Tag Archives: Starbucks

Podcast: The Starbucks Effect

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on  why we do all our work in Starbucks.  (The Business Daily podcast is here; the original piece is here.)  

Loose Wireless 110413

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

 Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Concentration in the Public Space

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappucino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centispiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle distraction. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians, hustlers, and, well humanity. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’f riends, John Leech, a writer and cartoonist for Punch, confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, would leave dead cats on his doorstep, broke his windows and threatened his life.

Bass’ Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—which numbered at least 1,000, including English violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italisn street entertainers, and numerous percussionists and minstrel singers from England, India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers.

Some stayed put—one Thomas Carlyle built a soundless room in his attic in Chelsea—but most moved out to the suburbs where things were altogether quieter. It’s not clear who won, but the first battle between knowledge worker and concentration had been fought.

The organ grinders have gone, but the knowledge workers are still around. But our search for a conducive work environment goes on.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-makingriff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Smanuel Johnson called them ‘penny universiteies.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home.

Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Now that is all changing. For lots of reasons. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realise they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

Starbucks cottoned on early to this. It started out just selling coffee beans or ground but realised that people lingered after their purchase, and so gave them chairs and tables and put in a coffee machine. As crime in the inner cities fell in the 1990s the middle classes wanted to get out of their homes and feel their way back into the city. And Starbucks was the place they went—familiar, safe, but further away.

Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it was, however: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free WiFi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. Here’s what I found from forums and surveys of users of places like Starbucks:

For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barrista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today (it’s also helped shape it.) It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of distraction. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Power to the Consumer. (Is That All?)

Akasaka, 2008

Jan Chipchase, roving Nokia researcher, as ever inspires and provokes with this piece on the psychology of the coffee cup:

This Akasaka coffee shop includes a row of accessible power sockets (running a long the edge of the window) primarily to support laptop use – though over the course of an hour a number of people charged their phones (yes people here sometimes carry petite phone chargers). Recharging mobile devices in coffee shops is nothing new – but to what extent does the explicit nature of the infrastructure lead to new behaviours? Like? Well, maybe plugging in a printer? Or setting up a server. Or, or…

Jan points to the issues raised by offering power to consumers:

In some ways customers that don’t use the power socket are subsidising those that do – after all they pay a the same for a cup of coffee. Or do power using power-users spend more money either on more items or on items that will last longer? What if the electricity socket was a stand-alone working micro market? As you plug into the socket your devices authenticates itself to the system, negotiates how much power (or fuel-cell fuel) it needs and charges away. As with the explicit presence of the socket to what extent does the explicit presence of a micro-market for power this extend existing behaviours? And given the relaxed ambiance that this coffee shop is trying to create is it desirable to create a market in this context?

It fascinates me that the average high street these days is as likely to have as many coffee shops as it is other kinds of outlets. And that people work, live, play, cry and get divorced in them. Why do we need the hustle and bustle of others to be productive?

But for me the biggest mystery is why these outlets don’t bother to try to sell something more than just coffee, crappy CDs and bad finger food to these customers. Selling power to them might be a cheap shot, but let’s face it, you’re not really selling them coffee. You’re selling them a place to work. A noise, an ambience. You’re selling them the chance to feel cool. To show off their Air. To furtively check out members of a sexually appealing gender. To have physical proximity. To engage with engaging staff. A chance to get away from the office/family/silence.

That’s what they’re buying. But what about what they’d like to buy, that they just haven’t considered yet? A chance to meet the people around them? A way to build an informal network with other users? To be able to print from their computers? To arrange pick up by FedEx? An ATM machine?

To me, Starbucks is never really about the coffee. Well, it is for the people who go in there, queue and then take it with them (and then, I think for a lot of them it’s about delaying arrival in the office, or having something in their hands as a sort of weapon to take on the day; if it’s halfway through the day it’s a chance to get out of the office on an errand that is acceptable.) But for the people who stay in Starbucks, they’re buying something else. And who knows what else they might buy if you try to sell it to them?

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Behaviours Reflected

My Starbucks, My Love

I love the Starbucks at Jakarta’s International Airport, and it saddens me I won’t be frequenting it all that much from now on.

Today when I grabbed my favourite slot near the entrance (only one with a power outlet, away from the arctic blast further in), I posed my usual question: Is the WiFi working?

The sweet lady behind the counter, who is as creative with her responses as she is with her coffees, replied: “No, I don’t think so. It was raining quite heavily last night.”

I’m still not sure a) whether the two statements are connected, and b) if so, whether the monsoon in the Jakarta area would directly impact the WiFi. Would it?

