Read “Onward” Over Your Favorite Cup of Starbucks

It’s a Saturday morning.  And like many Saturday mornings during the school year, I’m sitting in a Starbucks working while my son is taking some classes.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never been a Starbucks lover.  I find the coffee average, the prices extreme (and $10 for WiFi – really?) the music too loud, the space too small and ordering coffee in Starbucks language just too much to keep track of.  There – I’ve got that off my chest.

But, dear reader, this article isn’t about me and how I feel about Starbucks.  This is about you and giving you a fair and accurate assessment of Howard Schultz’s book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul. I received a review copy. Although I’m not a Starbucks fan and probably wouldn’t pick up the book on my own, my marketing interest was piqued.  After all, how I feel about Starbucks as a retail location doesn’t have anything to do with the brilliance of the branding and the success of the franchise.  So let’s just dig into this book and see if it’s worth the $4 cup of coffee it will take me to review it.

About Howard Schultz

Onward was written by Howard Schultz, chairman, president and CEO of Starbucks, and Joanne Gordon, a former Forbes writer who has spent more than a decade profiling companies.  The book is written in first person with Howard telling the story.  While this book is about Starbucks, you’ll also get a flavor for who Howard is and how he is as he works his way from working at the original Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1982, to his trip to Italy where the “savoring a cup of coffee and how it connects people” idea took hold.  As I go through page by page of the introduction, I’m starting to like Howard, his entrepreneurial spirit, vision and guts.  I think you will, too.

What struck me about Howard that you might find inspiring as well is that he was a regular guy.  He grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, paid his way through college, got married and took a marketing job for a coffee company in Seattle.  It wasn’t until he had this epiphany about what a coffee experience could be that his passion was ignited.  And you’ll have to read through the book to get to that.  (Trust me, it’s good.)

How Starbucks Rose and Fell . . . and Rose Again

I like that the book starts in the middle – the day every Starbucks in the nation closed its stores and posted a note on 7,100 locked doors: “We’re taking time to perfect our espresso.  Great espresso requires practice.  That’s why we’re dedicating ourselves to honing our craft.” That’s just so Starbucks!  I got to thinking that maybe the reason I didn’t care for Starbucks was the very reason they closed the stores that day.  In all that fervent growth, expansion and brand building, the essence that Howard had strived to create had been lost.

The book is written in five parts, much like a play.  Each chapter’s title is a lesson; the contents of that chapter give you the backstory and a sort of case study of how the lesson came to be.  As you read through chapter by chapter, you might find yourself looking for opportunities to integrate Howard’s lessons into your own business and your life.

Part 1: Love – This section is about how love and powerful emotion expressed themselves, from Howard’s love of the coffee experience, to the memo leaked online that exposed the “Commoditization of Starbucks.” And finally, there’s a chapter on loyalty and the power of belief in getting to the core of your brand promise.

Part 2: Confidence – This series of chapters is all about the hard decisions and hard work it took for Howard and his team to re-brew Starbucks.  One thing I noticed is the commitment to set their egos aside, really listen and then make corrections.

Part 3:  Pain – Like any real-life story, this one gets worse before it gets better.  These chapters will give anyone doing a turnaround the courage to keep going and to understand that it’s important to stay true to the process you’ve set out to do.  The pain will eventually stop.

Part 4:  Hope – In this series of chapters, you follow Howard and his management team to a massive conference where they re-ignite the passion behind the brand.

Part 5:  Courage – The final chapters contain a wonderful full-color photo album of Starbucks memories.  You’ll get more lessons, more insights and the thinking behind the Starbucks you see in your neighborhood today.

If You Can’t Live Without Your Starbucks, This Book Is for You

If you’re a small business owner who loves your Starbucks, then don’t pass up Onward.  If you’re a small business owner who loves company and brand biographies, this is a must read.  And if you’re a small business book addict looking for a hot summer read, Onward will fit that bill perfectly.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the book for all the reasons above.  It isn’t a novel, but it reads like a story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it got picked up as a movie just like “The Social Network.” And if you’re wondering whether the book make me a Starbucks lover – it didn’t.  But I’ll never go into a Starbucks again without having a tremendous amount of respect for the love, confidence, pain, hope and courage that it took to create it.


Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."

5 Reactions
  1. Ivana,

    You do realize that I want that book. Now.

    Thanks for another stellar book review!

    The Franchise King®

  2. Thanks for the review Ivana, I’m adding Onward to my reading list! The success of Starbucks has been absolutely bananas to behold so I’m sure it’ll be a valuable read.

  3. I saw a comment on Facebook that alluded to the fact that as Small Business Trends we should give shout outs to small coffee shops. And I am a big fan of the independently owned coffee shop. I have to say, however, that I didn’t think this book was about coffee shops as much as it was about a brand and a concept gone wild and what it took to bring it back.

    Personally, I can only wish that some of my favorite small brands (including my own) would have a runaway brand problem. But I think this book also goes to show that we should all be careful of what we wish for.

    Every business big or small can learn something from this book. Afterall Starbucks wasn’t always a global brand. Every brand starts somewhere.

  4. It’s minimally ironic, however, that Schultz lamented the commoditization of Starbucks … and then followed by a massive product push for Starbucks VIA instant coffee. That adds a strong element of disingenuous storytelling to the story.

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