I kept walking by it -- it was such a small storefront. Who would have thought something so massive could start so humbly? It had an oddly familiar logo, but instead of the iconic green and white features it featured a scantily clad Siren circled in brown.
I wasn't in Seattle to write about a coffee company like Starbucks, I was under contract to co-author a business book about the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market, a fish stand known for the high-energy fish-throwing antics of its employees. It just so happened that the original Starbucks store was located about a block away. And that began the journey that led me to write
The allure of Starbucks first ensnared me many years ago. While I used to love the smell of coffee brewing, I'd never actually drunk it until I was a teenager working on my uncle's dairy on an early winter morning in Colorado. I was somewhat apprehensive, so I poured in a significant quantity of fresh cream and took a timid sip. As I swallowed hard, I wondered who would ever drink this stuff?
Then, in graduate school, a friend introduced me to Starbucks, and something about the ambience, customer service and product quality led me not only into a relationship with coffee but into a loyalty with the brand as well. It was obvious that I was not alone: Starbucks was building six new stores a day, with the average customer visiting 18 times per month.
Realizing that relatively little had been written in book form about Starbucks, I began exploring the possibility of offering an outsider's perspective on their success. Believing in their product and trusting that I could respectfully capture the essential aspects of Starbucks' meteoric growth, I set out on the adventure of finding an access point to the company.
Surprisingly enough, I had to look no further than my wallet, where I carried a Starbucks gift card. By calling the 800 number on the card, I was able to make initial contact with the global brand department. After a series of phone calls, offering a written proposal, flying to Seattle to explore the concept, and developing of a collaboration agreement, I finally began my two-year odyssey with Starbucks.
Whether I was picking coffee beans in Central America, meeting with senior leadership, talking with coffee servers (baristas) or interviewing customers, I always had two questions in mind: 1) What had Starbucks done so differently from other small businesses worldwide? 2) How could I translate Starbucks' success as a business and social icon into inspiration and encouragement for other companies?
I believe that there is no truly new information in the universe. As such, I felt that Starbucks must have been tapping into some core, universally available principles. My goal was to uncover those principles in order to enable others to serve and produce higher-quality products.
The importance of this objective became clear to me one day as I read a sign in the window of a business that said "espresso." It was the only "coffee shop" I could find in this small Missouri tourist town, although the establishment looked primarily like an ice cream parlor. When I asked for a nonfat latte, the female teenager serving me replied, "I don't know anything about the nonfat part but I can do the latte thing."
While I was willing to forgo the nonfat milk, the next few minutes played out like a bad movie. The young coffee maker proceeded to scoop some pellets into a cup. She then poured brewed coffee in, blended it, and then microwaved the strange concoction. Almost speechless, I handed over $5 and walked out of the shop sipping a drink that made it to the first trash can I could find. As the cup left my hand, all I could think was, "This sure wasn't Starbucks."
In summary, I wrote
because Starbucks successfully converted me into a coffee lover, and has done the same for countless millions worldwide. They've created a business so successful, they literally have stores competing across the street from one another, achieving phenomenal growth in both domestic and foreign markets and becoming a social icon.
Most importantly, Starbucks offers great lessons about enduring principles of success based firmly on the importance of prioritizing people, passion and product. Plus, how else could I pay for two lattes a day without royalties from a bestselling book?
Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., is the founder of Lessons for Success, a training, consulting, and keynote presentation company. He also hosts an award-winning daily radio show on KVOR-AM in Colorado and speaks to various organizations throughout the world.