SANTA FE, N.M. – Some entrepreneurs see into the future with a keen eye and uncanny confidence. Time after time, they seem to have an edge no one else has – like media whisperer Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine.
Whether it’s the Japan of the late 1980s or the New Mexico of 2017, Webber has become an expert on seeing the future hiding in plain sight.
That’s how he co-launched a magazine that captured the internet mystique and launched a thousand Silicon Valley rock stars – then sold it for $350 million.
And that’s how he recently launched One New Mexico, an idea bank for entrepreneurs.
His secret? Both times – a listening tour.
In 1989, he took a sabbatical from the editorship of Harvard Business Review to go to Japan. He met one of the founders of Sony. He met Japan’s Go champion. He met a Jungian psychotherapist. He toured Fuji, Xerox, Toyota and more. “It was one of those ‘see the future’ moments,” he says.
Every aspect of every industry in every economy was going to be globalized. The digital revolution would be personal and portable – and it was an unstoppable force. So was diversity. “Not everyone who was going to be a leader in business was going to be a white male,” he says. And the world was on the cusp of a generational transformation.
“Those four cross-currents – everything was going to change,” he said.
The same thing happened when he traveled across New Mexico while running for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014. He saw seeds and fertile ground – unlimited energy potential, a tourism sector with untapped micro-economies, a rich tradition of agriculture and water conservation, an edge in bioscience and a border with Mexico.
See a pattern here? That’s the point. For exceptional entrepreneurs, “pattern recognition is a big deal,” he says.
Over coffee, the author of “Rules of Thumb” offered seven business lessons to live by.
Think about what makes you different, not how you can be the Uber of X.
Companies thrive when they differentiate, not when they copy, he says.
After Japan, those four emerging trends were at the forefront of his mind as he settled back in at Harvard Business Review. When he looked at the covers of his competition in the business magazine world, he could see a stark contrast. Forbes and BusinessWeek looked like they’d come out of the 1950s, with cover photos of white men in power suits facing right – the power pose. That world wasn’t going to last.
And so, a new business magazine was born: Rolling Stone meets Harvard Business Review. Fast Company wasn’t just a business magazine. As he told Time magazine in 2014, “it also had a political sensibility about what makes for a good life. It wasn’t articles; it was a curriculum.”
But don’t look for silos. Look for Venn diagrams.
What overlaps? As a media visionary, Webber got to where he is by recognizing patterns. The most clever entrepreneurs are looking to get multiple returns from one investment. “Strategy is a move that sees more than one move at a time – like a chess move. You see the whole chessboard.”
In New Mexico, Webber saw that brilliant water conservation existed side-by-side with solar power and a deeply networked agricultural ecosystem. That led to an idea he’s been promoting through One New Mexico: industrial hemp, which needs plenty of sun but very little water.
His business philosophy is to solve two or three problems with each move you make. In his book, he calls it the Trim Tab Factor, referring to the smallest piece of the rudder on a boat. It exerts the most influence on the boat’s guidance system. Look for the smallest investment that will give the biggest return. Which means that …
All money is not created equal.
You write a business plan. Write a plan for how you’re going to raise investment money, he says.
When Webber and co-founder Bill Taylor wrote the investment plan for Fast Company, they looked for an anchor tenant – an early investor with a big brand name – just like they were renting space in a shopping mall. Their first investor put in $50,000, but “for us, it was everything,” he says. “We could say, ‘Do you know who our first investor is?’ ” That investor was none other than John Doerr, of famed venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins, Caufield, Byers.
Investors aren’t just money walking in the door. They offer expertise and support – the four Cs, change, connection, conversations and community. “Every startup makes new connections, among ideas, people, categories,” he says. “All startups are about starting new conversations, about restaurants, about clothes, about fashion, about politics, about coffee, about music.”
Early investors help you promote your ideas. By definition, magazines create communities, bringing people together who didn’t know they had something in common. Startups do that, too. That was the genius behind Fast Company’s Company of Friends community, which pre-dated social media.
It’s not so much what you’re good at – it’s what you’ve learned the hard way that counts.
That’s how experts are made. And that’s how visionaries are born.
On Webber’s New Mexico tour, he saw that because of prolonged drought, New Mexico has a storehouse of knowledge about water use and allocation – as well as a lot of experience in how to talk about it.
Look beyond your natural strengths and notice what you’re short on. What resource do you not have in abundant supply, so you have had to get smarter about how you use it?
Auditing your assets for opportunity is “typically based on things you have a lot of — or not a lot of,” he says. For instance, he says, New Mexico “ought to be the best at imagining a future without water.”
Ask not what the media can do for you; ask what you can do for the media.
“Don’t think of the media as your p.r. platform,” he says. “That is a dead end.”
The media are always looking for the story you’re not selling, he says. What is the story behind the story?
When Webber was at Harvard Business Review, too often publicists pushed what they wanted to sell as opposed to what readers wanted to read. “Think about what makes you unique, not generic,” he says.
Everybody is in charge of the message, and everything is communication. In today’s media landscape, every employee is the media person. The ethic should be “live the brand, be the brand, market the brand,” he says. Recognize that everything is communication – whether your foyer is marble or wood, whether your office is in a fashionable high-rent area or the warehouse district.
Ask yourself early, “What is my definition of victory?”
Fast Company’s first issue contained an article by entrepreneur Mark Fuller that posed the question, “How did the United States manage to win every battle in Vietnam but lose the war?” Fuller’s answer: because they lost track of the point of the exercise.
In the American economy, the same is true, Webber says. “Every 10 years, we drive the economic car into the ditch,” he had noted in a 2014 Time magazine interview.
Asked about that statement, he says that historically in the United States, CEOs work to drive the stock price as high as possible, then exit. That’s guaranteed to lead to base decisions and compromise corporate principles, like last year’s Wells Fargo scandal, he says. “Why would they do something that blatantly stupid?”
“Every CEO needs to ask the question – what is my definition of victory?”
That goes beyond profit maximization or exit strategy. “Steve Jobs wanted to make a dent in the universe,” Webber says. “Fast Company’s purpose was to change the conversation about business.”