In Praise of Starbucks

Last night I had a rare night to just relax. The kids were in bed early, Angela was out to run errands, and I had the TV remote to myself. So I flipped around and finally settled on a biopic on CNBC done by the Biography Channel. The story of Starbucks, in particular, its chairman, Howard Schultz.

The documentary was very well done. I’m always fascinated by the stories of successful businesses. Whenever we’re waiting in a doctor’s office, I always gravitate toward the business magazines. I love to see how entrepreneurs push back against the norms and not only build a successful business, but shape the culture as a whole. In the last two decades, I’m not sure there has been a more culture-shaping phenomenon like the rise of Starbucks.

Now I know that for some, Starbucks is evil. They think the idea of spending five bucks on coffee is the height of American greed. They are old-school and won’t every buy anything above a cheap cup of McDonald’s joe. I can respect that.

But whether you hate Starbucks or not, you have to marvel at its rise. And even though Howard Schultz doesn’t appear to be a follower of Christ (never asked him), the way he runs his business offers some really great lessons for us who are.

For instance, Schultz built Starbucks, not merely to try to make money. Of course he wanted to make money, but their business model is so very different than the norm. In this documentary, he said that he is not “making transactions” and that his goal is not to “fill bellies.” His goal is to sell community, to offer a third-place between work and home for people to gather. His philosophy seems to be that if you create a good experience, people will come back for more. If you treat people well, they will pay more to come back for that same level of treatment. And if you give them great stuff, if you’re brand means something, they will trust you. What’s interesting is that Starbucks has never relied on traditional marketing. They don’t advertise. Why? Well, if customers have a good experience, they tell others. Its amazing that such a large successful corporation was built without advertising. And yet their hard work in creating a likable experience has done just that.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Starbucks is in the way they treat their people. They offer health insurance to part-time workers. Each worker is considered a “partner,” and has stock in the company. They treat their employees with dignity. Their employees feel as if they are part of something larger, greater. Again, Starbucks is the farthest thing from a “Christian company.” And yet I wonder how it is that they can treat their people better than many Christian CEO’s? Interesting.

Lastly, I think its profound the way Howard Schultz changed the American landscape when it comes to coffee consumption. If you think about it, our coffee tastes have improved dramatically. Even Starbucks competitors offer better coffee. Every business seems to offer better-tasting coffee.

So what can be learned from the rise of Starbucks? Well that’s debatable, I’m sure, but at the very least its refreshing to see quality, a good experience, and good treatment of employees rewarded with success.