The Starbucks experience


Dear Artist,

I wrote a letter recently about the similarity of running a business and being an artist. As usual a whole bunch of artists agreed with me, and a whole bunch of others told me I’d been drinking my turps. Then yesterday I picked up a reading sample–that’s book-talk for a preview of an upcoming book. The Starbucks Experience, Five Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary by psychologist Joseph Michelli will be out next month.


Cranes from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing, 1812
by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1760-1849)

Michelli was granted unlimited access to the inside workings of Starbucks. In case you didn’t know, Starbucks is the biggest chain of coffee shops in the world. There are now more than 11,000 outlets in 37 countries–five new ones start pouring coffee every day. Howard Schultz, the founder, began in Seattle, Washington in 1971 with one shop. If you’d invested $10,000 when stock was first offered in 1992, you’d now have $650,000. Starbucks is regularly voted one of the best run companies. Starbucks has changed coffee culture from dullsville 50 cent mugs of murky brew to $4.00 specialties like “quad, two-pump vanilla, one-and-one-quarter sugar-free hazelnut, ristretto latte, half soy, half nonfat, extra hot, with whip.” Staff at Starbucks are real friendly taking dough out of your pocket, and customers love the custom treatment. Who would’ve thought? Even Howard Schultz was surprised. His second big idea had been to open another shop in Portland.

Michelli found the Starbucks culture to be an overflowing cup of empowerment. All employees, from the top brass to the 20-hour-per-week “baristas” are offered a stake in the company. But this is only part of what makes the company so different and so successful. When I read the five principles I almost gagged:

1. Make it your own
2. Everything matters
3. Surprise and delight
4. Embrace resistance
5. Leave your mark

I’m inviting you to take a look at those principles and see if they don’t apply every time you go into your studio and pick up your tools. Think about those principles, and then let’s meet at Starbucks. It’s just down the road.


“Still Life with cups and two poems” c. 1820
woodblock print
by Katsushika Hokusai

Best regards,


PS: “The Starbucks Experience reflects tenets that are simple, yet not simplistic. They are results-oriented and can be deceptively powerful when applied.” (Joseph Michelli)

Esoterica: Starbucks goes to a lot of trouble to train employees to be both skilled in the culture and happy in their work. Unlike most companies, Starbucks spends more on training than advertising. Job satisfaction translates into an emotional customer connection. For example, when “Surprise and delight” happens during the making of something, the effect is transferred down the line. In any creative endeavor, “How can I delight myself?” is a most important question. It’s hard for some of us to believe, but more than one person has a stake in the outcome of our work. “Double double, please.”

This letter was originally published as “The Starbucks experience” on October 24, 2006.

The Old Man Mad About Drawing: A Tale of Hokusai, a book published in 2004 by Francois Place, brings to life the immortal Japanese illustrator and printmaker Hokusai, who left for posterity thousands of sketches and drawings, illustrated books and prints. Just before he died in 1849  he said, “If heaven gives me ten more years (or even an extension of five), I shall certainly become a true artist.”



  1. Yep! Starbucks chasing the dollar as usual. It would be far better if they concentrated their efforts on providing decent coffee instead of the weak insipid muck served in a bewildering and totally inappropriate range of ‘customer choices’. Coffee should be simply made from the very best and freshest beans and served with as few as possible extras. No wonder Starbucks is as rare as hen’s teeth here in France. Damn them to hell for spoiling what should be a beautiful experience.

    • We are talking about art and success, you can drink spoiled milk if it will help you to succeed. Starbucks is successful, are you? Art is hard work 14/7 and Starbucks is a distraction. Winners in art or any competitive sport avoid distractions. Ad astra. Ad Aspera

      • Hi Harvy!
        I’m Nik!
        What is your definition of success?
        What are you doing to achieve it?
        and why is succeeding important?

    • Way to go Kit ! Absolutely right you are.
      In addition they are fattening America with their suggar/fat/salt loaded beverages and pastries. No wonder youngsters are getting fatter by the minute, falling into the trap of suggar addiction, perpetuated by such dangerously unhealthy food industry. MaKing money ruining people’s health.

      • if you liken Starbucks to business…and success thereof, there is an important lesson to be mindful of. Starbucks has taken over all coffee territory in the world, basically, (like the print galleries and mass producing, multi-millionaire artists), leaving no “mom and pop” coffee shops anywhere as thy can’t compete. in the same way, small-time, talented fine artists are unable to compete with the Walmarts and Home Senses either. it’s definitely a skewed playing field out there and “us” small time artists are closing shop forever as a result. Big business and globalization is killing art – and should not be used as a lesson in how to succeed as an artist….IMHO…

    • Kit, you’re a kick. Good coffee in France? MAYBE at breakfast but I’ve tried to get a cup of good-old-coffee during the day and dinky espresso is it….been there and tried a lot without luck.

  2. Every artist that succeeds knows that it is a business and that running it like a business including getting branded is the only way to make it out of the pack. Don’t like business and the greed in the art world run by the rich, it’s the road to failure. The art is what matters, getting it seen and bought the Holy Grail. One’s political leanings may be expressed in the art, never in despising business for your imagined purity. Leave that to God.

    • Agreed, the principles Starbuck uses are universal and all artists need to be mindful of them. Art and good business practices do go hand, in hand…all part of the big picture! i’ll go make a cup of my own espresso now!

    • Nancy Ericksen on

      Me, too!! Even if it gets me thinking outside my mental box for only a day or two…it is a form of inspiration. What I need from that list will make its imprint and the rest will fade. And somewhere else, some other time, another set of ideas will replace it and have their day or two to leave an impression.
      So it goes.

  3. Love this post; love all the “Painter’s Keys” I have to agree with some of the comments, however, in that I find it really frustrating to have to click on the link to read the rest of the post.

