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7 Valuable Lessons from Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz


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

We love coffee. Jordan especially. For him, a robust dark roast does the trick. No cream. No sugar. Like a man! Just ask him. Amy met Jordan not drinking coffee (or eating avocados). Neither was a deal-breaker, but both were red flags that Amy wasn’t perfect. She’s since fallen hand-over-chip for guacamole and has transitioned from sugary lattes to coffee with cream. She’s just one drop away from being flawless, in Jordan’s eyes. Just like millions of Americans and people around the world, we start out day with coffee. It’s one of the most popular beverages with loads of
competition (including coffee at home!) so how did a man take a small business, just four local coffee shops in Seattle, Washington, and build one of the biggest and most successful businesses in the world — in quite possibly one of the most competitive and saturated market? We had to know. Because you don’t do something like that without being a gifted leader. And after reading this book, Howard Shultz confirmed our suspicions… and them some. Starbucks didn’t become Starbucks by accident. It became Starbucks with leadership.

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.

1. “Entrepreneurs must love what they do to such a degree that it is worth sacrifice and, at times, pain. But doing anything else, we think, would be unimaginable.”

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.

2. “At the end, above my signature and in lieu of a traditional “Thank you” or ‘Sincerely,’ I wrote ‘Onward.’ To this day, I am not sure if I had used the word prior to writing that memo. But that moment the word struck me. It felt right, a call to arms that seemed to fit the daunting yet exciting adventure our little company was embarking on. Forward leaning. Nimble. Scrappy. An unquenchable desire to succeed, but always with head held high.”

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.

3. Starbucks has always cared about what the customer can and cannot see. 

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.

4. “A well built brand is the combination of intangibles that do not directly flow to the revenue or profitability of a company, but contribute to its texture. Forsaking them can take a subtle, collective toll.”

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.

5. “Unlike other brands, Starbucks was not built through marketing and traditional advertising. We succeeded by creating an experience that comes to life, in large part, because of how we treat our people, how we treat our farmers, our customers, and how we give back to communities.”

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.

6. “The patient [the business] needed more than a face-lift. But the patient did not need a new heart.” 

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!

7. “The one thing we could not and should not do was dismiss the ability of any competitor to capture our customers.”

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.


Hey, We're Amy & Jordan!

We help people take great photos and build profitable businesses that change lives. Get our free photography and business coaching delivered straight to your inbox every week.

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  1. Elizabeth Gilbert

    February 7th, 2017 at 8:41 am

    Hi Amy & Jordan,
    I am a student and am interested in hearing if you have any resources on being a photographer part time?

  2. Amy & Jordan

    March 8th, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    Hey Elizabeth! Search our blog! We have tons of resources! We’re cheering for you! 🙂

  3. Debra Mahijah

    February 9th, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Amy and Jordan,
    I live that you take the time to uplift and inspire photographers on a weekly basis. I just finished reading your blog about the owner of Starbucks. I too am a former school teacher. I taught at both the elementary and middle school levels. As much as I miss the kids, I had to follow my dream of becoming a full time wedding and portrait photographer. I have followed you for nearly a year and I took the leap and retired this past June. The journey has been long, confusing at times, but I remain hopeful that I will reach my goals. Please continue to inspire me and others like me. Thank you.

  4. Amy & Jordan

    March 7th, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Aw! Thanks so much, Debra! Taking the leap is the hardest part, but we hope nothing but great things for your future! We are cheering for you! 🙂

  5. Samantha Christensen

    February 9th, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Love the Starbucks vs. McDonalds point

  6. Amy & Jordan

    March 7th, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks, Samantha! 🙂

  7. Tia

    February 9th, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Oh how I smile every time I see your names pop up in my email because I know two things-
    1. What I am about to read is going to impact me and inspire
    2. It is coming from two people that truly care
    -Please know your time spent on these emails are grateful appreciated

  8. Amy & Jordan

    March 7th, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Aw! Thanks so much, Tia! We are cheering for you!! 🙂

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We help people take great photos and build profitable businesses that change lives. We’re high school sweethearts, former elementary school teachers and professional photographers who believe education is serious business, but learning should be fun.


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3 Proven Tricks to Shoot Better & Edit Faster

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