The Starbucks experience


Dear Artist,

Recently I wrote a letter 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.

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.

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.”


The original three
by Julia Miller, Seattle, WA, USA

The story is not quite accurate. Starbucks was started by three friends, Jerry Baldwin, Gordie Bowker and Zev Siegel in 1971. I know because I was their first employee in the first store in the Pike Place Market area. It was years before Howard Schultz took over, but he was definitely the one who grew the company internationally. The original three just wanted to bring really good coffee to Seattle. Here in Seattle, many of us prefer any of the multitude of small, independent coffee roasters/brewers to the corporate blandness of Starbucks. More important, though, is your point that however you get it, enthusiasm for your work and a drive to master challenges are essential for success in any endeavor. Thinking back, I guess that’s what kept me going in my 20 years of restaurant ownership. I had forgotten about that in my newest life as a painter!


The 5 principles inspire creativity
by Hiria Ratahi, Whakatane, New Zealand

Your Starbucks letter brought to mind that if I changed my focus to these principles I would be more inspired because instead of thinking about what others think of my painting I would say, “This is my own” picture view of how I see the environment/world… and in it everything matters.” I can ask myself, “What ‘surprise and delight’ can I add?” and whilst I am painting I can “embrace all resistance” to self thoughts of doubt, others’ comments and “leave my mark” of whatever is created on the canvas. This may seem a little strange but I have allowed those within my home environment to suppress my creativity. However these 5 principles have allowed me to absorb them and put them to good use.


Approach all with joy and enthusiasm
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA


“Wind in Her Hair”
oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches
by Karl Leitzel

Running the business side of things intelligently and efficiently is a way to stay out of the way of the creative, productive side of making our art. And, the “business” of art can be an artistic expression in its own right. Approaching the business side with loathing or ineptitude will just end up making it take far more of our time and attention, or it will keep a potentially successful art career from ever getting off the ground. Creative activity is creative activity, whether the tools are paint and brushes, cooking utensils and the ingredients in the refrigerator, a keyboard and a blank document, or designing and implementing a business plan. By approaching any of these with joy and enthusiasm, the results will be more than we might have reasonably thought possible.


Principles the same in many fields
by Mary Stephenson, Grosse Pointe, MI, USA

Different people perceive the world differently, so their truths may be different than yours or mine. I am fortunate to have experienced art in many different ways. I have a MA and MFA in painting (undergrad in Art and Education), a degree in Museum Practices and was a curator at a major museum for 8 years — I have been a working/exhibiting artist, a gallery director, a painting instructor, an art teacher and a juror/lecturer. Each experience has broadened my background and knowledge. The more I experience, the more I believe that it all comes down to relatively simple truths and I believe your comparison to Starbucks has value — the principles are the same, its just the fields that vary.


‘Make it your own’
by Christy Short, Lynnwood, WA, USA

I really appreciate the principles here. This is what I needed to hear today. I have been lazy and feeling sorry for myself because for some reason I have not been able to get started on or finish up on some paintings. Laying all over my easel, table and floor in my art room, paper and canvas is crying out for attention. My creative juices have been flowing and I am taking a lot of great reference photos, but hauling my body to the room has been torture. Nothing is new. Everything that is old looks too old. I cannot seem to motivate myself to start… a fairly constant problem for me. Then the first mantra of Starbucks: “Make it your own.” It hit me. I am continually comparing my work with others I see and disappointing myself with the criticism of “It’s not good enough to finish.” If it is my own then it is good enough.


Mediocrity in a fancy package
by Carmel Glover, Brisbane, Australia


“Serendipity Dreaming”
mixed media
by Carmel Glover

I like the 5 principles, but I don’t like Starbucks. The coffee may be varied, but it isn’t very good. I don’t find the staff any friendlier than in most other coffee shops, and some others beat them hands down. And I don’t like their MacDonald’s-like policy of ousting every other coffee shop. I like individuality in a coffee shop. A couple of years ago my husband and I were atop a double-decker bus going down Fleet Street in London. There were eight Starbucks shops in one block! Not another coffee shop had survived. We don’t have many in Brisbane (Australia) yet, but the ones here have replaced much better coffee shops. It’s nice to hear that they’re a well-run company and treat their staff well, but I believe they sell mediocrity in a fancy package.


Michelli came up the hard way
by Jeffrey J Tschida, Austin, TX, USA

Dr. Joseph Michelli lives and works in Colorado Springs, where I live. I listen to him regularly on KVOR. Dr. Joe literally started out his life in a trash can, abandoned by his birth mother and left to die. Luckily for him, and us, someone found and rescued him, and a loving family adopted him as their own. Dr. Joe is very up front about this whole experience. He acknowledges how lucky he is to have been adopted by the parents he loves and appreciates. He holds no animosity towards anyone. He counts his blessings. I think Starbucks picked him partly because of his attitude. I can’t think of a better person to write such a book.

