Book Review: “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” by Howard Schultz and Joanne Gordon

I’m not sure how to categorize this book as a memoir, business management case study, leadership, or a shameless promotion of the Starbucks brand. I think it has a little of each. But mostly, I consider it an entrepreneur’s self-narrated journey, a journey that Howard Schultz embarked on since buying the Starbucks stores from its original owner and merged with his own Il Giornale stores that no longer bears their name.

The following quotes spelled out Starbuck founders’ mission and philosophy for Starbucks. “My quest has never been just about winning or making money; it has also been about building a great, enduring company.” “No business can do well for its shareholders without first doing well by all the people its business touches.” “When we love something emotion often drives our actions. This is the gift and the challenge entrepreneurs face every day. The companies we dream of and build from scratch are part of us and intensely personal. They are our families. Our lives.”

A founder know when his “baby” is going astray from its core values. It was reflected in his leaked memo “The ommoditization of the Starbucks experience.” At that time, Starbucks was growing like weeds using 2:1 first-year revenue to build cost as a criteria to build a Starbucks store. This was the main reasons he returned to Starbucks as its CEO. He started out by locking up all 7100 Starbucks store on February 26, 2008, which was a powerful signal/statement for the turn around to return to passion for good tasting coffee. Then the financial tidal wave of the 2008 hit. Things got worse. Starbucks had to fight for its survival and the respect from their existing and future customers.

The plan to surprise and fire the existing CEO, Jim Donald, and return to Starbucks reads like a conspiracy story in itself. It took lots of coordination and creativity to create a turn-around strategy especially it coincided with the 2008 financial crisis. This served as a good case study for a founder who wants to re-take his company.

Innovations play a critical role in the turn around of Starbucks: the Clover machine, IT revolution with, new blends of coffee like Pike Place Roast and Anniversary Roast, Mastrena, Rewards card, Lean technique,, Use of social media, and Via instant coffee. There were failures like Sorbettos, and big layoffs and 1000 store closings.

There were other business strategies like getting back to the basic, and getting in the mud, and elevating the core, planning the big moves and etc.

Since reading this book, the constant reminder of the coffee and empathy toward someone so passionate about coffee, got me back to drinking coffee after quitting the coffee for more than 10 months. I experimented with French Press and other coffee making methods. I even tried out the Clover machine with the Anniversary blend. I was stunned how good the coffee was. It goes to tell you how powerful this book is. Maybe Michael Dell and soon Bill Gates will be writing one soon.