The Coffee VC Theory | npENGAGE

The Coffee VC Theory

By on Jul 31, 2009


This morning, while eating breakfast and drinking coffee with my wife, we were discussing 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, the new Starbuck’s effort to reach the independent spirit. Essentially, Starbuck’s is opening new stores, but with a new name and attitude. Peter Merholz, in his post Why the Starbucks “15th Ave” Store Is Doomed to Fail thinks that Starbucks is going to fail because, try as they might, these new stores are not authentic independent coffee shops. I agree with Peter.

Assuming that the goal was to reach more people, specifically the people who didn’t want a homogeneous coffee shop experience, we started thinking about better ways Starbucks could have gone about this. It seemed to me that Starbuck should have truly made each store unique by taking the time to pick their locations, study the neighborhood, and open a store that fit the personality of the surroundings. If your lone businessman can do it, why couldn’t Starbuck’s afford to do it? Starbucks would still own the coffee shop, supply the coffee and goodies, and reap the profits. They would also have an authentic presence in that market.

To equate this to thinking about how social media can work for nonprofits, this notion has the earmarks of the latest thinking in social media theory:

 1) Listen first and then plan an approach based on the way your audience want to be approached
 2) Be authentic and personal, not an institutional presence
 3) Be willing to lose control and adapt

These are things you have probably heard already in your work determining how to use social media.

Then my wife then had what I think is a brilliant idea. She said, “Why doesn’t Starbuck’s act as a Coffee VC?” Whoa! Starbuck’s listens to the pitches of entrepreneurs who want to open a coffee shop, helps them with operational knowledge, money and of course supplies all of the goods necessary. In this way, Starbucks could truly independent coffee shops designed by people who know the neighborhood, without having to sacrifice control over the supply chain.

I like it. Maybe Starbucks will too. But, again, what does that have to do with nonprofits? The concept applies.

If I were a nonprofit trying to grow my constituency by being the best at what they need, and I struggled with the questions of…

 A) What services and information do my known and unknown constituents need?
 B) In what manner do my known and unknown constituents want to consume these services and information?

…I would be so glad to be able to have these constituents come to me saying this is what I need and how I want it. Oh, by the way, I’ll be happy to help you deliver this stuff to my neighborhood as well. In fact, it might help because my friends trust me more than they trust you.

Using social media correctly, in essence by following 1, 2, and 3 above, let’s you act as a VC. Social media tools let you hear real people, respond as a real person, and listen in as other real people spread your message. You can be more agile, more viral, and more effective. In effect, you can be local coffee shop everyone loves. 


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