(RG note) Thanks, Jeff. It’s my understanding that Starbucks didn’t choose him. He chose Starbucks. Michelli has written other books on his interests and specialties — including ones on stress , sibling rivalry, and energizing individuals within the workplace.

There is 1 comment for Michelli came up the hard way by Jeffrey J Tschida

From: Rachel — Feb 24, 2009

Thank you Jeff for your words of truth as Dr. Joseph is integrity personified. Dr. Michelli openly talks about his childhood abandonment on the Annie Armen Show, and literally brought me to tears, and inspired me to choose to live my life walking in forgiveness as he did. I echo your words: “I can’t think of a better person to write such a book. … and yes, he chose Starbucks”. Rachel in Los Angeles, California


Dying shop across the mall
by Megan McLean, San Diego, CA, USA


“Slam Dunk”
original photograph
by Megan McLean

Several years ago, I took an adult education class called “Postcards from the City.” The class objective was to learn about photography while taking photos of the urban scene. The morning after the first class, eager to get started on the assignment, I headed off with camera in hand to a nearby coffee shop — the Donuts Cafe — where I planned to grab a cup’a jo (a little liquid inspiration) and a donut. When I got to the coffee shop, which was located in a tiny strip mall, I found that a Starbucks had just opened directly across the driveway from it. For the briefest of moments, I felt pity for the doomed owner of the Donuts Cafe. But then I thought about the bitter brew they were passing off as coffee, the stale, greasy donuts and the cranky staff… and the lure of something better won me over. I fell into the long line of customers trailing out the door at Starbucks.

Later, as I sat in my car savoring a freshly brewed, aromatic coffee and a banana nut muffin, I looked over and saw a solitary figure sitting in the window of the Donuts Cafe — my first postcard from the city.


Starbucks byproducts generate goodwill
by Carol Dayton, Marana, AZ, USA

Unlike most, if not all, other large companies, Starbucks responds to customer requests like these from a student (me) in Seattle’s Master Recycler and Composter Program: — a truckload of used burlap sacks formerly containing beans, for composting and animal pen use — used coffee grounds in bags for composting bins, to keep the smell down (now this is standard at all stores). While many of us have moved on to no coffee at all, or frequenting smaller companies (a spate of which grew from Starbuck’s success), the ethos exhibited by Starbucks has been admirable, and creates a new attitude amongst businesses which does increase traffic and revenue, and that is: allow use of all byproducts to generate goodwill, and accept customer requests which seem reasonable, if unusual.


Understanding the five principles
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA

1. Make it your own. While even Matisse and Picasso challenged each other for years by painting similar subject matter; this helped each artist develop their inner vision, their own method/technique/style, or easier said, their own way of interpretation. Experiment. Take risks. Try something new each time. Find your own way.

2. Everything matters. Some people can feel overwhelmed by this way of thinking. It can be an avalanche of thoughts and considerations — overkill. Everything can become commonplace when one cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. Be your own critic. Sort out what exactly you want to express… then everything you express will matter. Whether others will make the connection is an altogether different subject.

3. Surprise and delight. This one is tricky. Find out why you paint. Painting is a great release of energy. That energy could be as simple as feeling great on a particular day. When my long-time companion dog died, I painted to release the grief, plus honor the spirit of my relationship with my dog. Was it a delight? No, but worth doing. I paint because it is worth doing.

4. Embrace resistance. This one begs the question, how? My answer is… get on with it. Mental motivation coupled with passion will equal action. Talk to yourself. Let your feelings about what is going on rise to the surface, then take action. Prepare your workspace. Lay out your paints and tools. Once I do this, I then look at the surface on which I will be painting and let things happen. Get yourself mentally prepared and then let all your feelings guide you to “do your thing.”

5. Leave your mark. Ego can get in the way of the creative process. I think most people paint and create first and foremost as a matter of self-expression. Sharing your work with friends or selling your art can be a good thing, but it should not be the impetus for being creative. What is your motive?


Live every minute
by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada


“We turned right at airdrie”
acrylic painting
by Jeri Lynn Ing

I have lived by these principals and they do work. I am an artist and a gallery owner and love every minute of it. Why? Because I love being able to leave my mark. I love to share the joy of my art and the art of others to everyone who comes to my gallery. I love that everything matters and that each piece of art will surprise and delight someone at sometime. When it comes to resistance I rely on my faith and my friendships to straighten my thinking and then I am off once again to see where the next mark will be left. You can make an ordinary day extraordinary by just living with these principals. Make each day have a purpose and live the life you were chosen for.


