This isn’t my father’s coffeehouse. It isn’t even one of Howard Schultz’s. I sit and type in Island Coffeehouse, ” . . . a non-profit community-driven, youth-powered business and community “living room”. Which happens to be filled with grey haired folk at 9AM on a Saturday morning. I doubt that the “kids” are staying home to watch cartoons. Many things have changed, even if the names stay the same. Stick with an idea long enough and fashion or logic will come around to it, but probably not in the way you expected.
I don’t know if it was my Dad’s favorite coffee spot, but for years we went to The Blue Flame, a diner in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that’s been there longer than I can remember, and I’m over 50. When Howard Schultz decided to reinvent the American coffeehouse by basing it on the Italian version, he was laughed at. Now, Starbucks has over 16,000 shops. I wonder if the Italians are now, even unconsciously, modeling their shops on his model. Ah, but there’s still only one Blue Flame as far as I am concerned, and it’s the sort of place where they’d all call out my Dad’s name when he walked in even though he moved to California years ago.
I am not alone in having memories of, “Hey, you know that thing that is popular? I was doing that years ago.” I was doing dancing, running, and bicycling in the mid-seventies. My photography and writing go back that far too. But even after that I can point to activities, interests, concepts, unpursued innovations that I was introduced to early that are common now. I remember arguing with my boss that it’s more efficient for an engineer to type up his own reports on a word processor instead of writing it all by hand and negotiating the product with the secretary. I enjoyed spending time with the secretary, but I knew that I wasn’t getting as much work done. Another boss didn’t believe me that this newfound parallel processing way of computing will eventually end up on people’s personal computers. I even remember getting to use a $24,000 one mega pixel digital camera and something called Arpanet (the predecessor to this thing called the Internet).
I didn’t invent these things. I was simply willing to listen to new ideas as they came by. Some I acted on. I was an early investor in Starbucks (SBUX), America Online (AOL), Pixar (PIXR, now part of Disney), and several more. Each was laughed at. Starbucks for trying to build a business on coffee. America Online for thinking there was a business in selling access to amateurish stores of information. Pixar for thinking that computer graphics would ever look good enough to make an interesting movie. I also invested in many that didn’t succeed. Not every new idea will be successful.
The world has troubles, some caused by us. Amongst the seven billion of us there are answers. When they’re born, the useful ones are indistinguishable from the tragically flawed. Many are being laughed at. Paint your roof white? Silly idea, except that it is cheap, simple, and saves lots of energy costs by reflecting heat in regions relying on air conditioning. Enforce financial regulations? Silly idea. The baddies have too much power to ever be brought to justice, but if they were reined in then wasted trillions might be available for progress instead of panicked patchwork bandaging. Eat local? Quaint notion, until enough people do it that local farmers become more profitable which makes it easier to buy local which makes it more profitable which makes it self-reinforcing while reducing the need to ship a fifty cent pepper thousands of miles. Hang around me long enough and you’ll hear about other crazy ideas. Cold fusion, graphene, orbital tethers, LED projectors, radical life-extension biotech, digital singularity, ad nauseum are all ideas that are laughed at or dismissed rapidly.
My childhood neighbors back in the suburbs of Pittsburgh would smirk at me as I went for a run and sincerely ask me if I wanted a ride home. When I bicycle commuted to my summer job at the steel mill, my fellow workers seriously thought I was crazy. If I’d taken my running, bicycling, writing, photography, and dancing more seriously back then, imagine how much better each of those talents and skills would be. They would have been given the proper environment to develop and mature.
Schultz, Case, and Jobs maintained that perseverance with Starbucks, America Online, and Pixar and look at the success it produced for each of them. The rest of the world benefited as well. Coffeeshops like this one are far more common. The value of access to information is no longer disputed. Art has added the stylus to the artist’s quiver of brushes.
That’s why I invest in small startups led by passionate people. It’s why I reflect on my current activities and pass times. There’s no way to know where each may lead. It’s also why I’m impressed with anyone that persistently tries. Any of our paths may lead to personal growth, or progress that benefits the planet and everyone on it.
So, do you think the persistent style of shorts, socks and sandals will ever hit the runways of Milan? I think it is quite comfortable. Is there any reason why fashion or any fad can’t be something comfortable?
Can you imagine a solution to global warming and rural poverty that is also easy to live with? Well, let me tell you about tapping into dark energy or the possibilities of quantum entanglement. They only sound silly. Here, have cup of locally grown tea while we talk.