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Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul | Review

It’s no secret that I love Starbucks. Many people have seen evidence of my extensive Starbucks mug collection and I have been known to spend quite some time on eBay seeking out rare Starbucks mug designs. Everybody collects something, don’t they? Why not Starbucks mugs?

So as you can imagine, getting the book “Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul” by Howard Schultz (Starbucks CEO) for Christmas was a good thing. The book is well written (and I see that there is another name credited on the book cover in addition to Howard Schultz) and covers, among other things, the history of Starbucks, stories from the height of its success, stories from when it all began to go wrong, and the (in my view, fairly ruthless but necessary) approach to correct its downward course and re-establish the values the company originally set out with. Within the message of the book are many business lessons that can be applied outside of the coffee business, and I can easily translate the messages when looking at the progress and development of Christian Ward Photography.

When things are going well, it has the real potential of covering up small failures that go un-noticed or even ignored, yet when they go un-checked their significance can increase over time until they have a definite impact. Schultz talks about how the success of the business was built on the experience that customers received in-store, and how the values of the company were to focus on that rather than the transaction of buying and selling. We’ve all been in Starbucks and observed the person (or even been that person ourselves) on a laptop spending time just browsing, or replying to emails, or even Skyping, and it’s that sense of being a community place that forms part of the Starbucks Experience. Yet Starbucks experienced such massive growth and success that it apparently forgot to focus inwardly at the same time as it focused outwardly on expansion.

Starbucks branched out into the music and film industry, sold soft toys, expanded their range of savoury food, and eventually they had come quite some way from the one thing they were really supposed to be about: coffee. Instead of walking into a Starbucks and smelling fresh coffee, people started smelling the odour of cheese that had dripped and burnt onto grills. It took some re-focusing to identify that coffee was their sole purpose for being, and that they had travelled too far from that. It seems an obvious statement to make but I think it’s easy to lose sight as a business of what your real purpose is and end up diluting the thing that made you ‘you’ in the first place. In the statement below, you could replace the word ‘coffee’ with whatever it is your business provides. For example, without great photos, a photography business has no reason to exist. That could almost be a mantra.

Their supply chain sister business was also woefully inadequate for the massive size and complexity of Starbucks and as their size increased their approach had been just to employ more people rather than looking at whether the structure was still fit for purpose. Poor performing stores lurked behind the success of the company as a whole, and whilst as a corporation they were making real contributions to the communities and lives of their coffee growers throughout the world, they had no real communication strategy for telling the public about their efforts and commitment to Fair Trade. Whilst it’s an admirable quality to have philanthropy and environmentalism as part of your core, in business terms it’s something to publicise so that people know the real you.

But throughout everything, Starbucks had two extremely valuable assets; its staff, and its customers. When Starbucks announced significant numbers of store closures across the US, there was outcry from the public in the affected towns. Hundreds of emails and letters were sent to Starbucks, begging them to reconsider and in some cases even promising to spend more money in-store in an attempt to make it more viable. When Dunkin’ Donuts announced store closures, there was no such outcry from the public, and it went to show that a visit to Starbucks is not just about getting a cup of coffee but about an experience. Research shows that nowadays, the service and products that businesses provide have to be far more experiential than they used to have to be. Look at Apple; your average PC does an okay job but it looks ugly. Macs on the other hand are becoming increasingly popular despite their hefty price tag at the side of a PC, and it’s because we place value on the experience of using and owning a computer that appeals to our aesthetic senses. It also helps that Macs mostly work, and PCs often don’t. (Sorry, I had to get that one in!) So in business, even if your product is great, you still have to provide your customers with a good experience in order for their satisfaction to be as good as it can be.

There is one particular quote, though, that for me really has great relevance to professional photographers:

First and foremost, photographers practice their art out of a love for photography. Transforming that into a viable business in some way is a paradox, because the creative process can become driven by the need to make money, and creativity isn’t exactly the kind of thing that can be turned on at the tap. Making sound business decisions whilst remaining passionate about what we do is not always easy and sometimes you do have to remind yourself that you need to earn a living!

I’ll finish with another self-portrait that I took a few weeks ago. This one was trickier than most to ensure that the flash lit the book as well as me but without casting the shadow of the book onto my face. I’ll post a “How I Did It” for that shot soon, but for now…Onward. See what I did there?

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March 15, 2012 - 3:02 pm

Mark Tierney - Interesting article Christian.

March 15, 2012 - 3:04 pm

christian - Thanks for reading! 🙂

April 1, 2012 - 5:33 pm

SOMETHING SIMPLY SPECIAL SUNDAYS PART SEVEN » Claudia Rose Carter Photography Blog - […] This article about Starbucks is really interesting – business minds listen up. […]

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