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Posts Tagged “Starbucks”

In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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I was quite touched by a short article that appeared in AdWeek this summer.  (Tim Nudd, August 14, 2012)  It’s very sweet and I want to share it, if you didn’t see it.

The story concerns Brandon Cook, who posted the following on his Facebook wall this summer:

“My grandmother is passing soon with cancer.  I visited her the other day and she was telling me about how she really wanted soup, but not hospital soup because she said it tasted like ‘shit.’  She went on about how she really would like some clam chowder from Panera.  Unfortunately, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday.  I called the manager Sue and told them the situation.  I wasn’t looking for anything special just a bowl of clam chowder.  Without hesitation she said absolutely she would make her some clam chowder. When I went to pick it up they wound up giving me a box of cookies as well.  It’s not that big of a deal to most, but to my grandma it meant a lot.   I really want to thank Sue and the rest of the staff from Panera just for making my grandmother happy.  Thank you so much!”

Obviously this is a simple story of a small kindness.  But what is interesting is not the story itself but the fact that this ingenuous tale of the love of Brandon Cook for his granny and the generous spirit of the Panera manager, which was reposted on Panera’s fan page, has generated over 750,000 “likes” and uncountable thousands of passionate comments since its appearance two months ago.  Mr. Nudd reports Brandon Cook being taken aback by the spontaneous viral reaction to his short post, saying, “If my grandma even knew what a Facebook page was, I’d show her…My grandma’s greatest fear is dying with no friends.  I wish I could show her how many ‘friends’ she has out there, and how many prayers people are saying for her.”  Aah.

The interesting part of this story is not it’s heart-warming essence, but rather the phenomenal response to it.  I see many marketers, digital advertisers, and public relations-types making triumphalist internet cacophonies about the efficaciousness of social media, per this story.  However, I wonder if these often smug I-told-you-so commentaries on the dawning power of social media (in this case Facebook) may be suffering from a self-congratulatory hubris that is not at all really the essence of the popular response to this story.

The multitudinous self-congratulatory comments I see from so many marketing mavens may be missing what the vociferous reaction to this story really is.  Certainly the marketing professionals chest-thumping brings out a certain Luddite disquiet in me.

There is a cynicism to the celebration of how this feel good story has boosted the Panera Bread brand.  Not because the tale isn’t true and honest and good, but because of the marketing assumption behind many comments on this story, which is that people will respond to marketing spin through our new communication mediums.  Yes, new media is good at rapidly spreading this charming and ingenuous recounting of Brandon Cook’s appreciation for a small act of commercial kindness.  But I believe what people are responding to is an ineffable realness and human care that utterly transcends and defies the manipulations of new media, even as it is spread by them.

In a time when major articles in the Wall Street Journal (Joseph Walker, 9/20/12) and the Harvard Business Review (October, 2012) extoll the engineering prowess and hegemony of Big Data and quantification analysis, I see the outpouring of response to this small human story as a rejection of the manipulations of the magical new media gospel.

There is an obvious and appropriate celebration of goodness that can and should be disseminated effectively via the internet.  But there is no true substitute for elemental goodness in business.  Simple goodness is a winning business strategy.  Ask Zappos, ask Starbucks, ask Whole Foods, et. al.  There is nothing more compelling than a company that really is what it purports to be, that walks the walk of its talk. A million small acts of service and customer care ultimately create the most efficacious brands. Good is greed, not the opposite.

The world is being stalked by a relentless coldness that is a sad bit of baggage, seemingly inevitably attached to technological advance.  Brandon Cook’s story reminds us that  many small acts of kindness may be more ultimately powerful then a trillion email blasts and phony buzz manipulations.  People ultimately know the real thing.  By your works ye shall be known.

As Albert Einstein said,  “It has become appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  Amen, Albert.

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One prime reason I became an entrepreneur was simply to create a community that reflected my values and spiritual center; a place where I could live and give service with fellow-travelers in comfort and assumed commonality–my own private Idaho, if you will, where I truly belonged.

I have often talked about motivations for my being an entrepreneur and they have little to do with money.  They mostly have to do with personal meaning.  And I would submit that this is true of most entrepreneurs, even those who speak in the most venal terms of their motivation and incentive.

One of the greatest dearths I find in US culture is a lack of community reflected in an increasing national sense of balkanization and emotional isolation. (Counterintuitively, this is despite our growing capacity for instant connectivity.)  What are our common visions, our common goals? These are no longer clearly coming from a consensus of values and universal common ground.  The entrepreneur has the opportunity to create, at least in miniature, a true community that can help allay this sense of cultural anomie.  In fact, I can think of few long-term successful entrepreneurial ventures that have not created this sense of community one way or another.  Such a sense of community and shared mission is a hidden reward of entrepreneurship done well, and the list of the entrepreneurial companies that have done this are legion, from Apple and Starbucks to Zappos and Zynga.

Healthy business cultures and communities ideally create an amniotic sea of nourishment, identity, values, and peace.  In the best companies every action of each member of a corporate community becomes to some degree gravid with meaning.

I was reminded of this possibility when visiting the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massechusetts recently.  The Shakers were a wonderfully original sect of Christianity that existed from the late 1700s to the early 1900s.  They eventually died out because they didn’t believe in sex with the natural result of no children.  But what surprised me was that the Shakers were a remarkable, even genius, entrepreneurial community.

Here’s one very sweet custom practiced by the Shaker community. When one of the Shakers was ready to die he or she was assigned to an adult cradle.  In this cradle the member was rocked softly day and night by a fellow shaker till he or she peacefully passed.

