Why this former Starbucks executive quit a CEO job to start a startup


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

Brotman, who would later take executive positions at Starbucks and J. Crew, credits this first job with having sparked the entrepreneurial spirit that led him to go into business.

“Even when I was pushing carts out in the rain, watching my uncle and Jim build this iconic business up close set the bar for success,” the 52-year-old told CNBC Make It. “It created an opening on how I would view success.”

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

What he learned while working at Starbucks

If you’ve ever used Starbucks Points to get free or in-app latte, you can thank Brotman. He spent nearly a decade as Chief Digital Officer and Executive Vice President of Global Retail Operations at Starbucks building its rewards program and digital platforms.

The Starbucks app is considered the gold standard for franchises. In April, mobile transactions accounted for over 25% of all Starbucks orders in the United States. But Brotman didn’t launch the app as a final, completed project. First, Starbucks launched the loyalty and payment features and then 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. ”

According to Brotman, building the mobile ordering functionality was the “most complicated” part of building the app, and involved several large teams, including marketing, payment strategy, and operations. This process taught Brotman the importance of aligning with a common goal, making collaboration smoother, and creative problem solving tactics.

“There was a windowless conference room behind my desk 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 meet in this war room and we would cover every inch of this room with ideas to improve the app.”

“I decided it was time to stretch”

One would expect Brotman to build on his successes at Starbucks, either by staying 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, a leap motivated not by a love for fashion but for New York, where the company is based.

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

Brotman only stayed at J.Crew for a year, which he spent launching 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 his personalized marketing, but he says these projects “were not prioritized” by the team. Then Brotman had a revelation: Many companies weren’t mining data in the same way Starbucks needed to personalize their marketing and user experience, thereby strengthening their relationship with customers.

Back to Seattle and start-up

Homesickness for Seattle and the desire to undertake again, Brotman returned to Washington. It was there that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced him to Jon Shulkin, president of Statesa, a fully automated fast food restaurant chain in California. The duo wanted to turn the struggling startup into a software platform that helps other mainstream brands, restaurant and retail chains digitize their businesses.

Johnson and some of the venture capital sponsors recruited Brotman to lead the relaunch of the business under the Brightloom name. In 2019, Brotman became CEO of the Seattle-based (and Starbucks-backed) startup, where he and his team are developing software that helps small businesses use tools like digital ordering and personalized marketing. Starbucks has also licensed its mobile phone and loyalty program technology to Brightloom so that its customers can use it for their own businesses.

The challenge of running a start-up has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. When the Brightloom office lease expired at the start of the crisis, Brotman decided that he and his 51 employees should move to permanent remote work, a process he called “strange and frightening, but also wonderful.” .

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

The jump from working in the C-Suite of some of the world’s best-known brands to running a relatively unknown small startup is surprising to say the least. But as he worked his way up the corporate ladder, Brotman realized that for him, happiness and professional growth did not fit traditional definitions of success.

“Even as a teenager I always found so much energy in trying to solve a problem and build something new, that’s what start-ups are,” he says. “It energizes me so much that sometimes I even forget the existential angst of working in a start-up.”

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

“Think professional tennis players – they have to master their serve, backhand, forehand and net game before they can be the best,” he says. “Start with an end goal in mind, then break the job down into its components… and make sure you have intellectual curiosity and commitment every step of the way in the learning process. “

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