Interview with Steve Forbes (EIC of Forbes Magazine and Co-Founder of Business Today)

Business Today (Hannah Pouler and Scott Newman): Along with Michael Mims and Jon Perel, you founded the Business Today magazine at Princeton in 1968. At the time, what was your motivation for starting the magazine?

Steve Forbes: We saw a need to try to get across a different perspective than the prevailing one, which was, at the time, keep the satisfaction the way things were, not just in terms of specific events but also principles. There didn’t seem to be an appreciation of entrepreneurship, of free markets, and so we thought that having students talk to students, to give a more balanced perspective, was a need and would be very helpful to the environment.

BT: What is the benefit of having the magazine be completely student-run?

Students are more likely to be open to listening to their peers, not to adults, or to people who are in a different phase of their own lives.

SF: The benefit of having a completely student run magazine is credibility. Students talking to students. Students are more likely to be open to listening to their peers, not to adults, or to people who are in a different phase of their own lives. There’s no way that someone who isn’t in the environment on a day-to-day basis appreciates the nuances and the environment that is constantly changing. So having outsiders do it, or people who are not in the academy anymore, would not have any credibility.

BT: When you took over Forbes and became Editor in Chief of Forbes magazine, what vision did you have for the company, and for the publication itself?

SF: The goal was expressed by my grandfather, who founded the company 101 years ago in 1917. He said in the first issue that the purpose of business is to produce happiness, not to pile up money. And today what we call entrepreneurial capitalism. So one of our editors compared us to a drama critic - we love it when a production is done right, we are very unhappy when it’s not done right, but we have a deep appreciation for the field. We also have a deep appreciation for free markets, and I think that it doesn’t mean you’re a cheering section, but we understand that the best way to give more people an opportunity to improve in life is through free markets; free people and free markets. So that’s been our motivation from the beginning, long before I came along.

BT: In an increasingly digital age, do you see a lasting market for print publications?

SF: There will always be a place for the printed word. The key, now, is to in effect have one help the other. So the publication itself, Forbes, really does tie into what we’re doing online, whether it’s our 30 under 30 list or some other theme. And even though most of us get most of our information now with handhelds or desktops, it’s still true that people really love to be on the cover of Forbes magazine. They really like to see the tangibility, not on a screen but on a piece of paper. Not just a printout from your handheld or your desktop. So the relative importance has changed, as most of our revenue comes from online and added activities, not the printed magazine, but it’s part of a package, and so we don’t want to make them two distinct silos. One of the things we’ve been a pioneer in was not just reprinting online what was in the magazine but also having content that was created specifically for 99% of our content now is created just for

BT: How has Forbes continued to push boundaries in the business world?

SF: You push boundaries by remembering what it is your purpose is. I think I mentioned earlier that Peter Drucker, the late great management guru who wrote a number of books on management and business, said that every organization should remind itself “what is its purpose, what it is they’re trying to do.” And if you focus on what it is you’re trying to do, the means to achieve that purpose may change, but that purpose does not. And part of the problem of human nature, which we certainly saw on the print side, is people get caught up on how they’ve done things, and don’t focus on how they do things. So as I’ve mentioned, in terms of content creation, we now have over 2,000 contracted contributors. Many of them do a piece a week. So we do 100,000 pieces a year online; we virtually produce a magazine each day. The marketing has changed substantially. So the way we do things does change, and we continue to look to do new things. We’re just now celebrating an event for 30 under 30 in Amsterdam. We had one in Israel several months ago, where we had thousands of people from around the world. These things are constantly evolving, but again they have the purpose of enabling people: giving them the tools, the analysis, the information they need to get ahead. We recognize those who have done it before, and learn from success, but also learn when things don’t go well. There have been a number of stories of people who have faltered then came roaring back again. Life never goes in a straight line.

BT: What is the target consumer profile for Forbes magazine? Do you believe it’s important for business journalism to reach a wide spectrum of readers?