Fernando Flores, President of Chile’s National Council For Competitiveness, writes on the subject of entrepreneurship and community the following:

“We live in an extraordinary time.  Our thinking styles are severing us from our families, our religions, our ideologies, and nature.  We are caught up in a pace of social and technological change that makes our work, business, and education sources of anxiety and unfulfillment. At the same time, thinking about our thinking and observing our observations can bring us a new world in which work becomes a place for innovation, and in which peace, wisdom, friendship, companionship, and community can exist.  Let us design this world together.”

Thank you, Fernando.

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In this fast paced world, I am increasingly sensitive to the lurking, insidious danger of creeping commoditization for any product or service.

The President of my firm, Corporate Rain, has been kicking my ass lately about not moving quickly enough with the times. He’s right. I know I am not alone in wanting to rest on my laurels and assumptions of the status quo ante, but I’m realizing that long-term reputation and past successes are less relevant (though still important) in a rapidly changing, ROI intensive, technology-driven, chaotic, flat earth business climate.

Even though mostly I’ve had the good sense to accept change despite myself, I don’t like change. I don’t like the unknown. I want to reject it like a small child having a foot stomping tantrum. But for the healthy entrepreneur, just as for democracy, the price of ongoing success (or freedom) is eternal vigilance.

I finished Howard Schultz‘ memoir, Onward, last week. One of my favorite passages in his book is his very useful discussion of the dangers of commoditization.

Schultz reports that, in the spring of 2007, Starbucks’ stock kept bouncing to new highs and there was intense pressure from Wall Street to continue increasing profitability and velocity of sales. At one point Starbucks was opening as many as six new stores per week. This growth was taking a toll on quality control and service.

But Starbucks also was adding new items to the menu, which, while highly profitable, filled Schultz with foreboding. He felt his firm was increasing profits at the cost of its identity and its soul. For example, Starbucks had introduced breakfast sandwiches which often left the smell of burnt cheese in the air, rather than the signature aroma of roasted coffee beans. He felt Starbucks, in its rush to coruscating profit, was losing its essence. He states, “…negative incrementalization, like one thread after another pulling at our seams, could be the company’s undoing.” (p. 38) He did not want Starbucks to become more like McDonald’s. He recognized the threat of long-term brand dilution and commoditization. Accepting an initial loss of company revenue and internal company distress, he set about uncommoditizing Starbucks and restoring Starbucks traditional trope of quality and specialness from top to bottom. He sought to restore Starbucks soul, no matter the price. He was right.

Increasingly, I believe, commoditization is a real bete noire for business. You can’t sell everything, even if it is temporarily profitable. In a large sense, if you sell everything you may ultimately sell nothing. Long-term business health requires a constant honing of the identity and essence of any firm. With pressure to meet profitability and payroll goals, it is so easy to take on business that blurs your image. Certainly sales must be based on clear differentiation.

Otherwise you become, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a pudding without a theme.

Thank you, Winston.

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Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a digital agency in New York recently was quoted in the NY Times about the amplification effect of the Internet and social media. He said, “It’s an age when anybody can communicate to an audience…You put something out and it may well be re-tweeted thousands of times.” (NY Times-3/15/11-Stuart Elliott)

Yes, indeed. Here are a few recent stories. Last month Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the obnoxious duck in Aflac ads, posted a number of crude jokes on his Tweeter feed (@RealGilbert) about the earthquake disaster in Japan. Japan accounts for 75% of Aflac’s business. Of course, Mr. Gottfried was fired summarily, but the damage was done. In a related vein, Kenneth Cole got in hot water on February 2, when he tweeted (with blood in the streets of Egypt), “Millions are in an uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Within minutes Cole’s insensitive glibness was transmitted in thousands of tweets around the globe (scroll back to February 8 blog). Or take Chrysler. An employee of their social media agency took it on himself to post on the official Chrysler twitter site (@ChryslerAutos), “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the motor city and yet no one here knows how to [expletive deleted] drive.” The agency was let go.

I blogged two weeks ago about Howard Schultz’ new memoir, “Onward.” On Valentines Day, 2007, Schultz wrote a devastating internal memo to his top executives about Starbuckslosing its soul” in the quest for profit. The confidential memo, meant for only Schultz’ top executives, was quickly leaked. It crashed the stock, caused a crisis of confidence among employees, and created a PR nightmare. Schultz eventually turned this crisis to his advantage (a story well worth reading for any entrepreneur), but he recounts being visited by his former head of global communications Wanda Herndon, as he sat shell-shocked in his office. He recounts:

Did you hear about the memo?” I said, still emanating disbelief. Wanda said yes, she knew about it…I shook my head and spoke about how hurt I was about the breach of trust. “Howard,” she said in the matter-of-fact tone I’d come to expect and appreciate. “Nothing is confidential. This is the new reality.” (Onward: How Starbucks fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, Rodale Press, 2011, p. 28)

In such a world, discretion is increasingly a byword for many top corporate executives. My own outsourced executive sales company, Corporate Rain International, has noticed an increased insulation and caution among large company executives we approach for our clients. And with good reason. The examples of damaging privacy leaks cannot be gainsayed. An assurance of prudence and judgment is a tonality that must be part of any contemporary high-level executive communication.

To quote Hillary Clinton, “In almost every profession–whether it’s law or journalism, finance or medicine or academia or running a small business–people rely on confidential communications to do their jobs. We count on the space of trust that confidentiality provides. When someone breaches that trust, we are all the worse.” (

Perhaps that is the unfortunate reality of our brave new media world.

Thank you, Hillary.

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