Why did this former Starbucks quit CEO job to start a startup?

As a teenager, former Starbucks executive Adam Brotman found inspiration in an unexpected place: a Costco parking lot. In 1982, his uncle, Jeff Brotman, co-founded a chain of big-box retail stores with James Sinegal—and when Brotman turned 16, he was asked to organize the shopping cart at the store’s first location in Seattle. was recruited.

Brotman, who would later join Starbucks and J.J. Crew in top leadership roles, crediting that first job with instilling the entrepreneurial spirit that landed him in the business.

“Even as I was pushing the trains out in the rain, watching my uncle and Jim build this iconic company set the bar high for success,” the 52-year-old recounts. CNBC Make It, “I created Aperture for how I saw success.”

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

What he learned from working at Starbucks

If you’ve ever used Starbucks points to snag a free latte or order it on the app, you can thank Brotman. He built its rewards program and digital platform for nearly a decade as Starbucks’ chief digital officer and EVP of global retail operations.

The Starbucks app is considered the gold standard for franchisees. By April, mobile transaction done over 25 Out of all Starbucks orders in the United States. But Brotman didn’t launch the app as a final, completed project. First, Starbucks launched loyalty and payment features, then later added functionalities for ordering and marketing. “The app was not an overnight success,” he noted. “We were constantly improving and changing things up based on customer feedback.”

According to Brotman, building the mobile ordering feature was the “most complex” part of building the app, and involved several large teams, including marketing, payment strategy, and operations. That process taught Brotman the importance of a creative strategy to align on a common goal, to smooth collaboration, and to solve a problem.

“There was a windowless conference room at the back of 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 get together in that war room and we would cover every single inch of that room with ideas to improve the app.”

‘I decided it was time to stretch myself’

One would expect Brotman to build on his successes at Starbucks, either by staying in his role there or pursuing a similar job at another Fortune 500 company. Instead, he left Starbucks in 2018 to join J.Crew, where he was president and co-CEO, driven not by a love for fashion but by a leap to New York, where the company is based.

“My wife and I have always wanted to be in New York, the ‘center of the universe,'” he says. “I decided it was time to stretch myself a little by putting myself in an uncomfortable, new position, and I was excited to apply some of the lessons I learned at Starbucks to a different iconic, American brand.”

Brotman for only one year. Crew, which he spent launching the brand’s loyalty program in hopes of replicating some of the digital innovations he brought to Starbucks. He wanted to build a mobile app for the brand and improve his personal marketing, but he says Those projects were “not prioritized” by the team. Then, Brotman made a revelation: Too many businesses weren’t leveraging data the way Starbucks was supposed to personalize its marketing and user experience, in turn strengthening its relationships with customers.

Return to Seattle and Start-ups

Homesick for Seattle and itching to be entrepreneurial again, Brotman moved back to Washington. It was here that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced her to John Shulkin, president of Etsa, a fully automated fast-food chain in California. The pair wanted to turn the struggling start-up into a software platform that helps other consumer brands, restaurants and retail chains digitize their businesses.

Johnson and some venture capital sponsors recruited Brotman to lead the company’s relaunch: brightloom, In 2019, Brotman became CEO of a Seattle-based (and Starbucks-backed) start-up where he and his team are building software that helps small businesses use tools like digital ordering and personalized marketing. Starbucks also licensed its mobile and loyalty program technology to Brightloom so that its customers can use it for their own businesses.

The challenge of running a start-up was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. When Brightloom’s office lease expired at the start of the crisis, Brotman decided he and his 51 employees should switch to permanent remote work, a process he calls “weird and scary, but also wonderful.”

Brightloom’s business also got a boost from the pandemic as most businesses had to go online to connect with customers. “This has given businesses a heightened sense of urgency to figure out how to build better digital relationships with their customers,” says Brotman. According to crunchbase, Brightloom has raised over $45 million in funding.

From working in the C-suite of some of the world’s most recognizable brands to leading a small, relatively unknown start-up, it’s amazing, to say the least. But as he was climbing the corporate ladder, Brotman realized that for him, happiness and career fulfillment did not match traditional definitions of success.

“Even when I was a teenager, I always got so much energy from solving a problem and trying to create something new, which is what start-ups are all about,” he says. “It excites me so much that sometimes I forget the existential angle of working at a start-up.”

Of course, taking risks and changing careers can be too intimidating when you’re not in Brotman’s position, and you don’t have millions of dollars in financial aid, or the leader mentors of Starbucks and Costco. But the CEO hopes he can encourage others to be a little bolder in their careers.

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

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