Book Review – Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul


Diary of a top level retail C.E.O. That’s what this book should have been titled as. Though unintended I’m sure, it was the one thing that impacted me most while reading it. To date is the most important business book the entrepreneur in me has been nourished on.

Howard Schultz founded Starbucks through hard work & skill, building it into a market leader. After stepping down as CEO to be chairman, Starbucks went through an aggressive growth period till disaster loomed on the horizon forcing him to come back as CEO.

Just when he’s about to announce his coming back, a damaging internal memo leaks and the press has a field day with it. Despite the stormy waters Howard does become CEO and just in time too because the 2008 financial crisis hits Starbucks, threatening to drown it. I’ll let you read through the book and find out how Howard Schultz not only beat the odds but also shaped Starbucks into a much better entity than before.

Howard Schultz - Starbucks Founder & CEO. Photo Credit:  Richard Eriksson on Flickr

Howard Schultz – Starbucks Founder & CEO.
Photo Credit: Richard Eriksson on Flickr

This is a fast paced book about how a founder returns to save his company from eating itself alive. It focuses on the happenings that saw a businessman mature his business during a time of turmoil, even as he himself came of age. Howard’s well-known leadership ethos of not just winning but winning the right way comes to the fore throughout the book in many refreshing ways. I really resonated with him on doing business with a soul.

A lot of different lessons permeated throughout this book for me but some of the key ones were:

1) Know your business’ DNA: Howard was able to steer Starbucks well in large part (very large part!) due to his intimate knowledge of Starbucks’ DNA. Knowing what made up the heart and soul of his company was the one big tool that helped him wield the rest.

2) Admit when you’re wrong: It took quite some doing for Howard to admit that Starbucks had faltered and it was even more humbling to see him seek guidance upon his return from various people. It made the difference between surviving or dying.

3) Employees, customers THEN shareholders: Long term value of a company is only as good as when value has been created for employees who then create value percolating down to customers and shareholders. Unhappy employees make for bad businesses.

4) Know your team: Howard’s deep and keen insight into the strengths and weaknesses of his employees led him to know exactly who to put, what position to put them in and why. He’d never had succeeded in so many cases were it not for that.

5) When looking for people to help move your business forward look for skill, experience and like-minded values.

6) Trust your instinct but temper it with knowledge.

7) Being a returning business founder is very different from leading during start up.

 There’s a lot more that I got to learn but these were some of the core lessons. No business book thus far has changed the trajectory of my entrepreneurial life like this one & I shall go back to it again and again. I encourage anyone interested in business to read this book but more so I recommend this book for:

  • Anyone interested/involved in leadership in business no matter the position.
  • Anyone interested in the coffee or hospitality business.
  • Anyone interested in starting or expanding a business.

You can find it on Amazon.


Victor Muthoka

Lover of God, children & arts, Apple fanboy, Amazon kindle die hard, closet geek, tech enthusiast, entrepreneur, tree hugger and a voracious reader

You may also like...