Robert Safian

Think Fast! Robert Safian on Innovation

The editor of Fast Company explores the links among creativity, innovation, passion and purpose.

What makes Fast Company Fast Company?

Fast Company’s mission is different from that of other business magazines. We focus on innovation and creativity, not stock prices. We believe that business should be a vehicle for progress in the world. Our mission is to inspire our readers to challenge the status quo and prepare them for a future that’s coming faster than ever. There is a hunger for this perspective.

We are also open to readers engaging in our content in whatever format works best for them, whether that is in print, on the Web, via mobile, through live events or by following our social feeds. Our goal is to make each independent appearance of our content compelling and satisfying; at the same time, all the various pieces should reinforce each other.

Fast Company exudes a passion for its subject matter. We blur the divide between business and general-interest, because that reflects the world our readers live in. Business leaders are celebrities. Celebrities are brands. We all need to understand where this is moving, and Fast Company seeks to be a fun, warm, engaging guide.

What do you see as the greatest impact the magazine has had in terms of being a vehicle for progress?

Oh, we would never try to take credit for the achievements of specific businesses or individuals. Enterprises sometimes thank us for precipitating funding or a jump in sales, which we appreciate, but we know their own efforts and products are what matter most.

There are themes that we try to emphasize: how technology is transforming education or health care, for instance; the importance of software literacy, even if we don’t all become coders; and the broad embrace of sustainability as a business imperative. Business is changing so fast, and the natural human impulse is to hold on to what we already know, to be nostalgic for a simpler past. We try to remind our readers that you can’t stop the march forward, and if you embrace these changes great things are possible.

As a media brand, our impact will be primarily via inspiration and encouragement. Short-term financial pressures can be so onerous in business; we hope that the examples we cite encourage a longer-term perspective. When we see topics and people we have written about appear in other media, we see that as a signal of impact.

We’ve made it a priority, for instance, to give more attention to women executives than traditional business media has done – not through “women in business” lists and stories, but simply by profiling women with interesting achievements. We’ve noticed that other media outlets now seem to be doing more of this coverage as well, and we like to think our example played a role in that. There are analogous situations with other diverse communities. We seek to model in our coverage what we believe the future of business will look like. The more communities that are welcomed into the business world, the broader range of ideas and talents that will be tapped, and that should aid progress.

How do you define progress?

Many forces in our culture, and in business, are inclined to maintain the status quo – to fight change and to fear new technology and new ways of approaching the world. This influence can be overt or it can be insidious. Within large organizations, it can be stultifying. Why even try a new approach when the old system has been working just fine for years? When newcomers raise questions, they are often brushed aside.

But that leaves problems unaddressed and possibilities ignored. At Fast Company, we know that change is hard. But it is inevitable. Through the lens of history, change has brought great benefits to more and more people: medical breakthroughs, communication breakthroughs, quality of life breakthroughs. We want to encourage the adoption of these new tools and new approaches that can help more and more people lead better and more meaningful lives.

Robert Safian

Robert Safian (Photo by Mark Brown)

How do you define progress for Fast Company?

As the steward of Fast Company’s brand, I have to be mindful of the financials of our business. The more revenue we can attract, the more resources we have to devote to editorial and the broader the reach of our journalism. Our progress is in part a reflection of our scale: more outlets, more readers, more fans.

But of course we’re also consumed with the quality of our articles: choosing the right topics, executing the storytelling at a high level, engaging with individuals and subject matter that matters. Our writers and editors are exposed to so many cool new businesses, many with dramatic potential. But we want to avoid introducing our readers to things they will never hear about again; we try to find the breakthroughs that matter most. Sometimes we can only judge our progress in hindsight.

Where do you think innovators or entrepreneurs most often fall short in launching a new business or initiative?

I always try to be supportive of those brave enough to launch new businesses. It is a daunting challenge. They are often fighting a sea of skeptics, and things rarely go according to plan. The combination of hard work, faith and adaptability required – wow! I think sometimes new entrepreneurs underappreciate how difficult it will be, although maybe that’s a good thing! Who would take on something so hard if they really knew? The practical roadblocks are numerous and constant, and you need to have great passion to work your way through them.

If I had to pick one thing that upends entrepreneurs more than any other: the quality of the execution. Good ideas are easier to come by than truly bringing those ideas to life in a distinctive, effective way. As an entrepreneur, what can you do that no one else can? What skills and insights do you bring? What contacts and co-workers do you bring to the project? What gives you a lasting competitive advantage? Because we can’t kid ourselves: It is doggedly competitive out here.

Given your access to the best and brightest, what do you see as the greatest area for growth and innovation in, say, the next decade? Where should we be looking?

I’m often asked to make predictions, and I’m always reluctant to do so. The pace of change in business and culture is so fast; predictions are perilous. There are trends we keep a close eye on: genetics and biotech; how info-tech is bringing disparate parts of the world closer together; the maturation of sustainability and alternative fuels; digital education; data science and privacy; social and mobile integration. Many of these areas are still in their early phases. How they’ll turn out, who the “winners and losers” will be, that’s still to be determined.

