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The Little Mermaid that Could

The original Starbucks bears little resemblance to the sleek shops that followed it. It’s a hairy old homemade-looking nook on a cobblestoned street. There’s nothing smooth or franchised about it. And it still has the original mermaid mascot, with wild unkempt hair, a fertile belly, and nipples. It’s a human, unsanitized place, with a human, unsanitized mascot.

But this little mermaid spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry that changed the world. Before her, Americans drank coffee, but went out for beers. Italians in Italy were the people who drank espressos and cappuccinos. Now anywhere you go in the developed world, you can buy a half-caf two-percent double latte with a triple shot and extra foam. There’s probably a Starbucks on the moon. This little mermaid transformed the beverage landscape of the whole world, she turned coffee into an accessible luxury status symbol for the masses, and she redefined what we do on first dates.

And she did it because the humans behind her were unhappy and wanted to be happy.

That’s usually the catalyst behind great ideas. The more specifically you identify your own unique needs, the more universally applicable your solution. Stephen Sondheim once said, if you ask me to write a love song, forget it, it’s impossible, it’s the hardest thing in the world, it can’t be done. But if you ask me to write a love song from the guy in the yellow polo shirt to the woman sitting two bar stools down from him, that, I can do.

Starbucks might have become the juggernaut it is if it had been born elsewhere, but I doubt it. I think this omnipresent hypercompany could only have been born here in Seattle. Right now it’s a brilliantly sunny 75 degrees and the skies are friendly, but soon it’s going to be dark, chilly, grey, and...above all...rainy, for up to nine months straight. When we visited in May, it was freezing cold, dark as night, and dumping rain for days on end. So much rain the cars left wakes behind them on the roads as they slid through the gushing cold water. A dour-faced gelato scooper told me some years it’s like that until August. Right now, people are enjoying the glorious weather and saying, yep, only gonna be a few more days like this, and then the rains are coming. And when they say “are coming,” they mean...that’s it. They’re coming to stay.

Sucks, right? Probably. There’s a lot of white people here and they’re all as pallid as mushrooms. I am alarmed. I like my tan. I am sad to kiss it goodbye. And I like my light therapy box but I like it as a supplementary vitamin, not a sole source of a principal nutrient. And there’s a droopy wanness to many people I see around here, like they’ve had their spirits broken by years of sun deprivation. It’s kinda scary.

But where some people see a pain in the ass, other people see opportunity. Only somewhere like here, where there’s ample opportunity to acutely feel wet and cold and glum and tired a lot of the time, would people have such a fire lit under their arses to create a solution. And not just any solution. Starbucks could have been a diner selling ordinary coffee and that’s it. Instead they turned their local liability into their greatest asset. For every degree the weather here is conducive to SAD, they made their product that much more special, more cozy, more aspirationally delicious. Lucky Seattle, that was clever enough to be grey and rainy so that they could have lattes!

Add a dash of business savvy, a touch of good old American overconsumptive capitalism, and a soupçon of creating work for all those underpaid coffee farmers, and billions of dollars are now being harvested along with all those beans.

Seattle could have (and probably did) looked around at places that are sunnier and warmer and been jealous. It could have wished it was Los Angeles. But it isn’t Los Angeles. If you put a blonde wig on the Starbucks mermaid and silicone in her breasts and liposuctioned her tummy, she would just be unhappy, and she wouldn’t be any closer to being a Los Angeles mermaid. Los Angeles would laugh, the mermaid would feel bad about herself, and nobody would be getting their latte. Instead, everyone dug in their heels and figured out how to beautifully and effectively inhabit their inherent character.

Starbucks didn’t succeed because of what it wasn’t. It succeeded because of what it was.