FAST COMPANY: READER PASSION IS AT THE HEART OF THIS SUCCESS STORY

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Never mind that 3- year-old Fast Company already has exceeded its original business plan, or that its design, awarded 19 times over, is aped by start-ups and advertisers alike.

Forget for a moment that its ad pages grew 50.3% in one year, or that circulation rose a whopping 37% -- a feat unheard of for a recent launch.

What's most remarkable about Fast Company is the passion it evokes from its readers.

As hokey as that may sound, Fast Company is one of the few titles to come along this decade that stirs readers into a cult-like frenzy. It has fan clubs -- dubbed "Company of Friends," -- in some 52 cities. Readers gather on the Internet or in each other's homes to exchange man-agement and career advice, and to discuss personal fulfillment issues.

FAN CLUBS FORM

The fan clubs -- first organized by individual readers -- now span 10 countries, and lay claim to more than 10,000 members.

As its founding editors are quick to note, Fast Company is as much a movement as it is a magazine. What Martha Stewart Living is to homebodies, Fast Company is to the average Dilbert. In Fast Company's world, work is 24/7, and that's still, remarkably, a good thing to its readers' way of thinking. The publication's ability to inspire that passion, on top of its impressive 1998 business performance, add up to its choice as Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year.

The magazine's success is due in large part to good management and terrific timing. Backed by Mort Zuckerman, Fast Company made its debut in November 1995, as the business world shifted emphasis from top-down management to a bottoms-up view of problem-solving.

Fast Company caught the New Economy just before it had crested -- and was able to ride it faster than business gurus.

CHARTING CAREERS

Fast Company, by being just slightly ahead, has named business trends as they surfaced. Thus, the idea of professionals charting their own careers and even opting for self-employment were most memorably chronicled in Fast Company's oft-quoted cover stories "Free Agent Nation" and "The Brand Called You."

The philosophy of the publication has permeated the consciousness of its competitors. Steve Forbes, chairman of Forbes Inc. and moonlighting political candidate, was quoted during one of his stump speeches referring to "all these free agents we've got out here" for which the government will have to adapt its policies.

Fast Company is even succeeding as a brand. When American Airlines wanted to include business copy in its in-flight magazine, American Way, it asked to use Fast Company material. The section is flagged on the cover with "Fast Company Inside."

Workers aren't the only ones embracing Fast Company. Management at both Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury unit have urged their executives to get subscriptions. John Quelch, dean of London Business School, arranged for a special alumni discount.

"My perception is it's one of the hottest books out there. It's really much more than just a business magazine. It represents where businesses are going today," says Priya Narang, senior VP-media director, DeWitt Media, New York, who has placed several clients, including BMW, in Fast Company. "It's fresh and irreverent, and people are passionate about it. It's a must read."

FIRST HAND

She's even seen first hand the type of readers it draws. When Ms. Narang worked on the Volkswagon account several years ago, Volkwagon's Germany-based CEO Clive Warrilow called her to request a copy of Fast Company's first issue.

Advertisers as diverse as American Express Co., Saturn Corp., Netscape Communications Corp. and Donna Karan regularly show up in its pages. Teligent, a telecommunications company, uses a 30-second Fast Company-produced tip to peg its national radio spot. In 1998, the magazine produced 10 issues for the first time, and pulled in 1,047.13 ad pages, according to Publishers Information Bureau, up 50.3%.

Back in 1993, co-founders Alan Webber and William Taylor had only the vaguest idea what a new business magazine should be.

"The stuff that's obvious today was not yet perfectly obvious then," says Mr. Webber.

They just knew that the way they talked about business with colleagues, friends and managers was not the way business magazines sounded. The idea of a "workstyle" magazine grew from the observation that in the '90s, work was more personal than ever before, and more professionals defined themselves through their work rather than the company that employed them.

LINES BLUR

Thanks to cell phones, computers, voice mail and e-mail, work and home lines were blurring. Work-hard/play-hard types didn't see why work should be regulated to Monday through Friday, and play time only destined for Saturday and Sunday. The idea of structuring one's own schedule became reality for many, and Fast Company has become a handbook to guide them.

This influence, remarkably, has grown without the benefit of any expensive marketing effort. The grass roots, word-of-mouth approach cleverly plays into another Fast Company strength: Readers believe they are able to seek out the information they need to further their careers.

At the same time, in the latter half of the '90s, work became cool, and those workers who were the stars were tech-savvy and entrepreneurial-minded. Unlike the '80s, when yuppies came to be viewed as greedy, grasping, self-involved corporate posers, the '90s office mantra is about keeping it real.

Work is about taking control of one's destiny, and sometimes a way to be socially and morally responsible, as long as it doesn't hold back your IPO. Rather than enslaving, work is the route to the ultimate freedom.

Fast Company reflects this new breed of professionals, more likely to wear blue jeans than blue pinstripes.

Along with the individual "Company of Friends" cells, the magazine has staged two Real Time Conferences where attendees pay $1,500 to interact with fellow Fast Company-minded folk. Both Real Time conferences attracted 400 attendees and advertisers.

EXCEED PLAN

While CEO Eric Gertler declines to discuss exactly how well the magazine is doing, "Fast Company has exceeded every one of our expectations on our business plan.

"We've created conferences that are profitable, the Web site commands one of the highest CPMs, and this magazine runs about as efficiently on the expense side [as] any other magazine," he said. "This is a magazine that is doing extremely

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