Fast Company Live When my registration information for Fast Company's RealTime conference in Orlando arrived in the mail with three bungee cords and a crayon, I knew this was going to be no ordinary meeting. But then, Fast Company is no ordinary magazine.
RealTime is Fast Company's signature meeting. People featured in the magazine's editorial pages are the session facilitators. Most attendees are among Fast Company's 550,000 readers. They each shelled out $1,500 (not including transportation or lodging) for a 21/2 -day gathering in May at the Disney Institute to meet each other, to bounce around ideas, and to learn new ways to think outside the box.
RealTime is an important part of Fast Company's overall mission. "We're a company in the business of informing people about the new economy," says Alan Webber, one of the founding editors of this critically acclaimed magazine about the new world of work, which was launched five years ago. "The magazine has created a community. But it's even more powerful that we have gatherings where people can pool their common experience."
Real Time Central The hub of the meeting is an area called, well, the Hub. In this extremely cool cyber cafe and small exhibit area, RealTimers check in every morning to grab a cup of coffee and chat, design and print out daily schedules, pick up e-mail, and get in touch with other conference participants or speakers via on-site messaging.
Snazzy Gateway computers (PC versions of the iMac) sit in a self-contained cluster on a raised platform that hides the wiring for lightning-fast Internet connections. Here's where I settle in first, several hours before the meeting's opening session. It takes about five minutes to create my personal home page; then I pull up the home pages of fellow conferees to see whom I might want to add to my "buddy list." I'm already having fun.
Fast Company staffers, easy to spot in their red T-shirts, mill about in the Hub to answer questions as needed. There are about 40 of them at RealTime, everyone from the publisher to the magazine's production coordinator, although their rank is unimportant here. (Throughout the event, you might see the founding editor passing around bottles of water, or the art director holding up an umbrella to shade participants from the sun streaming into the outdoor amphitheater where morning sessions are held).
The pulse and tone of the Hub reflects that of the magazine: It's cutting edge (Fast Company keeps garnering top awards, most recently the 2000 National Magazine Award for Design), convivial, and energized.
In fact, an uncommon energy level and sense of purpose animate the entire RealTime experience. The attendees have to be the friendliest group of meeting-goers I've ever met, and the most upbeat. To be honest, I haven't felt this sense of community since Woodstock.
But unlike Woodstock, this is a movement that embraces corporate America. Participants hail from giant corporations like Pillsbury, hip companies like Wild Planet Toys, high-tech leaders like Lucent Technologies, and many brand-new startups. Their titles range from the traditional, like CEO, to new economy tags like People Champion. "Everyone at RealTime belongs to the same community. They just didn't know it before they got here," says Webber.
Young entrepreneurs like Susan Crain, president of LTVin New York, are at RealTime to "improve my skills, expand my thinking, and make new friends." Seasoned business executives like Roger Helms, president and CEO of fast-growing site selection company HelmsBriscoe in Scottsdale, are attracted by the Fast Company culture. "I came to be innovative, to learn, to blue-sky- session everything."
RealTime emcees Alan Webber, founding editor, Fast Company and Polly LaBarre, senior editor While at most meetings I've attended the best communication tends to take place in the hallways between sessions (and often between people who know each other), here, people talk to each other at every opportunity. They converse about the new world of work, about the nature of creativity in organizations, and especially about change. "Even well-established, successful firms like ours need ideas on how to charge successfully into the future," Allison Hecht, director of firmwide marketing for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in New York, one of the world's leading architectural firms, told me on that first day.
Sparkling New Ideas The theme of this year's RealTime is "ideas and implementation." The goal: to shower attendees with new ideas to take back home. It worked for Stephen Schroth, knowledge lab manager at Wachobia Bank in Winston-Salem, N.C., who started seriously thinking about his own company's meetings after the opening "Sitdown, Smackdown" experience (see sidebar). "I realized that our meeting dynamic puts too much emphasis on rank and title. I'm going to propose some ways to change that."
The 21/2-day meeting is packed with educational programs, including four general session "main events" and a choice of workshops for groups of about 50. Presenters are the innovative business and cultural leaders (referred to as "models and mentors") who have been featured in the pages of the magazine. Many of them--including Rolf Smith, lead guide for a company called VirtualThinking Expeditions, Houston, Texas; Andy Stefonovich, whose title is "chief what-iffer" (and co-founder) of Play, Richmond, Va.; and Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra--engage the audience in experiential learning that turns education into edutainment. At Zander's spellbinding closing presentation, everyone learns the fine points of "one-buttock piano playing" and belts out Beethoven's Ninth in German. We also emerge from the 90-minute session with a better understanding of the essence of creative leadership and out-of-the-box thinking.
Then there's an extended track of activities for a robust group of 50 "extreme RealTimers" who have elected to rise at dawn and stay up late to do things like bake muffins, create a graffiti mural, and interact more closely with some of the models and mentors. This is a first-time offering, and it generated a surprising response. "We limited the number to 50 people and expected to get 10. But over 150 signed up" says Dawn Wells, director, FC:Live, Fast Company's in-house event planning department.
