003. Atmospheres of Information Part 1: Starbucks

What would happen if we designed a space to maximize the potential of the Internet?

The Internet is the greatest utility of the 21st century. It so profoundly affects the way humans interact with one another that it is reasonable to rank it alongside the greatest communications advancements in history, such as the advent of speech and the development of writing. The Web impacts nearly every aspect of our lives, from basic correspondence, to news, banking, commerce, transportation, education, health, sex, politics, and art. The UN has gone as far as calling access to the Internet a basic human right.

How astonishing is it to realize that this achievement has emerged only very recently, within the lifetimes of most people currently alive. Linkedin CEO and Silicon Valley icon Reid Hoffman reminds us that the Internet is still in the first inning. The pace of growth, already staggering, will continue to increase with the advancement of the Internet of Things.

As the Web makes deeper inroads into our physical world, interesting questions are emerging about the spaces we use to access the Internet. In many instances, we still primarily engage the Internet through a glowing rectangle either in our hands or residing in a space whose basic layout was conceived before the Internet existed.

Librii's mandate is to create an atmosphere of information that allows its users to fully participate in the unfolding of the Internet. The library is our starting point. Since its inception, the library has served as the physical space in the community for recording and organizing information. However, the fundamental dynamic of the Internet is activating the user both as a consumer AND producer of content. The act of creation triggers a mutation in the genetics of the library, which in modern times has been a place of accessing knowledge only. In our efforts to update the library, we have learned valuable lessons from two precedents set by other companies that, despite sounding cliché, are undeniably successful in their ability to engage customers. These companies are Starbucks and Apple.  

This post will look deeper into Starbucks and a future post will take on the case of Apple.


Starbucks is a remarkable organization on a number of levels. The company’s goal is to become the 3rd place in your daily life (i.e. not home, not work/school). It is the #1 coffee seller in the world, and it has achieved that status by taking a product that already exists and reintroducing it in a far more glamorous way. It executed this goal in a way that allowed it to achieve massive scale: there are currently more than 21,000 Starbucks stores worldwide.

These are direct cues for Librii.  We too want to become the primary 3rd place in our users daily lives.  We too want to reintroduce a product that already exists in the marketplace (in our case information), in a more exciting and compelling way.  We too aim to scale to many locations.

In his book, The Starbucks Experience, Joseph Mitchelli describes five principles the coffee shop uses for turning the ordinary into extraordinary. 


Starbucks wants its employees to feel a deep sense of personal ownership over the atmosphere of the store and the customer’s experience. There are a variety of tactics used to encourage this, most of which are summarized in the Green Apron Book, which is small enough to fit in the barista’s pocket and short enough to read in five minutes. The core message is the “5 Ways of Being: Be Welcoming, Be Genuine, Be Considerate, Be Knowledgeable, Be Involved.” Essentially, this attitude suggests that workers develop friendly, personal relationships with their customers.  Get to know their names and preferences. Connect, discover, respond.

When I pause and reflect on the Starbucks that is part of my daily routine, I suddenly realize that I know the faces, names, habits, and favorite sports teams of my baristas. I've seen them connect in a deliberate way with other people in line. This acknowledgment of the uniqueness for individual customers has a subtle but powerful effect of intimacy and community building.  

This point is critically important to Librii. Our success hinges on making lasting impact in people’s lives. Creating bonds of familiarity and trust between users and our staff is essential. This goal seems easy to achieve at the scale of a “mom and pop” shop, but a significant challenge for a corporate environment. 

Our goal is to build this atmosphere into Librii’s culture right from the start.


Details matter a lot to Starbuck.  The company has in-house designers who are required to start their tenure by working behind the counter serving coffee.  They get to experience the customer interface for themselves and bring that empathy into the design process.

Starbucks focuses heavily on music, the packaging of their retail products, easy WiFi, and comfortable furniture. These elements help them create a relaxed environment. This attention to detail exists both in the customer-facing aspects of the company and in the back-of-house operations.  