Starbucks Comes To Tsunami-hit Aceh

Indonesians don’t have much time for trademarks, copyright and all that kind of thing, but they do have a great sense of humour and a resilience that inspires. Here’s a new cafe that has just opened for business near the airport in Aceh’s Meulaboh, one of the worst hit areas:

Starbucks

(picture courtesy of Radio68H. The full-sized picture is here. )

Warkop is Indonesian short-speak for warung kopi, or coffee stall. I love the scene, the plastic containers of kerupuk (thanks, Wicak!) and donuts, the expression on the face of the guy hanging out on the right, the ears on the little fella sitting at the back on the left, and I just hope that Starbucks, which is contributing to tsunami relief, doesn’t take umbrage. I calculate the nearest Starbucks to Meulaboh is in Medan, about 350 km away, so I don’t think they’re going to be attracting away custom. Still, as one wag pointed out to a friend who spotted the picture: ‘This Starbucks has wireless too. Absolutely no wires.’

Flash, Floating Ads And Hijacking Your Webcam

I haven’t had time to look at this closely, and humble apologies if this is old hat, but can pop-up ads hijack users’ web-cams and microphones?

I was surfing at a website called This Is London, when on one page a pop-up Flash ad appeared for Starbucks. I was using Mozilla Firefox 0.7 and it just would not disappear from right above the first few paragraphs of the piece I was trying to read. Like this:

I right clicked on it and got a menu option for Flash settings. When I clicked on that, this is what popped up (well this is another ad that appeared on the same page when I viewed it in another browser, but it’s pretty much the same apart from the website address):

The earlier website was for uk.tangozebra.com, which doesn’t resolve, but which I’m assuming is part of Tangozebra, a ‘leading online advertising and marketing solutions provider in the UK’. The other link, serving-sys.com, doesn’t resolve either but is registered to New York-based online advertising company Eyeblaster.com. You can repeat the trick of getting the above window to appear if you click on their floating ad example and then right click on the ad.

So what is going on? I realise I’m not the first to spot this kind of thing, and the innocent explanation is that it is a built in feature of Macromedia Flash, not some sinister part of the floating ad thing. (Here’s Macromedia’s take on this, which seems to be nearly two years old.) But if this has been the case for a while, why has it not been stopped? And what would happen if I did allow the Flash program to access my camera and microphone? And, lastly, why would the Starbucks ad not disappear until I clicked on it and allowed another window to pop up?

The Price Of Sleep: 70 Cents A Minute

I know it makes commercial sense, but it’s still galling to realise that in our fast urban world, we are getting used to paying for everything. First it was bottled water, then bottled air, now it’s sleep.

New York’s MetroNaps is getting quite a bit of coverage of late — in Wired, the NYT, the New York Sun – as a company that offers pods for taking midday naps in. Wired quotes company founder Arshad Chowdhury as saying his research indicated “people would pay to take a nap, but they only wanted to go about six minutes out of their way to get one”. So far they have one in the Empire State Building and Vancouver Airport, but should we expect MetroNaps on as many corners as Starbucks? At $14 for a 20 minute nap that’s as expensive a hobby as coffee.

Now, I’m a huge fan of naps, and offering folk a place to lie down is not particularly new — good airports have totally quiet environments where you can lay back without looking like a refugee. But is it just me, or is there something pretty sad going on when we sneak a few blocks to grab a doze away from our desk? I can understand why someone in town for the day might want to put their feet up, but are our places of work so bad that we can’t provide this kind of facility to our workers there? Or, for that matter, why can’t cafes provide a place to snooze (what happens if you try that in Starbucks?)?

If napping is such a good idea let’s make it part of the furniture, not turn it into a business. I was going to ask MetroNap more about this, but it seems their site is down right now. Taking a nap, as it were.

Grab Some Joe, Burn A CD

Burn and Foam.

Starbucks is now offering a service where customers can browse music on computers in their outlets and then burn a CD of the music they like. Using its own Hear Music brand, Starbucks has launched the service in its new Hear Music Coffeehouse in Santa Monica, Calif. The service will be extended to 10 stores in Seattle later this year. Customers can browse more than 20,000 full-length albums and hundreds of thousands of songs on 70 Tablet PCs.

I’m afraid the press release, though long on background, is short on specifics about how much the service costs, and what format the music is in. Founded in 1990, and acquired by Starbucks Coffee Company in 1999, Hear Music boasts a catalog of nearly 100 CD compilations, handpicking “songs from new and classic records to create CDs that help people discover music they might not hear otherwise”.