More of the same at Starbucks
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France


oil painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

I always had my doubts about Starbucks. In the beginning it was just because I’m opposed to finding the same stores, coffee, food, clothing accessories, everywhere in the world. Main streets all over the world begin to all look the same — like airports or highway stops, same food, same gifts. During the past year I have frequently been in Shanghai. I love the city, the people and the food but sometimes miss an American breakfast. Thus the worldwide success of Starbucks and other chains. Wherever you go you are sure to get the same quality. When you enter a Starbucks in China you are greeted by a line of smiling and waving girls and boys in their red uniforms who are so happy to see you it is a bit disconcerting, surreal, exaggerated and a little endearing as well. While I have mixed feelings about Starbucks, their five principles will work well for almost everyone in every situation.


Starbucks an art patron
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Eire


Roger’s paintings in the Slatwall Gallery

Last year I was a happy artist when, totally out of the blue, an independent consultant who makes recommendations for art purchases for Starbucks suggested one of my paintings for their first coffee shop in Ireland. They bought it and now it hangs in their College Green, Dublin shop. In addition they decided to produce 10,000 bookmarks of the same painting with my web address and name on it to give to their customers. They also have what they call a small Slatwall Gallery in their store that takes a few paintings from a couple of artists. Guess what? I had four small oil paintings on the wall and on the official opening night, which I attended. I met the head of Bucks who fell in love with them and bought six! I had the extra two from the set in the trunk of my car! A few days later they went to Seattle.


A different kind of success
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA


oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
by Cathie Harrison

It was a stark experience to read the summary of the “philosophy” of Starbucks that led to worldwide success followed by the clickbacks of people seeking extreme levels of support from others to continue doing what they want to do while not taking individual responsibility for getting where they want to go. Success in art still happens in the studio and if that spills over into the real world that’s great. There is no way that the selling of paintings or financial reward could truly motivate me to do my best work. Most of the artists I know who have financially successful careers as artists compromise what they want to paint and how they want to paint to meet the demand. The happiest and many times most successful, are sometimes the least “creative.” They find something they love to do enough to repeat it endlessly and they find their audience. That is a very different experience from the journey of discovering every day some magical thing about paint and canvases that connects you with the experience of all who have gone before you. I personally feel that success happens when you capture one “aha” moment and are happy with it. The rest is an uphill battle and you better have on your gear and a mind set that you and only you will determine if you make it up the hill. If someone carries you up, what have you accomplished in the end? Of course it is helpful to have some buddies climbing beside you and cheering you on.


Starbucks and the environment
by S Lawrence

Starbucks: the yuppie puppie coffee cuppie cafe which (I confess) has good lattes, is also a part of the community which offers a product we would be irresponsible to frequent too often. Why? Check out Fred Pearce’s book, When the Rivers Run Dry and you will find amazing information. For example, it takes approximately 20 tons of water to produce that one kilo jar of coffee. Another way of saying it: 140 litres of water to grow my one cup of coffee and 50 cups of water to produce that teaspoonful of sugar! We are not talking about the forest devastation, the oil for transport, nor all the packaging waste that goes on – that would be another story.

While we praise the growth of companies, let us remember the costs to the environment and to our own grandchildren. Artists are supposed to have a kinship and appreciation of nature, no? Then let us walk our talk.






oil painting
by Betty Nance Smith, Los Alamos, NM, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Joy McAughtrie of the Gulf Islands, BC, Canada who wrote, “Yes, you are drinking your turps! Let’s get off the big business guys, although I do know you are sending a moral statement with them.”

And also Richard Tomkinson of La Conner, WA, USA who wrote, “Put down the turps, Robert. The Starbucks shill piece is way out of bounds. Net net though, tough to put fewer words together as a pocket guide to artists (and many others) than the five principles. Grab ’em up and let’s get back to work.”

And also Peter Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “Never go to a place that has a big parking lot, and never go to a place of which there is more than one. Starbuck’s is just selling sugar at $4 a pop. This is despicable. It’s the McDonald’s of coffee. To think that there is wisdom in these sad prescriptions is laughable.”

And also Dave Dunlap of Newark, CA, USA who wrote, “Now if I can just get a line of people outside my studio, I will be set. ‘What can I get for you, ma’am? Okay, you want a Grande Vineyard Scene, triple shot of Viridian, extra impasto, and hold the Damar.’ ”

And also Beverly Claridge of Southland, New Zealand who wrote, “One’s artwork must be deeply meaningful and done with care (and it helps if it is extraordinary), but there’s nothing like someone loving your creation so much they fork over their hard earned cash to get it.”

And also Lillian Wu who wrote, “Take ’empowerment’ to your studio.”



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