Jason Ollander-Krane, vice president and chief people officer of Ivus, Inc., an Oakland, Calif., startup that advises companies on how people buy on the Internet, didn't let jet lag stop him from participating in Extreme Real Time. "It's really valuable to get to know people in a small group and see them over and over," he told me at 11 p.m. on the second night, as he was getting ready to join the others in creating a huge graffiti mural that would become the backdrop for Ben Zander's presentation the next day.
Throughout the conference, we all move at Internet speed as we try to break through the creative glass ceiling in sessions and in conversation. Cellphones are turned off; this crowd is here to learn.
"What people get from RealTime," says Webber, "is inspiration, practical lessons, and relationships that go on beyond the boundaries of a meeting."
Behind The Scenes It's clear from attending RealTime that Fast Company is far more than just a magazine. The printed publication, along with its Web site and conferences, is a conduit for people on the edge of the new economy--"change agents" (in FC language) looking for ideas on how to work faster and better, and to connect with each other.
RealTimers check in at the "Hub," a very cool cyber cafe and small exhibit area, to print daily schedules, pick up e-mails, have a cup of java, and chat with like-minded others. This quest for connections was behind the inception of the first RealTime, in June 1998. "Readers told us that they wanted face-to-face interaction with others who were equally passionate about work," says Dawn Wells.
Her department of eight will orchestrate more than 25 events in 2000, including the biannual RealTime. But, she says, "we're not in the event business, we're in the brand business. We think in terms of an educational learning experience that, like the magazine, is a tool to help people succeed in the new world of work.
"We approach events by asking certain questions," she adds. "How do we want people to talk to each other? How do we want them to feel? What do we want them to learn? Can we surprise them and cause them to look at something in a new way? Can we get them to laugh out loud?"
Within the Boston headquarters of Fast Company, departments come together several months prior to each RealTime conference to collaborate and dream up new ideas during a "no rules" brainstorming session. Arguably the most popular program at the Orlando meeting, "Sitdown, Smackdown," derived from one of these companywide meetings.
Each RealTime conference is planned around a different theme--the next one, to be held in Phoenix from October 29 to 31, is "design"--and involves different kinds of programs. Even with two yearly gatherings (one on each coast) and a hefty registration fee that is going up to $1,750 in September, RealTime typically sells out all of its 425 slots. A third conference in Western Europe may be added in 2001, says Wells, but attendance will remain capped. "RealTime is the magazine come to life, when we have our community over to our house for dinner. Our offices are a little small, so we pick another place. But we won't go beyond the size we are now, because it is the right number of people for conversation and learning."
Dream It, Do It "The first time I looked at Fast Company magazine, I said, 'We have to do something with these folks'," recalls Craig Taylor, director of business programs for The Disney Institute in Orlando--and an avid Fast Company reader.
So, following Walt Disney's credo, "If you can dream it, you can do it," Taylor traveled to Boston at the end of 1998 to persuade FC to hold one of its conferences at the Institute. His idea became reality this year, when RealTime took place there from May 7 to 9.
A veteran of two other RealTime conferences, Taylor says that the "connecting thread" between Disney and the Fast Company brand is a belief in and vision of the future. "If the people I met at this conference are the future, then I can't help but feel very optimistic," he says.
Sit Down, Smack Down I feel flutters of anxiety as I join the hundreds of people hurrying onto the lawn of the Disney Institute at dusk, all wondering what to expect from the next hour's "Sitdown, Smackdown." We've just been briefed by RealTime opening eventAndy Stefonovich, chief what-iffer and co-founder of Play, a Richmond, Va.-based consulting group--sort of. "Money matters," he said. "Time counts. Get ready for 60 minutes of spin."
Need to break away from your desk and get some creative ideas? Just grab your "simple seat" and head for the beach. I clutch the "tools" that arrived at my office a few weeks earlier in a shiny silver bubble pack--three bungee cords and a crayon--as I look around for my teammates, those with the same mauve-colored crayon. There are 50 teams of roughly 10 people each. Every individual has different tools and a net worth of $100,000 to buy more tools from a "marketplace" table. Our job is to design and build something that supports the weight of the human body and to prepare a one-minute marketing pitch. In this microcosm of the business world, we can also borrow additional funding from an "incubator" or recruit talent from other teams.
My team is a cross-section of attendees: Franklin Brooks, a vice president in the architecture firm Freeman White, Charlotte, N.C.; Steve Danco, vice president of database marketing, Watermark Communities, Sun City Center, Fla.; Allison Hect, director of firmwide marketing, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York; Tanya Krisp, manager of human resources, ICE Integrated Communications, Toronto; Christopher Phillips, senior vice president, Tishman Construction Corp., New York; and Stephen Schroth, knowledge lab manager, Wachobia Bank, Winston-Salem, N.C. Although we have to forfeit $300,000 for the three teammates who fail to show up, we rally and quickly begin working to our strengths.
In the end, we don't think up the most fanciful way to spend time on our posteriors--that honor goes to "makeacrazywish.com," a picnic-table throne for a young woman borne aloft by three bare-chested men. But our portable "simple seat" wins high marks for design integrity and clarity of concept.
And in less than an hour, we learned to bond together as a team, to reinvent a concept, and to market a new idea.