SF: We think that what we’re trying to do has applicability worldwide. We have about forty licensed editions around the world, in various countries, and we have a growing number of websites that are dedicated to global markets. In much of the world, print is still more important than digital media, but you can see the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, so that’s going to change. And is changing. So we’re going to be covered on all fronts.  

BT: Have you applied knowledge and skills you learned at Princeton to your professional life?

SF: Yes! Owing to my work at Business Today, with John and Mike and others, my time at Princeton was an informal combination of undergraduate and MBA. And I think you can see the truth in that. So you learn, early on, what it takes to get something big done - you see it with the conference, the magazine, and other things you do. Especially with the conference, the numerous details that go into it, all the things that have to be done - the logistics, the marketing - that is not something you can be told about. Until you live it, you don’t fully appreciate it. Those experiences, you can’t replicate in a classroom. So I felt I had a leg up going out and to Forbes, having gone through actually trying to print a magazine. People see the final product, but until you actually try to create a final product, you have no appreciation of all the details that go into it.

BT: Your book Power, Ambition, Glory draws parallels between leaders from the ancient world and business titans in modern times. In particular, you write about the importance of thinking outside the box and of granting autonomy to those over whom one rules (whether in a kingdom or via an acquisition). How can college students begin to implement some of the lessons from the book into their everyday lives?

SF: Well, it’s about leadership—whether you’re leading a team or an organization or a division—and also about communications, persuading others. How do you get people to move in a certain direction? How do you get them to work together with others? So, while times and circumstances change, human nature does not. And that’s why many of the characteristics of success and failure that you see a couple thousand years ago certainly are applicable today. Part of it is learning to deal with crises. Things are not always going to go right, whether from your mistakes or from outside circumstances. You’re going to have to know that there are going to be times that you’re not going to have a playbook for things. You’re going to have to figure out how you deal with people, whether it’s a boss who doesn’t realize the great genius that you are, or whether it’s colleagues who you feel are jerks, or whether it’s the difficulty of dealing with people, you’re not the first ones to have to cope with that. It’s not painting by the numbers, but it does give you a sense of coping with the real world. It’s crisis. It’s innovation. All successful leaders are innovators…[who learn] to delegate. It’s an art. It’s not a science. Reading what others have gone through, you can find a structure from it. Mark Twain was right when he said that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

BT: Your grandfather once remarked that “the purpose of business is to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.” Please comment on what that means today and how students can put it into practice as they begin their careers.

The purpose of business is to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.

SF: Well, it’s about discovering what you have a knack at, and then, earning a living at it. And then, [it is about] understanding that often the best education comes from when things don’t work out well. It’s nice to take a job because you think it pays well or it’s a hot industry, but if you’re going to engage your true talents for a period of time, you have to figure out what is going to satisfy your enthusiasm, your passion. There are plenty of opportunities to make money, but the key is to live a life that you feel will be fulfilling. And for different people that will be different things. In business, what doesn’t get fully appreciated is that you succeed by meeting the needs and wants of others. And sometimes, you come up with something new that people realize they couldn’t live without.  

BT: Business Today turns 50 this year. You, John, and Mike have all commented that nobody could have ever foreseen that BT would evolve into what it is today. What advice do you have for those who will steer the ship for the next 50 years?

SF: I certainly won’t be around to see whether this is of any use, but the key again is remembering what Drucker said [about] meeting the needs of your constituency…keep figuring out how to make change. Maybe for a few years something may work and then it falls by the wayside. But the world keeps evolving, and we have to do the same. Just don’t get rigid.

BT: What is the most important thing for college students today to remember, to learn, and to gain from their time on campuses across the world?

SF: To learn that they don’t have all the answers and to keep their curiosity, and also the nitty-gritty of the stick-to-it attitude. No one is going to do your thesis for you. Everybody sort of understands that preparing for an athletic event requires a lot of boring training, grit, all that kind of thing. But also, other things, to get done, involve a lot of unglamorous work and preparation.