Alan M. Webber is an award-winning, nationally-recognized editor, author, and columnist. In 1995, he launched Fast Company magazine, a fresh, dynamic entry in the business magazine category. Headquartered in Boston, MA, the magazine became the fastest growing, most successful business magazine in history. Fast Company won two national magazine awards—one for general excellence, one for design—and Webber was named Adweek’s “Editor of the Year ” in 1999, along with co-founding editor William Taylor. Most recently, he wrote Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. He has also been active at local, state, and national political levels, serving as policy advisor for the mayor of Portland, Oregon, writing speeches for several governors, and working as special assistant to the United States Secretary of Transportation.
Morris: Before discussing Rules of Thumb, a few general questions. First, when and why did you decide to pursue a career in journalism?
Webber: I’ve always been interested in reporting, writing, and the purposes that good journalism can serve. When I was in high school, I was editor of the high school newspaper, and we wrote editorials calling for our school (a private all-boy’s–and at the time all-white–prep school) to integrate, to accept black students. In college I became the chairman of our college newspaper. This was during the Vietnam War, and we used the newspaper to cover student attitudes to that war, but also to explore the issues on campus that went more deeply into the purposes of a liberal arts education. So I’ve always seen journalism and activism as closely linked.
Morris: Since then, what do you think have been the most significant changes i magazine publication that includes both HBR and Fast Company?
Webber: The world of publishing, in general, has been changing dramatically for the last decade or more. It’s not just the web–although the web has served to disrupt the traditional business model of publishing. It’s also reading habits of different generations, attitudes toward the media and other large institutions, and the overall pace of change that people have to contend with in their daily lives. Obviously, HBR enjoys a privileged position in the magazine world, by virtue of its relationship with the Harvard Business School. The issue there is less one of economic survival, and more of relevance and impact with a business community that will always respect the HBR brand. But will the HBR brand be in touch with and in synch with the changing concerns and composition of the business community? Fast Company, because of its unique DNA as a business magazine devoted to the them of change and innovation, should be relevant forever! But it has to face the changing economic demands of publishing.
At the moment, I’m happy to say, both magazines seem to be meeting their respective challenges head-on.
Morris: Back to HBR, for a moment. What are your fondest memories of that association?
Webber: It’s always the people. When I took over as managing editor under Ted Levitt, we went about the work of re-inventing HBR. Ted was a brilliant marketer, mentor, and writer, so he provided the leadership and the vision to guide us. Then we recruited an almost entirely new team of people to re-invigorate HBR, to re-design the look and feel of the publication, to re-engineer the architecture, the structure of each issue, to bring in new ideas for presenting business thinking to the audience. For quite a few years, we had a terrific team that was excited about creating a new conversation about the direction that business was headed in. In many respects, I think those days helped foster an innovative culture at HBR and re-connected the publication with the larger business audience that was eager to be part of a fresh dialog about how business was changing, how the world was changing, and how the pieces fit together.
Morris: Please explain the process by which you and Bill Taylor co-founded Fast Company in November, 1995.
Webber: Bill and I met at HBR; I was the managing editor and he was the most talented, brilliant, energetic editor on the staff. We began exploring the idea for a new business magazine some time after I got back from a 3-month trip to Japan in 1989-90, where I was exposed to a set of powerful forces that were transforming the world of work. Some of the things I saw could be integrated into HBR, but because of the institutional limits of HBR, some were simply outside the legitimate boundaries of the publication at that time. So in the early 1990s Bill and I started talking informally about what a new magazine could be like. Bill left HBR first, and then when I left around 1993, we got serious about what a new magazine would be like: what it would look like, how it would perform as an editorial product, what we could create that would be exciting and useful, and speak to the dramatic changes going on in business: globalization, technology, the new opportunities for individuals to make a difference in work and through their work. We raised about $550,000 from a fantastic group of first round investors, and in 1993 we put out a “beta” issue. From the feedback we got from that issue, we wrote up a second-round business plan and then showed our work to different publishing companies, looking for a business partner with whom to launch Fast Company for real. Finally we were fortunate to make a deal with Mort Zuckerman and Fred Drasner, who owned U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic Monthly at that time. The Atlantic was in Boston, where Bill and both lived, so to launch Fast Company we borrowed office space from The Atlantic and ad sales and business staff from U.S. News, making our launch very economical. We hired a small, dedicated staff to put together our first issues, and the first “real” issue of Fast Company came out in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history!
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