in all honesty, you have to remember is that a notion of a fast company is kind of a mythic beast like a unicorn, there really aren’t any perfect fast companies. What we discovered was there were plenty of companies, big, small, old, brand new that had attributes, that had characteristics, they were driven by new ideas, they were committed to outthinking the competition, whether it was business model outthinking or customer service outthinking, there was an element there of applied intelligence that you could smell when you walk in the door.

On top of it, they were out implementing the competition so thinking is great but doing is the other part of the equation and one of my rules of thumb is taken from a friend of mine who used to be in the Pentagon working for the Secretary of Defense, smart Indiana guy who says knowing it ain’t the same as doing it. And so knowing that you have great business model innovation, that’s great but if you don’t do it, you’re just another guy with an idea. So we were looking at outthinking the competition, outinnovating the competition but applied innovation, we were looking at a different brand of leadership, not the old style command and control model but a more open kind of grass roots leadership, more leaders at all levels, we were looking at design sensibility and not just design a product or service but design of office space, design of interface with the public, design of your website, design of your whole model of thinking about what is a company, that’s a design issue, how do you design it? How do you deploy it?

So we had this crosscuts and I think they still apply. I think what’s changed now or what is added to the spice is; we call the magazine Fast Company, I think things have gotten even faster, the phase of change has been picked up but the stakes have changed have picked up. I was joking with my friends about my book release and saying, I’ve got to get off to a fast start, it’s kind of like, every project whether it’s a book or a new product launch, a new technology product is the same as a movie where you’re opening weekend box office results, the votes are in by the end of the first weekend how did your new iPhone app do? Oh, we got off with a bad start, we got to have to really try to overcome that because people have voted and we’re already not cool.

So the phase of voting is quicker, the edge between winning and losing is sharper and much less forgiving. We used to talk about Fast Company and I still think it’s true that we didn’t get everything right when we launched but we got enough things right when we launched that we could stay in the game and fixed the things we got wrong. I think today it’s a much less forgiving market, if you get too many things wrong, you’re voted off of the island very quickly.


Recorded on: April 23, 2009