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ONWARD|Howard Schultz

NOTE: To understand my Starbucks bias, scroll to read my disclosure statement.

OnwardI can’t recommend Howard Schultz’s book, ONWARD: How Starbucks fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, to every business book reader. I can only recommend Howard book chronicling his second go-round as Starbucks ceo to about 250,000 people.

ONWARD will only appeal to the current 200,000 Starbucks employees, thousands of ex-employees, thousands of wannabe employees, analysts working on Wall Street, and a handful of Starbucks customer zealots.

ONWARD has such focused appeal because it’s all inside baseball stuff. Howard positions too many insignificant details as earth-shattering business defining decisions. The only people who can fully appreciate and understand the minutia Howard writes about are those 250,000 people whose jobs are linked to Starbucks or whose lives are fanatically linked to Starbucks.

For example, Howard spends time writing about the switchover from the old automatic espresso machines to the new automatic espresso machines. He waxes poetically about giving Starbucks baristas “world-class technology at their fingertips.” And he agonizes about finding the opportune time to “announce the Mastrena to the marketplace [Wall Street].” Palpable stuff for those closest to Starbucks and not really for anyone else.

Another palpable moment in the transformation story of Starbucks detailed by Howard is the decision to remove heated sandwiches from the stores. Howard felt, and rightfully so, the smell of burnt cheese overtook the smell of coffee in the stores. So we, the reader, get to learn all the details about Howard being conflicted in removing the sandwiches because sales would suffer and Wall Street wouldn’t be happy.

We also get to learn the nitty gritty in how Starbucks cracked the code on serving heated sandwiches without overtaking the smell of coffee. Turns out, according to Howard, “… by moving the cheese to the top of the sandwich and lowering the baking temperature to about 300º F, the cheese was less likely to burn. The result was, I had to admit, a breakfast offering that was worthy of our coffee.”

Now do you understand the limited appeal of this book? This is all great stuff for Starbucks employees to know and for prospective employees to be aware of, but not necessarily anything anyone else would be remotely interested in.


AWWARD_cover Besides the book’s focused appeal, ONWARD has many AWKWARD moments. One such awkward moment is where Howard refers to himself, multiple times, as the founder of Starbucks. (Jerry Baldwin, Zev Seigal, and Gorden Bowker might have something to say about that.)

Another awkward ONWARD moment deals with Starbucks positioning its lighter-taste profile coffee, Pike Place Roast, as “… nothing less than our reinvention of brewed coffee.” Howard writes, “For customers, Pike Place Roast ushered back in some of what had been missing in our coffee experience. Aroma. Freshness. A little theater. And… Pike Place would be proof that the company was actively reclaiming its coffee authority.”

Most people I talk to and the Starbucks employees I’ve talked with have a different opinion about Pike Place Roast. It lacks the bold flavor Starbucks built its coffee reputation on and in no way, can this every day coffee be viewed as reinventing brewed coffee. It’s simply a coffee that tastes more like coffee people can expect from Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s. Howard even admits Pike Place Roast is “… a bit light for [his] personal preference.”

Perhaps the most awkward moment is the many times Howard derides how Wall Street measures the success of a company based upon short-term financial figures. Yet, Howard essentially claims victory in transforming the company because in fiscal 2010, financials for the company were at an all-time high from revenue to operating income to operating margin. It’s too early and born of too much hubris to proclaim victory.

Awkward moments aside, there are many VANGUARD moments in ONWARD where Howard shares smart, thought-leading business advice for entrepreneurs, marketing managers, and business owners/operators. However, these vanguard moments are hidden deep inside in the 330+ pages of overly dramatized details.

I’ve collected ten VANGUARD moments in this SlideShare presentation. Along with the smart business advice snippets, I’ve added in some audio commentary to explain why that moment is a VANGUARD moment. Click the play button to view the slides and hear my commentary. Enjoy


AUDIO INSIDE | click the play button below

DISCLOSURE: I am a biased reviewer of anything Starbucks. Why? I worked there for eight years a marketer in the mid-90s and early 2000s. I wrote a book sharing some of the fundamental business and branding principles Starbucks followed to become an iconic brand. The consulting advice I pass along to businesses is steeped deep with my knowledge of how Starbucks became a beloved brand. I also know too many of the long-time Starbucks employees who were laid off during the bad times. My perspective is influenced because of my experience but my opinions are also shaped by now having an outsider’s view of Starbucks. (Also, while I receive many business books from publicists and publishers, I bought my copy of ONWARD.)

UPDATE: I received a free copy of ONWARD from a publicist. It has been donated to the Austin Public Library.


  • Ralf Ritter says:

    Thanks for your comments…I haven’t read the book, was intrigued by its publication, but ultimately decided not to read it before seeing your review. The subtitle was a red flag. Perhaps, I am doing the author an injustice, perhaps I had a feeling that the subtitle did not reflect my own perception of Starbucks in recent years. I prefer reading books by authors that are more detached from the companies they write about in any event and so, I keep coming back to David Aaker and others who reviews multiple companies and his mentions of Prophet are often just asides. There are too many books out there I want to read, so your review was helpful and I love your disclaimer…builds credibility.

  • Ralf … if you read the Amazon reviews for ONWARD, they are almost all glowing 5-Star reviews. Sales for ONWARD are very strong. Obviously, people are finding this book worthwhile. Like you, I prefer to read and learn from books that don’t read like polished PR but rather, have a more balanced authentic soul.

  • John,To say that Onward will appeal only to Starbucks employees is the same as saying that biographies appeal only to family members.What you call insignificant details, I call openness. I’ve read hundreds of business books and at last there’s one book that shows you what happened behind the curtains – emotions / thoughts etc.Compare that to Enchantment (Guy Kawasaki) – a book that is a an insult to intelligent people…Uzi.

  • Uzi … I agree with you on Enchantment. We disagree about ONWARD.Like you, I read lots of biz books. Usually the stories that are shared in business books have broader applications than what I believe Howard shares in ONWARD. I just don’t feel any emotion when Howard talks about cheese on a breakfast sandwich. I also don’t feel emotion when Howard breaks down Pike Place Roast. Those are aspects of the SBUX business that are extremely granular.I do feel emotion when Howard talks about how comp sales alters how a business does business.Since you’ve read ONWARD, which “behind the curtains” story did you find most emotional and helpful to learn something about improving how a business does business?

  • Oh… the list is long.There’s no template / 1-2-3 bullet list you can put together that will be “improving how a business does business”. It’s the sum of the small decisions, the people, the goals, the vision and … the obsessions.You see, great entrepreneurs are obsessive. The cheese story is one beautiful example of that.Schultz repeatedly talks about “One cup of coffee, one customer, and one barista at a time”. For me, his ability to boil down the whole Starbucks operation to this single moment, is nothing short of genius.

  • Uzi … I think those “vanguard” quotes I pulled captured much of what you found compelling in the book. I just wished there were more meaty lessons and not so many puffy stories.One quote I didn’t include in my SlideShare prezo that deserves inclusion is this one:“Success has a way of covering up small failures, and when many of us at Starbucks became swept up in the company’s success, it had unintended effects.”Success can breed a lack of discipline as feeling of entitlement and as Howard says in the book “… hubris born of a sense of invincibility.”