How I Learned to Stop Worrying and to Live with Starbucks

The title is a crib is from the 1960’s film Dr. Strangelove (“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worry and Learned to Live with the Bomb” but the sentiment is the same. Sometimes you just have to “get over it” and move on – learn to let go and stop thinking about whatever preoccupies you.

“Get over it.” Now that’s a peach of phrase – as if mammals – including humans – can automatically switch things on or off at a moment’s choice. The matter of fact is that many can. Many, though, are like me, and can’t. Change sometimes takes time.

From a range of work done in the area of change and transition as an exec coach with individuals clients as well as for corporate clients like Genentech, I know that some things simply take awhile. Unlike a simple off-on switch, there are some things take more of a wading in approach, one small step at a time, until you get comfortable to jump in the rest of the way.

Aristotle said that knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom so I will own up to being partisan. In other words, when if have a strong opinion about something I don’t often suffer quietly. As a reaction to an acquaintance years ago who wouldn’t go to any film in which Jane Fonda performed (“Communist! Traitor” he said), I sought out her films whenever they appeared, even the old ones, as a way to counter his economic boycott.  But I also adopted the same tactic for people or companies I did not support. I stopped buying Nike gear when their vendor practices in developing countries were found lacking, even as my mom held their stock and spoke glowingly about their shareholder meetings. I avoided anything that supported Microsoft when their predatory and  illegal practices were exposed in their monopoly antitrust trial and subsequent conviction.

And I shunned Starbucks when it became apparent that Starbucks was clearly interested in their fair share of business, and the fair share of others as well.

Starbucks went toe to toe with firms like Coffee People based out of my hometown of Portland, or Peets based out of Emeryville with an eagerness to grab all the market that seemed to cross any number of lines. When Starbucks could, they bought their competition (Coffee People) – when they couldn’t (Peets) they used a circle the wagons and surround them. In our local neighborhood of Noe Valley, they took aim at one of my favorites, Martha & Brothers, but didn’t count on scrappy Martha to more than hold their own.

But still I listened to friends like Susanne Lyons, who knows more than a thing or two about business and business ethics, when she said she liked them, and liked their products.

I have to confess that Starbucks in many respects has been a good employer: they provide both fulltime and part-time employee’s benefits, and in the early part of the decade were a regular on the Best Places to Work rankings. Still, something stuck in my craw: maybe the way they mixed clear good with a sense of purposeful infallibility, the way co-workers of mine gushed a little too long, or a little too loud in Starbucks’ earlier days about what a cool, hip place it was. Or maybe the way the founder Howard Schultz struggled with his perceptions of how the place should be run with the realities of running what is now a huge business.

Along the way though I changed and became a little less rigid about writing people or things off: I became more willing to give a third chance to go along with a second. And perhaps Starbucks changed as well. From the outside it seemed that Starbucks was humbled perhaps, and has had their lunch handed to them more then they’d likely choose to remember over the last few years as the over-rampant expansion caught them with more stores – and higher operating expenses – than they needed. Most recently, Stumptown Coffee has been cited as the new Starbucks: a coffee company that takes coffee to a higher level, the way Starbucks did when it first started and before it became an empire of over 17,000 stores in 49 countries.

As I found myself with a spare 2 hours to catch up on work between clients in Silicon Valley today I headed to Starbucks. They have become, in some respects, my office away from home. Safe, wi-fi’ed, predictable, and abundant, I can count on a ready power outlet, a beverage that is OK, and a bathroom if I need it. It would not be the place I would go if it were for coffee, but for all the other things I need when I’m out it works out pretty well.

Less hip, less chic – safe, predictable, albeit somewhat sanitzed, I have come to like Starbucks. Not everyone needs to be like my neighborhood favorites Ritual Coffee Roasters, where start-ups and piercings outnumber electrical outlets 4 to 1. It’s also not like Martha & Brothers, which reminds me of how small a town San Francisco really is. I know Martha – heck, she evens knows my son – and it’s the type of relationship you can’t or won’t get from a global enterprise like Starbucks.

But for today, I’ll stop worrying about what being in Starbucks says about me, and just enjoy it for what it is. Hunch is that even Jane Fonda would approve.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.