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Starting a business is tough, but keeping it going is even tougher
on June 2, 2014
I read this book specifically to better understand a CEO's perspective in starting a company and then coming back to save it. Howard Schultz's very personalized account demonstrates the commitment needed to keep a vision and mission statement going as later leaders start to vary from the initial vision and as the economy inevitably affects the business. Schultz casts some blame on leaders who succeeded him, but most of Starbucks' issues seemed to be caused by the recession more so than internal decisions. If one recalls how many personal finance experts were recommending to skip the $4 latte as a way of saving money, this loss of business they suffered through 2008-9 shouldn't have been too much of a surprise.
With that said, the book was still interesting in seeing the difficulty of micro-focusing on each individual customer experience while simultaneously macro-focusing on growth. There are definitely advantages to being on every street corner, but the more spread out the company becomes the harder it is to make that experience unique but consistent for those who want the same product and experience in any location, fast but leisurely for those who aren't in a hurry, and successful for the company that can't help but focus on growth when opening multiple stores every day. Schultz effectively describes all the variables he considered through this time period to "thread the needle" to get the best of this small and big focus.
While it's hard to recognize that the successful companies we depend upon are typically short-lived, this book does a good job of showing why. A founder's focus and commitment to the original vision for a company is difficult to pass on to successors who have to be equally if not more committed to pushing it forward and adapting to changing customer tastes and competitive threats. As Schultz points out here, his successors couldn't accomplish that even though they were good people. Like Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Schultz cared and resolved to come back and make the necessary adjustments to carry Starbucks through. The average CEO probably wouldn't do that. And--as other reviewers have observed--what will happen the next time Schultz retires. It's why so many businesses don't last over extended periods and inevitably submit to competitors who come up with better ideas.
Even several years after it was published, this book is a good read to understand these long-term challenges that all businesses face. Today--as Sears, J.C. Penney and (gasp) even Walmart--seem destined to fail, "Onward" helps to explain why killer business models must be constantly tweaked or else they will eventually stagger and then fail.