Review: Fast Company's Company of Friends

Company of Friends is the Fast Company Magazine reader’s network. Founded in 1995, Fast Company positioned itself as the “handbook of the business revolution”. Consistent with that position, they launched the Company of Friends in 1997 to bring together like-minded people “to foster creative change in their careers, companies, and communities”. Membership is free, and members even get a substantial discount on the magazine subscription.

While Fast Company can be credited with the idea of launching this community, it has truly taken on a life of its own. The magazine has only provided the online infrastructure and some minimal guidance to the organizers of local cells. And yet it has grown to over 13,000 members around the world, with a thriving mix of both online activity and face-to-face get-togethers.

While the emphasis historically has been on enabling the local groups to form and to stay connected between face-to-face events, earlier this year, Company of Friends added over 30 topical Special Interest Groups (SIGs) to their online community. While the categories are fairly diverse — from Arts & Entertainment to Volunteer Service, the list is clearly indicative of the nature of the magazine and its readers, with topics on Blogging, Entrepreneurship & Small Business, Networking, and more.

Two particularly remarkable things about Company of Friends are the lack of centralized authority and the remarkable adaptibility of the group. It is likely, of course, that these are inter-related.

Fast Company has a dedicated staff member, Social Capitalist Heath Row (great title, eh?), supporting the Company of Friends, but as he says, “The leadership of Company of Friends is horizontal.” He has assembled a handbook from input from the various cells, but the individual cells are completely autonomous in terms of when, where, and how they organize.

This bottom-up approach is what has made the Company of Friends so adaptive to the changing needs of its members. As John Federico, a Coordinator for the New York City Company of Friends, says, “The tone and purpose of the group has changed significantly over the past couple of years. When it was first formed, the emphasis was largely on knowledge sharing, creativity and innovation, and changing the way people think about business.”

Federico continues, “But it’s hard for people to talk about concepts like personal empowerment when they’re out of work or worried about the viability of their company. With the economic downturn, the group has shifted towards more concrete action to help people survive and thrive in their business. However, the core principles touted by the magazine and the community remain strongly in place.”

Company of Friends provides a great balance of online networking and face-to-face get-togethers, and of knowledge, social, and business networking for those who want to be a part of the “business revolution”.