Humanity In A Coffee Cup

What Starbucks’ Business Model Can Teach Us About Our Humanity

Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash

Capitalism has always been about funny business. It is funny because if i told you business can teach you a lot about humanity, you would laugh. Business is ultimately more human than most people tend to give it credit for. Think about the last time you met your banker or relationship manager and they made you feel special by remembering your anniversary. Forget anniversaries, some of them don’t remember your name. They just remember what bracket your assets under management fall under. I would argue that people would accept a lower return on their investment for a while in return for great service. If the relationship manager just removes the friction in doing business and makes transacting with the bank a memorable experience, the relationship becomes long term, personal and in many senses a marriage. In a marriage, people are willing to compromise a lower interest rate on their investments for a truly pleasurable banking experience.

This truism applies to every single business on this planet. I hate to break it but business is as personal as it gets. Think about it — if you are parting with your money, you expect the business to appreciate you as a client and as a human. Using the example of Starbucks, this article argues why business has always been about the art of being more human. Think about it-do most businessmen think about someone’s caste, color, race and religion if they are offering them their money and their business? Money is a great humanizer and a great dehumanizer all at the same time. If we change our perspective, we can make it the greatest force in support of our humanity. If we dont, it can destroy the fabric our society very fast.

Today morning, I was invited out to a local Starbucks by one of my favorite family friends. It was a dark grey, gloomy sky with a weather many would call ‘muggy‘. These weren’t the best conditions to go out of your house. Good for coffee but not for driving. I was not looking forward to stepping out even for a nice hot cup of coffee. Yet, I obliged.

The Starbucks Experience

The Starbucks I was invited to was a really large hall bustling with people. Many young students were typing on their laptops and finishing their homework as I settled into my wooden chair. The whole atmosphere inside was so lively that it made me forget the bad weather outside. I did what most people do-went to the Barista. I had placed the order and paid for it on my Starbucks app. So, I picked up my coffee and settled in next to my friend. I realized that the whole experience — the ambience, the coffee, the people were the perfect way to make me feel at home in a crowd. It was a great example of a business empathizing with me.

The whole experience reminded me of a book written by the founders of Zillow-the online housing search engine and marketplace.

In 2015, Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow and Stan Humphries, Chief Economist Of Zillow wrote in their book ‘Rewriting The Rules Of Real Estate’ :

‘Between 1997 and 2014, homes within a quarter-mile of a Starbucks increased in value by 96 percent, on average, compared with 65 percent for all U.S. homes, based on a comparison of Zillow Home Value Index data with a database of Starbucks locations’

It also went on to describe the army of data scientists that go about picking the real estate needed to build the cafe. That’s because — Starbucks is in the real estate business as much as it is into coffee. In fact, many feel the entry of Starbucks in a neighborhood is a good sign of gentrification ie of people who will consume its coffee.

From ordering online to the ability to customize your drink and from the smiling Baristas to the secret menu, Starbucks creates an experience like no other. Of course, without the coffee, all the rest wouldn’t exist.

Of course, being too friendly has its own problems. Starbucks faces congestion, long lines and at times customers simply walking out of the coffee shop resulting in a cancelled transaction. It tried to impose a limit on the number of hours customers can sit in the cafe but it has to quickly withdraw that limit. You can find people sitting for four hours or more with or without ordering coffee.

Does Money Your Empathy Issues?

Great brands like Apple, Starbucks and Nike are about the experience. Although their products speak for themselves, they become truly endearing because of the whole experience of buying, owning, tasting and even servicing devices in case of Apple.

A crazy irony about money can be explained thus:

While money creates the greatest man made divide, it also blurs other man made divides of race, sex, color when it comes to doing business. Most people will not say no to your money because you look a certain way. This statement alone tells you that almost all of our problems are rooted in economics.

Stock markets can be a way for companies to raise capital and investors to benefit from their investments but they can also be a den of thieves. Many of our problems today are economic and concern the oppressor and the oppressed. It starts with bullying the weak in school and continues throughout life. If the oppressors are taught that their power brings with it a great responsibility to do right by society while they are kids in school, we will go a long way in solving sexism and racism in business, at the workplace, and in the world in general.

If empathy is hard for the oppressor, using money as an instrument to develop empathy is a very commonly practiced and yet misunderstood idea. Unless you are empathetic to your clients in business, your boss and co-workers at work, it is very hard to make serious money.

Think about it — you work to make you boss’ life easier and you do business to put a smile on your clients’ face. None of these goals are easy to achieve without empathizing and finally, loving your clients. I know it sounds cooky- using monetary goals to develop empathy but think about it. In a very simplistic way, isn’t that the fundamental bedrock of business and capitalism? If there is a truism I was reminded of while sitting at the Starbucks, it was this: Without putting a smile on a strangers face, it’s hard to get business. Ironically, this truism may remind you of your humanity. Of course, it shouldn’t take money to remind us of being kind to other humans.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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