Asking Why Opens Doors 1.0


Contributed by Aura Cook

Part One

Often businesses look at the what – what the market looks like, what the customer wants, what value the product offers. But if we step back and ask why, we can not only better understand customer motivations and fears, we can remove barriers to open up once niche markets to the mainstream.

But of course it’s not just as simple as removing barriers. It’s a delicate balance of making the experience accessible while keeping the inherent value it brings to the new audience. Some purists might argue that a Starbucks coffee shop is not “authentic” because it’s not hand-crafted or eclectic, and that may be true. Starbucks did remove the eccentricity from their coffee shops to make it accessible. But they kept what was important to the mainstream audience – quality relative to home brew, community connection, and reward. So how did Starbucks get to where it is today and open its doors to nearly 60 million customers each week?

Starbucks Opens the Door

I remember my first coffee shop experience. The rich smell of coffee, the dim light, and local art all over the walls. A mix of eclectic people sitting at mismatched tables and chairs. Old books and board games were scattered throughout the café. I was attending college in the Midwest more years ago than I’d like to admit, and this was pre-Starbucks expansion.

I’d come from a coffee family. My parents brewed coffee every morning, but a coffee shop was a completely novel experience for me. I loved it – I was a wannabe hipster in college. But I could barely get my friends and family to meet me in the place because it was just too weird to them.

Fast forward to 2010 after I moved to Seattle, and every friend that visits me wants to stop at the original Starbucks in the Pike Place Market. My mom proclaims she “loves her Starbucks” and won’t drink any other coffee. What happened? How did coffee shops move from an almost unheard of place, to the standard meet up place for book clubs, a work spot for graphic designers, and a regular morning stop for daily commuters?

Creating a Third Place

When Starbucks first set out for expansion, coffee shops were a niche market in the U.S. that catered to artists and coffee connoisseurs. Starbucks didn’t just ask what the current U.S. coffee market was and try to work within those parameters. They dug deeper and asked why. Why do Americans who love coffee rarely, if ever, go to coffee houses? Why do folks who enjoy dining out, brew their coffee at home? Coffee houses had a lot of value to offer – the connection to community and an adult “treat” that was relatively inexpensive. What were the barriers to mainstream Americans hanging out at coffee shops? And finally, how could those barriers be broken without destroying the inherent value of what coffee houses provided?

“I’ve had to change my own mentality and thinking, it’s always a fragile balance between creativity and discipline, but it’s much more acute than it was in the past.”

Howard Schultz

In thinking about the pre-Starbucks coffee shops, they were often older (dingy), in out-of-the-way locations, filled with artists and eclectic people, and run by coffee snobs. Not exactly welcoming to a coffee novice, business exec, or suburban parent. By creating a coffee house experience that was modern and clean, in a convenient location, and run by exceptionally welcoming and friendly baristas, Starbucks removed those barriers. And by keeping the quality and price on par with local coffee houses, Starbucks made sure not to lose the “treat” part of the value chain.

“We approach everything in our store from a ‘What I would want’ mentality. The music, the cleanliness, the service… everything has to be what we would want if we came in as a customer.”

Starbucks Manager

At less than five dollars a try, it was a fairly low risk experience for my mom – and lots of other people – to try. And they loved it. They loved their “adult treat” and community connection spot. And they proudly carried around the Starbucks cup showing off the reward they gave themselves that day. Starbucks made a once exclusive niche experience accessible to the masses. By asking why, they were able to create a welcoming, delightful third place for people to look forward to between work and home.


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