Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
Starbucks introduced me to the world of speciality coffee, although I did not know it until recently. I used to go on vacation and one of my favourite parts of the trip was the (almost) daily trip to the local Starbucks. I do not live so close to one as to be able to make going to Starbucks part of my daily routine. I’ve known for a while about Starbucks’ origin, picking up facts as I learn about coffee. I knew that Starbucks was a company before Howard Schultz was CEO. I was aware that Starbucks wanted their stores to be more than just coffee. They aimed to create an “experience,” a Third Place according to Schultz.
There have been many gaps in my knowledge about Starbucks because I have not studied the company. The company made consumers in America and other countries comfortable with paying significantly more than they previously did for a coffee, on the condition that coffee was of a high quality. I decided that I wanted to learn about how this company came to be. Pour Your Heart Into It looked like a good book to which I could turn.
Pour Your Heart Into it, written by Howard Schultz in 1997, is as much of a historical retrospective as it is a book on business advice. I came to this book for coffee knowledge, although I found that this was perhaps the wrong expectation to have. Starbucks is about more than just its coffee: it is a story in how speciality coffee entered into a big public conversation. I came to appreciate this as I read not just about Starbucks’ coffee but the decisions made by management, how Schultz mitigated crises, and how the company aimed to stay true to its values.
Schultz grew up in a housing project in New York. He came from a background with very little but he was a hard-worker. He advanced into a career in sales, which is what led him to discover Starbucks. While working as a salesperson he noticed that one company ordered an unusual quantity of coffee goods. He set out to Seattle, the place the company was based, to find out more. He discovered Starbucks and did not turn back.
Schultz tells the story that he saw Starbucks as much bigger than it originally was. He wanted Starbucks to embody the culture of Italian cafes where espresso was served and people would stand and chat for a few minutes. After fighting hard, he got to work for the company; more fighting allowed him to experiment with an espresso machine in a store. The founders of Starbucks were not interested in serving coffee like a cafe, but they did support Schultz when he said he wanted to leave to do just that: serve coffee espresso-style.
A big theme throughout the book was Schultz’ focus on people. At every stage of Starbucks’ growth, he has considered people. He talks a lot in the book about the executives, like Don Valencio or Howard Berhar who helped him along the way. He talks about the challenging journey toward finding the right investment bankers when he decided to take the company public. I liked his insights on how he treats employees. Schultz has made taking care of employees a big part of Starbucks. Through the Bean Stock program, employees received shares in the company after working a certain period of time. The company’s union, bit by bit, dissolved, because workers developed so much faith in management.
Schultz presents an optimistic view in this book. I keep reminding myself that Schultz authored this book himself so I am only reading one account of Starbucks’ history. But that does not mean the book was not balanced. He talked about challenges that affected the company. Schultz left a family vacation early when a Brazilian frost caused coffee prices to skyrocket. He locked in a supply of beans close to the peak of the price hike; he could have waited and saved money. The company faced many questions about maintaining its culture while growing. He talks about how he kept thinking about quality even as the company started to trade shares in itself, opening its operations up to scrutiny from professional financiers on Wall Street.
I now have a better understanding of Starbucks’ early history. I learned about the Frappuccino and how it came to be. I learned that Starbucks sold ice cream and even partnered with Pepsi at one point. I found out that Starbucks worked with United to sell coffee on aeroplanes. I learned Schultz received over 200 “nos” from investors while he was searching for people to help him acquire Starbucks. I liked hearing about how Schultz made final decisions. This makes me feel like I understand much more why Starbucks is the way it is today, even though this book was written in 1997 and only covers a certain part of its history.
I’d recommend Pour Your Heart Into It if you are curious about Starbucks’ history. It does contain a lot of entrepreneurial advice but that is well balanced with stories from the trenches, such as how Starbucks designed its stores in the ’90s and how challenging the Christmas of 1995 was for the company. I now have a new appreciation for how Starbucks got started.
The company may serve a lot of drinks that do not seem like coffee, like an eggnog latte at Christmas. They have had to make compromises. However, many of those, as Schultz states in the book, have been made in response to customer requests. The company initially hesitated serving non-fat milk because it affected the taste of the company. So many people wanted this milk option the company compromised.
Starbucks grew quickly and without Schultz speciality coffee would not be what it is today. I still remember sipping on a cappuccino at Starbucks when I used to vacation and go there. I now know deep down that every detail – from the layout of the store to the way in which the coffee was roasted – was curated by someone who wanted me to have that experience; who wanted me to enjoy a delicious coffee away from the bustle of everyday life. Schultz and everyone else at Starbucks works together to create those experiences.