When Fast Company first wrote about Facebook, the service had 19 million users. Mark Zuckerberg was not a household name. Today there are dozens of services and apps with that scale of audience – and few, if any, will become globe-spanning juggernauts. Transformative impact requires good timing, great execution and a healthy dose of luck.

Talk about the Innovation Uncensored event. Is this Fast Company’s application of its guiding principles?

Innovation Uncensored is a live representation of Fast Company’s editorial. Just as we reach our audience via print and digital, we also offer in-person experiences throughout the year. Characters from our coverage talk directly to the Fast Company community. These are not traditional conferences – we’re not narrowly targeting a specific industry, but rather seeking to inspire with a range of presentations.

At our Innovation Uncensored event in San Francisco last November, for instance, we had the CEOs of Pinterest and Yelp, as well as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines, who talked about the Afghan Army as the world’s most dangerous startup; the production director from the film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” who talked us through selected clips ahead of the theatrical release; a half-dozen designers who had worked at Apple who shared inside details of their experiences; and parents from the Newtown school shooting, who announced an XPrizelike award for smart gun technology, in partnership with Silicon Valley investors.

We hope that our events, like our content elsewhere, is inspiring, instructive and distinctive – something you can’t get anywhere else.

In February, you launched the “Most Creative People in Business 1000” with a nod to Leonardo da Vinci. What do you hope comes from this?

The Most Creative People 1000 grows out of an annual list we do of the 100 most creative people of the year. Each year, it includes 100 new people. The new MCP 1000 brings all those honorees together, plus others we’ve profiled previously. It represents a community of creativity, both eclectic and dynamic. Operationally, it is a collaborative project from our full editorial team.

We will write about new developments from our MCP 1000 honorees – and we hope they’ll bring their ideas to us. The goal is less aesthetic than inspirational. It can be daunting to take the risks of creativity, and we want to empower more business people to engage in the risk, tolerate the inevitable disappointments and recognize that this is what creates our future.

Fast CompanyWhat should business schools focus on when trying to educate future business leaders? What can we offer to make the M.B.A. more viable?

In a world where more and more young people want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, the challenge for business schools is formidable. Biz school has always come with a financial tab, but today the time away from the workforce can feel even more costly to aggressive young workers.

Like every other part of our culture, business schools need to continue to evolve – while staying true to their core mission. Certainly we can all be better trained about business. Adjusting that training to not just current fads but future needs is what will continue to create value.

There was a time when the pinnacle of post-M.B.A. opportunity was consulting or investment banking. For some, that still remains the goal. But today the opportunity spectrum is viewed more widely, and so the experience at schools will need to reflect that. More real-world experience may be required, more opportunities to fail with true consequences attached – and true rewards with success.

Ultimately, like all the rest of us, business schools have to deliver value for their customers and constituents that is at least commensurate with the cost and investment required – and ideally more than commensurate. As long as decisions are viewed through that lens (and not “this is the way we’ve always done it”), then business schools have plenty of opportunity to thrive.

What has fueled your passion for what you do?

When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I was going to do. I spent a little time bar tending, I interned at the “NewsHour” on public television, and then found a job at a trade magazine called the American Lawyer. I wasn’t planning on being a lawyer or a business journalist, but I found that interviewing smart business people, analyzing their successes and failures, was so challenging and engaging. I moved on to other publications, Money, TIME and Fortune among them, before coming to Fast Company. And I love it. Creating magazine-style content – whether in print or digital – is an endlessly creative pursuit, and at Fast Company that creativity is linked to a mission, one that I believe in and am nourished by. I’m very fortunate.

About Robert Safian

In November 2013, Robert Safian served as the Opus Distinguished Speaker, visiting the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Minneapolis campus to address an audience of 200 alumni, students, faculty, staff and the general public.

As editor and managing director of the monthly business magazine Fast Company, Safian oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine’s advertising, marketing and circulation efforts.

He was named 2009 Editor of the Year by Adweek and recognized as a 2008 Innovator of the Year by B-2-B Media. Under his leadership, Fast Company has received numerous accolades, including a two-time National Magazine Award Finalist, Magazine of the Year honors from the Society of Business Editors and Writers in 2008, and the prestigious Gerald R. Loeb Award for Distinguished Business Journalism in both 2007 and 2008, among many others. The publication was named to the Ad Age A-List in 2008 and to the Adweek Hot List for two consecutive years.

Under Safian’s direction, Fast Company has garnered a reputation for highlighting the “new” in business while respecting the “tried and true.” By presenting stories of the people behind innovative business thinking, it gives hope to millions of workers, entrepreneurs and leaders that meaningful change is possible.

Safian came to Fast Company in 2007 from Fortune, where he served as executive editor. Previously, he was an executive editor at TIME and headed Money as its managing editor for six years. Safian was honored in 2000 by Crain’s New York Business as one of the “40 under 40” top young business executives in New York City and was named to New York Magazine’s “35 under 35” the previous year.

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