Why This Former Starbucks CEO Resigned as CEO to Start a Startup?

As a teenager, former Starbucks CEO Adam Brotman found inspiration in an unlikely place: a Costco parking lot. In 1982, his uncle, Jeff Brotman, co-founded the chain of large stores with James Sinegal—and when Brotman turned 16, he was recruited to run shopping carts at the store’s first location in Seattle.

Brotman, who later went on to serve in leadership roles at Starbucks and J. Crew, says that first job fueled the entrepreneurial spirit that brought him into business.

“Even pushing carts outside in the rain, watching my uncle and Jim build this iconic business up close, set the bar high for success,” the 52-year-old says. CNBC Make It. “It created the opening for how I would see success.”

The Seattle native began his career as a lawyer, but quit his practice at age 27 to launch in-store entertainment services company PlayNetwork. After working several times at other companies, Brotman joined Starbucks in 2009.

What he learned from his work at Starbucks

If you’ve ever used Starbucks points to get your hands on a free latte or ordered in the app, you can thank Brotman. He spent nearly a decade as Starbucks Chief Digital Officer and EVP of its global retail business developing its rewards program and digital platforms.

The Starbucks app is considered a gold standard for franchises. As of April, mobile transactions are doing well more than 25% of all Starbucks orders in the United States. But Brotman didn’t launch the app as a final, completed project. Starbucks first launched the loyalty and payment features and later added the ordering and marketing features. “The app was not an overnight success,” he notes. “We were constantly improving and changing things based on customer feedback.”

Building the mobile ordering feature was the “most complicated” part of creating the app, according to Brotman, and involved several major teams, including marketing, payment strategy, and operations. That process taught Brotman the importance of aligning with a common goal, smoothing collaboration, and creative tactics for problem-solving.

“There was a windowless conference room behind my office at Starbucks, and I asked our maintenance staff if we could paint all the walls with whiteboard material,” he recalls. “Every week all the teams would come together in that war room and we would cover every inch of that room with ideas to improve the app.”

‘I decided it was time to stretch myself’

You would expect Brotman to build on his successes at Starbucks, either by remaining in his position there or by taking a similar job at another Fortune 500 company. Instead, he left Starbucks in 2018 to join J.Crew, where he served as president and co-CEO, a leap motivated not by a love of fashion, but New York, where the company is based.

“My wife and I always wanted to live in New York, ‘the center of the universe,'” he says. “I decided it was time to stretch myself a bit by putting myself in an awkward new situation, and I was excited to apply some of the lessons I learned at Starbucks to another iconic American brand. ”

Brotman stayed with J.Crew for only a year, where he launched the brand’s loyalty program in hopes of replicating some of the digital innovation he brought to Starbucks. He wanted to create a mobile app for the brand and improve personalized marketing, but he says: those projects “were not prioritized” by the team. Then Brotman had a revelation: Many companies were not benefiting from data the way Starbucks needed to personalize their marketing and user experience, which in turn strengthened their relationship with customers.

Returning to Seattle and Startups

With nostalgia for Seattle and itching to be entrepreneurial again, Brotman moved back to Washington. There, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced him to Jon Shulkin, the chairman of Eatsa, a fully automated fast food chain in California. The pair wanted to transform the struggling start-up into a software platform that helps other consumer brands, restaurant and retail chains digitize their businesses.

Johnson and some of the venture capital sponsors have hired Brotman to lead the company’s relaunch Brightloom. In 2019, Brotman became the CEO of the Seattle-based (and Starbucks-backed) start-up, where he and his team build software that helps smaller businesses use tools such as digital ordering and personalized marketing. Starbucks has also licensed its mobile and loyalty program technology to Brightloom for its customers to use for their own business.

The challenge of running a start-up has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. When Brightloom’s lease expired at the start of the crisis, Brotman decided that he and his 51 employees had to move to permanent remote work, a process he calls “strange and scary, but also amazing”.

Brightloom’s business also got a boost from the pandemic, as most businesses had to go online to connect with customers. “It’s made businesses feel an increased sense of urgency to figure out how to have a better digital relationship with their customers,” Brotman added. According to crunch base, Brightloom has raised more than $45 million in funding.

To go from working in the C-suite of some of the world’s most recognizable brands to leading a small, relatively unknown start-up is surprising to say the least. But as he climbed the corporate ladder, Brotman realized that for him, happiness and career fulfillment didn’t match traditional definitions of success.

“Even when I was a teenager, I always got so much energy from trying to solve a problem and build something new, and that’s what start-ups are all about,” he says. “It gives me so much energy that sometimes I even forget the existential fear of working at a start-up.”

Of course, taking a risk and changing careers can be a lot of intimidation if you’re not in Brotman’s position and don’t have millions of dollars in financial backing, or the leaders of Starbucks and Costco as mentors. But the CEO hopes he can encourage others to be a little more courageous in their careers.

“Think of professional tennis players — they have to master their serve, backhand, forehand, and net before they can be the best,” he says. “Start with an end goal in mind, then break the craft down into its component parts… making sure you have the intellectual curiosity and dedication for every step of the learning process.”

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