One of the goals we made this year — that want to make a permanent habit going forward — is to continue to read more business books. We’ve shared our recommended list before, but that list is constantly growing for us.
Because what we’ve found is that reading sparks creativity in us. It gives us inspiration. Practical takeaways and motivation to take proactive steps toward growth right when we need it. We’re pacing at about a book a week each right now, so we won’t have time to share everything we learn from every book we read, but we’d love to share some of the most important highlights from the best ones in this new series, starting with Onward by Howard Shultz. How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul.
Because what we’ve found is that reading sparks creativity in us
Here are the seven most important quotes we took from Mr. Shultz’s book (he’s too awesome to call him by his nickname Howie) and how we think they could apply to our small business or yours if we want to grow even bigger this year.
One of the hardest things about starting a small business (and fighting for one) is not knowing when it’ll get easier. For us it was years of working around the clock, sacrificing time, sleep and money and hitting tough roadblocks where we just felt like giving up.
Before you get to the other side of the mountain, it’s hard to imagine why doing anything else would be unimaginable. When we were working our day jobs, we knew we were meant for something different. We fought hard to get there. But the most interesting thing, now, is that we’d fight even harder than we did to get here if someone tried to take our freedom away.
So when you’ve found the thing you love, fight, friends. Fight through the pain — of which there is plenty and in many forms. And sacrifice. Really sacrifice. Not just for a few days, weeks or months. But years if that’s what it takes. (It did for us.)
For the first four years of our marriage, we lived on one teacher’s salary, saved the other one, and paid cash for our camera gear with second jobs, like coaching soccer, cat-sitting for our uncle and more. We ate on a $200 monthly grocery budget (not a penny more) and only spent $25 per month at restaurants. If you’re counting, that’s like Chipotle once for for a table of two. We’d take it home and use our own chips (if we could afford them that month; one month we didn’t have enough for the chips and cheese, so we opted for the one with more nutritional value). Then, if we went back to Chipotle again that month, we shared. Sacrifice sounds like it’s not fun — and at times, it wasn’t — but it’s the first step toward the win.
The last few sentences are what stuck out for us. We love the line in our favorite musical Hamilton where the American patriots are described as “young, scrappy and hungry.” It’s interesting that Howard Shultz uses the same word: scrappy. But that’s the perfect word for anyone who’s committed to running a small business.
The other day, we found an old computer file with a list of to-dos we had in the early days of our business. We laughed reading through them, because in each task (create pricing sheet; research website companies; schedule family mini-sessions) you could see the hustle. The grind. The scrappiness. For as much as we smiled, we almost cried, because it reminded us of three things: how hard we were working at something we didn’t really know or understand yet with no guarantee of any positive outcome.
Whether it’s sourcing their coffee beans responsibly or any number of other things behind the scenes, this really impressed us about Starbucks. Sometimes we assume that the larger a company gets, the less people see what happens behind the curtain, and the less people care. But someone wise one said that you can’t separate what you do in private from who you are in public. Like a sponge, it eventually comes out. Or, for a more apt coffee metaphor, brims over.
It reminded us that whenever we feel behind (especially in the early years when we really felt behind; a feeling that never goes away, by the way) it’s easy to be tempted to cut corners. To take short cuts. Whatever that looks like. But structures that stand the test of time are built on firm foundations, and in our experience, it takes longer to fix a mistake than it does to get it right the first time. So if you feel behind, if it’s taking you a little longer than you expected or hoped because you’re doing it right, hang in there. You’re doing exactly what you should be.
This is something we think all small business owners (especially creatives) struggle with. It’s so easy as photographers to think that all that matters is shooting, editing and delivering clients their images. A well-done website, a strong social media, consistent blogging, in-person networking and other to-dos sometimes take a back seat, because they don’t directly impact the bottom line. Except they do. That was our man Howie’s experience and advice.
When Starbucks forgot about the importance of little things — like making sure the counters were low enough that customers could see the baristas and interact with them; or the way breakfast sandwiches overpowered the aroma of coffee beans — Starbucks started to lose its essence and, over time, but right away, lost profits. It wasn’t one thing. It was a combination of lots of small things that didn’t hurt at first, but had a death-by-a-thousand-cuts affect.
For us, this year, we realized we need to stay vigilant. Pour energy into the intangibles. Read business books, even though nobody’s paying us to do that. Continue to have an active voice on the internet. Keep going above and beyond for our clients, even when they don’t expect it. The combination of intangibles are really what make our business a success.
Like so many photographers, we built our business through word-of-mouth. We’ve never paid for traditional advertising to reach brides. And we resonated with this so much because even though we don’t interact with farmers as part of our job as wedding photographers, if you substitute “people, farmers, customers, and communities” for brides, fellow vendors, and wedding guests, it’s pretty clear that without treating those people well (all of them) it’d be next to impossible to build a reputation that lasts.
This quote jumped out like a sore thumb, and we connected with it right away. In context, Shultz was talking about what Starbucks needed when he stopped running the company for four years and then came back. More than a face-life, but not a new heart. So many times in our business we feel like we’ve done open heart surgery or made some major change when the problem only needed more than a face-lift. For example, early on, we’d spend hours and hours and HOURS designing pricing sheets. Only to change them completely the next day. It was a total waste of time. Can you relate?
In hindsight, we wish we’d been smart enough to use a scalpel instead of always opting for the butcher’s knife, by identifying one specific problem that we could solve in a certain amount of time that would have the biggest overall impact on our business. We should’ve done more of that!
At one time, in a blind taste test, McDonald’s coffee was more popular than Starbucks. We won’t go into the details, but what struck us was the shock at Starbucks headquarters that customers would choose a less qualified, less experienced and less expensive coffee — and like it more.
In our industry, one of the most redundant concerns we hear from photographers across the country is “There are too many photographers who don’t have any experience or formal education in photography who are willing to cut their prices so low because they’re new that I can’t get enough work.” Or… There are too many fast food companies who don’t have any experience serving coffee that are willing to cut their so low because they’re new that I can’t make enough sales.”
Guys, it’s literally the same thing. What’s impressive is how Starbucks reacted. They knew that they’d never be able to compete with McDonald’s on price. But if they focused on being the best with everything (including the intangibles), they’d never have to compete on price — because McDonald’s could never compete on quality.
Honestly, this post could have been a hundred things we learned from this CEO (but nobody has time for that!) but this book has been a great read for us, and we highly recommend it to anyone running a business!
If you liked this post, you might also like Our Recommended Reading List.
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