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June 27, 2005

News & Opinion: Inc./Fast Company R.I.P., Long Live Inc./Fast Company

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:28 PM – Filed under: Publishing Industry


The pending sale of Fast Company and Inc. feels to me like one of those business stories where conventional wisdom completely misses the point. Granted, the fact that these two publications, which were sold four years ago for a combined $550 million to Bertlesman, are going for $40 million. Jeeztwo of the hippest business magazines end up not with a bang but a whimper, not a Google but a Kmart.

Yet I still sense a huge strain of schadenfreude in the business press over the riches to rag-sale of the two pubs. And this bugs me. Its a bit personal, yes. I worked at Inc. for about three years in the 90s (loved it,) and before that worked with the two guys, Bill Taylor and Alan Webber, who founded FC. So Im rooting for both. But I would argue that each of these mags still publishes excellent stories, and that the recent event doesnt mark a total failure. Heres a few random thoughts on the news.

First of all, Fast Companys loss in value is not a proxy for the demise of the dot-con era. The magazine was never a technology book, and even today focuses primarily on management. In fact, my biggest gripe with the magazine has always been its extreme focus on the ultra-business lifeits tag line for the first four years could easily have been A lifestyle magazine for people who dont have a life. But its innovation was always about identifying and reporting on a new way of doing business, one that blended the personal and the professional, always with an aspirational element of doing good. While many of the big, branded ideas, such as Free Agent Nation, and the Brand Called You, feel in retrospect more like iterations of social trends than grand revolutions, giving them a name helped validate a way of thinking for people.

Above all, I think the great value of Fast Company has been the way that it represented a way that people felt about work. The magazine captured a sense among workers, especially younger workers, that the thing occupying the vast majority of their waking hours could be hopeful, exciting, full of promise, even a force for good. And that a convergence of technology, politics, and simple world events could lead to a more fulfilling work-life, even if that compound phrase was simply translated to life.

As for Inc..well Inc. has always been closer and dearer to my heart. Inc. too was founded on a crystalline vision of a type of companya bootstrapped, home-spun, messy, passionate type of startup, informed by a hippy sensibility, yet propelled by common sense translated into healthy profits and a shared enterprise among the troops. The leading players were folks like Paul Hawken, Ben and Jerry, Anita Roddick, and even Steve Jobs in the early daysentrepreneurs with a sense of passion, a sense of humor, and a fervent belief in the power of business.

Inc. also did a great job of recognizing that the line between personal and professional is quite porous at the startup level, and that one can tell fantastic stories about growth companies. The magazine perfected a narrative-management type of tale, told masterfully by folks like Josh Hyatt or Ed Welles, that shared business lessons in the context of a gripping story.

Also:

Love it or hate it, for the past half-dozen years Fast Company has been the biggest supporter of business books anywhere. No other publication has so consistently written about, excerpted, discussed, and taken seriously the matter of business books. The magazine has spotlighted Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Tom Peters, and many many many more, often running cover stories from notable books. Only the Industry Standard in its heyday devoted as much serious consideration to business books. I hope this careful attention continues.

With this purchase, Joe Mansueto may be the only subject of a lengthy magazine feature to actually purchase the magazine itself. A bit like Victor Kiam and Remington razors, I suppose.

Have any of the articles said that Inc. is actually losing money? I dont think so. I have no hard numbers on this, but lets check back on the performance of the two pubs in five years, and I wager that Mansueto will have proved the purchase a shrewd one.

And yet both these magazines have consistently lost ad pages and revenue for three years. During that time Business 2.0, whose editorial content has been stellar for the past year, has gained in both categories, and in fact passed Fast Company last year.

So how about you readers? What are your thoughts on the sale? Do these magazines still matter to you? What changes would you like to see?

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.