    • We are divided on this it appears. I love the new format. People talked about this in the last letter. Let us just embrace our differences and move on.

  4. Bluehorsedancer on

    People usually tell me my ideas are crazy. 30 years later they regret not having jumped onto my bandwagon. So add one more principle to the list: #6: Find new people and Persevere.

    • Carol Mariott on

      Being an artist for over thirty years I have seen the market for our work turn in more ways than a pretzel. I think what’s important is to remember that art should inspire people. It should make them remember the good and the bad and experience feelings. When A patron has a reaction to my work then I know I have done my job. Nothing more nothing less and done with a good cup of coffee.

  5. I’m happy with the new format – I get to see the paintings referred to, while absorbing your wisdoms. Starbucks – yes, really like the five principles but do not like how these ‘successful’ businesses have consumed and demolished many of the smaller ones. There’s nothing as magical and special like the owner-operated coffee-house (we have many here in Whanganui, N.Z.) who produce sensational coffee. But I know Robert’s letter isn’t about coffee :)

  6. For the price of a cuppa Starbucks I can enjoy better coffee all week long in my studio. Yes they are a good place to work, so they say. . . and they sell more dairy product volume than coffee. Americans love self indulgence, and that built this company. I don’t think you can find a 50cent cup of coffee anywhere any more except Mac D’s senior discount cup.

  7. My experience
    with Starbucks has been before as a pleasure to sit down relax. and drink coffee. On the other hand, today at Starbucks people are just talking to themselves through the new gadget . Furthermore, some groups are talking about business experience and undersigning contracts. ||It is the culture we have in the 21st century. and it is no more a pleasure to drink coffee there.

  8. Can do without the boring franchised Starbucks experience. Yes, the principles make sense and they treat employees well. Prefer homey little Mom and Pop places, especially when we are travelling, where we can meet interesting people.

  9. Charl de Wet on

    What an unhappy lot of buggers you sound like.
    I do not drink much coffee.
    Starbucks is a solid good company looking better after there employees than most.
    Simple principles to run any enterprise by. If they work – adopt them.
    If they do not – improve on them
    Or simply ignore without letting us know how it is going in your life.

    • Charl, you got it right.
      Except for the ‘do not drink much coffee’ part. I live in a city where the opportunities to take my sketchbook out for coffee on an afternoon, abound. And are enjoyed.
      Your phrase ‘What an unhappy lot of buggers you sound like.’ is pretty much apt. I was amazed that someone mentioned the Wstore as the reason they couldn’t make it as an artist. If the goal is to have art that looks like what is found there, yup, the abyss is just around the corner.
      And one more thought: note that all 5 of the principles are positives.
      Wishing you all a good painting day.

    • Ha! This is hilarious. I’m with Charl . . . What an unhappy lot of buggers, indeed! I enjoy Roberts and Sarah’s letter, virtually never read the comments, just spent 15 minutes doing so. We will know the human race has evolved to the next level when comments on the net are not dominated by sad, negative, shriveled and angry souls. I love Starbucks (twice a year, at least!) plus everything else in this amazing world we get to live in. See ya! Gotta go paint.

    • Charl, thanks for drawing my misery to my attention. You are right. On June 23rd I did feel like I belonged to the Unhappy Buggers Club.
      Our relative was happy putting herself through UBC by working at Starbucks. Every month they gave her a free bag of coffee which she often passed on to us. Their cheques didn’t bounce, the hours were good, and she was treated with respect. A good company.
      In Haida Gwaii there is a tiny coffee shop called Haida Bucks. Starbucks took legal action to try to get them to change their name. In Mexico a taxi driver commented that he could not afford to enjoy a cup at Starbucks as it was too expensive.
      Chuckling and heading off to the studio. Seriously thinking of starting a painting, The Unhappy Buggers Club. Obnoxiously Happy Happy.

  10. The funny thing, from an artist’s perspective, is that whenever I’ve asked any employee in any Starbucks, including the franchise owner or manager, who did the art on the walls, they have no clue. I have even emailed the Starbucks company a few times to ask who their artists are and never received a reply. And finally, I’ve always wondered about their name–Starbucks. Does it mean more than one Starbuck? There’s no apostrophe, so it doesn’t belong to somebody named Starbuck. And what does a mermaid have to do with Starbucks? Starbuck was the inspired name of the cowboy huckster who romances the spinster in the play (and movie) The Rainmaker. But there was no coffee featured in the play.

  11. Wow, it seems to me a few people missed the point! I didn’t think the letter was really about Starbucks, aside from their 5 principles for success. Whether or not you like them is beside the point.

    • I thought everyone was missing the point till your comment. Thank you for saying what I was thinking. From a writing artist’s point of view, that means there wasn’t a strong thesis paragraph and too much filler about where Robert found his inspiration for the article. This article wasn’t well written–probably rushed to make a deadline.

      On the art business: an excellent book , Art and Money by Audrey Menen, likens artists to horses in a race. The winners, according to gallery owners, are the ones who come in first in sales. I imagine museums feel the same with regards to artists whose work attract large attendance. The danger in selling art for the artist is avoiding falling into a rut of painting what sells well over and over again.

  12. I find it all too comical that some of the Starbucks coffee (as in beans) originates in Costa Rica only to be brought back to the same country in the form of a Starbucks store.

    • Gail Farewell on

      I’m not really keen on Starbucks coffee so I don’t go in there much, but if the staff apply these principles , then the experience should be good. I think these five principles apply appropriately to art, especially if you are selling it and have customers in mind. The first principle of making it your own is really important and if you are surprised and delighted with your art, somebody else will be too. Everything does matter, including resistance and if you can embrace it, the more power to you,
      Well done!!

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