All Librii staff and mentors need to buy into this mantra: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” People, whether they are users or supporting customers, notice and appreciate details. The first question we ask someone new to Librii matters, because it builds trust. The feeling of the work surface and what is hanging on the walls matters. All these details elicit confidence.


Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” When you buy into this idea, you begin actively looking for opportunities to perform small actions that make the customers lives more enjoyable. These acts often surprise and delight you as much as the customer.

This might seem like a stretch for a coffee shop, but Starbucks doesn’t view itself in that limited capacity. It tires to position itself as the most important space in your life outside of home and work. To achieve this, the company leaves room for breaking away from the script, from the corporate level all the way down to the behavior of individual employees.

Surprise and delight are fundamental qualities Librii is striving for.  It is easy to recognize the service component within the efforts of a Librii staff member or mentor, but it should not be taken for granted. Likewise, we need to strive to cultivate a service mindset in our users, which will strengthen community bonds. If this notion of service is successfully ingrained in Librii’s culture, surprise and delight are sure to follow.  

There is a second, more literal, aspect of surprise and delight that is worth mentioning.  It relates to the great British anti-architect Cedric Price’s, who delighted in the unknown and planned for it in his designs through calculated uncertainty. Price intentionally left his projects unfinished, but with clear invitation to the building’s users where their actions were welcome to “complete” the project. 

Because Librii views the primary mode of the library as being production, not consumption, we have set the stage for an unending flow of new content from the users.  We have a general idea that this content will take the form of existing media. Video, music, web, and literature will all flow out of Librii locations. This being said, we have no idea what sorts of stories will be told within those means.

We grin with anticipation at the possibilities.


Starbucks is a magnet for skepticism, criticism, and wariness. Our society has come to view corporations as lacking - and perhaps incapable of - humanity.  Starbucks takes a Darwinian attitude, believing that nothing in nature grows without facing limiting forces. The company tries to process the views of its detractors and take corrective action where possible. In some case, when the concerns are addressed, the very critics who voiced their displeasure flip to enthusiastic supporters.

The lessons for Librii here are acute. In one sense, it is crucial to establish clear feedback loops so that the concerns of our users are being met, and when they are not we can take corrective action as swiftly as possible. In a larger sense, Librii’s goal is to work with communities that have been underserved by modern society. These communities, whether in low-income neighborhoods in the US or in the developing world, are extremely sensitive to outsiders coming in to fix their problems. While it might be most comfortable to avoid confrontation with detractors, Starbucks has taught us how it is very beneficial to do so.

Engage your critic, discuss their concerns, stand your ground, and continue to grow.


Starbucks believes that positively impacting the community is not only good for business, but it is also the right thing to do.  Studies show that people are far more satisfied to work for companies with high community involvement, and that consumers want to do business with companies with reputation for doing good.

In their Global Responsibility Report Starbucks reviews their efforts to ethically source products in their supply chain, support environmental protection, and invest in local communities. Starbucks has also developed a robust program working with veterans of the US military. It is encouraging that the company doesn’t view corporate social responsibility as a fab, but the way global business gets done.

Librii’s challenge here is the inverse of Starbucks. As a for-profit, public company, Starbucks primary obligation is to maximize the profit for its shareholders, while justifying how the charitable acts undertaken strengthen the brand.

Librii is a non-profit, cause-driven company whose community impact flows from culture and education. Librii’s greatest challenge is to ensure it has maximum possible impact by identifying a sound business model that will ensure growth and operations into the future. However, like Starbucks, Librii recognizes that it has the freedom to become the change it wishes to see in the world.

With each location it opens and is sustained, Librii is bringing that change.


"Atmospheres" are the prevailing tone or mood of a place. They influence the behavior of everyone present, whether you are a customer or a staff member. Crafting the right atmosphere for Librii is a complex and demanding question, especially when dealing with emerging markets and the Web - two environments that are in constant flux.

We don’t know exactly what the combination will look like, but Starbucks has established interesting guardrails for a culture partially controlled from the top. They proved that you can depend on the actions to individual staff members to believe in, and live out, the mission of the company.

by: David Dewane, Librii Executive Director