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Summary:

When we started GigaOM, Liz, Katie and I would sit at my neighborhood Starbucks and co-work. Like us, many entrepreneurs now use coffee shops to work, and since Starbucks is now offering free Wi-Fi, I thought I’d share a few lessons we learned about working there.

When we started our little company, Katie, Liz and I would sit at my neighborhood Starbucks and co-work. That was four years ago. That experience prompted us to start WebWorkerDaily, our blog that is about the dynamically shifting nature of work in the 21st century. My friend Greg Olsen called it “going bedouin”.

Just as cloud services from Amazon, open-source software tools and a plethora of technology platforms have helped accelerate the emergence of the lean start-up (something I chronicled back in 2003), the redefinition of the modern workspace has helped catalyze the post-broadband start-up movement.

Our early co-working experience is now commonplace, as many entrepreneurs and the freelance nation use coffee shops to work. More often than not, that coffee shop happens to be the near ubiquitous Starbucks location. Much of it is thanks to free Wi-Fi. Today, Starbucks launched a plan that offers free Internet access at 11,000 locations. Matt Shapiro at the tech blog Xconomy writes that maybe Starbucks should be known as Startbucks. We agree –- in fact we have been on this bandwagon for a long time and had this free service on our wish list for a very long time.

On the eve of the launch of their service, I thought I would offer few lessons we learned while working at Starbucks for almost five months.

  • Almost always favor a single location. It makes it easier for your contacts to drop in for meetings.
  • Learn the names of most of the baristas and also take time to have a conversation with them. It helps build a human connection.
  • Make the baristas involved in your venture – share your news and make them feel part of your struggle.
  • Make sure you buy coffee or something at least three times a day.
  • Tip generously – up to $10 a day will ensure that folks at the store don’t view you as a freeloader and a pest.
  • Don’t spread out your stuff and take up too much space at the store.
  • Invest in great noise-cancelling headphones (to counter the loud background music).
  • Keep your mobile phones on vibrate and leave the store for conversations.
  • Make sure that the number of people attending a meeting is fewer than four so that you can all circle around a single table.

Is this the most complete list of tips for working from a Starbucks? Perhaps not – but it worked for me. It even got me the much-coveted moniker of customer of the week. If I was to do it again, I know where I would hang my first virtual shingle.

P.S. I would love to hear your tips of working at/from Starbucks.

By Om Malik

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  1. I used to be a barista in a UK coffee shop and we regularly had local office workers using the store as an informal venue for business meetings, worker performance reviews, or even interviews. They kept their mess to a minimum, always bought lots of drinks and food, and they took the time to get to know our names, so they were certainly welcome repeat customers. Always be nice to the baristas and they’ll be nice to you!

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    1. Amen to that. Being nice to baristas is going to result in them being nice to you.

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      1. I am nice to baristas if they know what they’re doing. In my experience, the ones at Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, etc. are hacks. I really appreciate the baristas at Intelligentsia in Los Angeles. It’s like comparing Michael Jordan to…Jeffrey Jordan.

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      2. Mr. Padilla – your condescending attitude is what will ruin places like Starbuck’s and non-chain stores for the rest of us. Keep your snobbery to yourself. Those kids are neither hacks nor incompetents.

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      3. But they’re still PEOPLE and you can still be nice instead of a pretentious twit.

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      4. @dstrauss I’m being condescending because I understand that most people that work at Starbucks aren’t good baristas? You’re doing an awful lot of projecting.

        @rick Thanks for that classy comment. Are you nice to bad waiters? Also note that I didn’t say I was being rude to them. If the barista is a hack then I pretty much ignore them and go about my business. How is that being pretentious?

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      5. My apologies Mr. Padilla; since you are a part of the Intelligensia your opinion of lesser citizens should be given great deference. My “projecting” reminds me of that famous movie line – “I’m laughing at the “superior intellect.”

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      6. @dstrauss Ah, more projecting. I’m not part of “the Intelligentsia”, as you put it. I’m a customer of Intelligentsia Coffee. It’s a coffeehouse that actually employs skilled baristas.

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      7. @raymond: you’re being a troll and your annoying comment has nothing to do with the focus of om’s post.

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  2. My blog is mostly run from Starbucks. And I worry that the appeal of free WiFi will overrun the place with freeloaders and kill the vibe. So I counter with: Work somewhere else, this cafe is taken. And if that doesn’t work, I’m on track to save about $1400/year by relocating.

    http://www.zatznotfunny.com/2010-06/how-starbucks-free-wifi-will-save-me-big-time/

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    1. Let me get this straight – you write a blog from Starbucks. But you object to the spectre of “freeloaders.” Wow. Hypocrite much? I am sick to death of walking into a Starbucks on a sub-zero-degree day, wanting to sit down and enjoy a cup of hot whatever, and there is not a seat to be had because the “freeloaders” — you included — have decided that your home or apartment is just not hip enough (or your own coffee isn’t good enough) to warrant setting up shop THERE. Newsflash: Starbucks isn’t your office. Staying more than an hour or so is selfish, hoggish, inconsiderate, rude, and vile. Can I go to another coffee shop? Maybe 5 years ago I could have, but Starbucks took over the industry and drove the little guys out of business.

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  3. I am not writing to you from a Starbucks but I plan to in the very near future.

    I do agree with you — services that companies like Starbucks provides are invaluable to start-ups. I just hope that the companies that benefit from these free services don’t forget the little people.

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    1. I do think they are making life easier for the little people. :-)

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  4. “P.S. I would love to hear your tips of working at/from Starbucks.”

    How about not? I can hardly find a starbucks seat as is. 3 cups of coffee in exchange for a work place doesn’t mean you’re not a freeloader.

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  5. in reference to your rules for being a respectful guest while using starbucks as a work location, I applaud you and your guidelines and beg others to take careful note. If someone came into your workplace, made a mess, was loud, demanding and ungrateful for 30 hours a week, I think you’d be less than pleased as well. In reference to Mr. Padilla, he is a barits’s nightmare who could neither perform nor succeed at the plethora of tasks that baristas are bombarded with every moment of every day. Good day, sir, they can have you.

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    1. Thank you for the petty insults. I tip well at any coffeehouse I work out of, but I’m not going out of my way to be nice to a crappy barista. Why should I be nice to someone that makes bad espresso? Certainly I’m not going to be rude, but I find it silly to be especially nice to bad baristas. Are you friendly to bad waiters?

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      1. If you’re abusing their restaurant/cafe as an office, then definitely, you should be especially nice to bad waiters or baristas.

        If you think they make crappy coffee, buy bottled water, but still be civil and tip them well for the space you’re using.

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      2. @Ryan Lackey When did I say anything about not being civil or not tipping?

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  6. i don’t regularly go to coffeeshops to work.. Because i find it quite cramp and noisy working there..

    Sometimes, i really wonder if Starbucks kind of stores are really making money from a lot of us who go there for a cup or two of coffee while working there for several hours. Not to forget, i also used their electricity as well.. Hence, i also buy a piece of cheese cake to cover my guilt. :)

    Nevertheless, i will try to keep myself within a small table so as to give more space to other customers.

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  7. I’m of the “please, please don’t have business meetings in my coffee shop!” mentality. The last four times I tried to work at a coffee shop, the business meetings were disruptive to my ability to work. (Sorry, Om, can’t do the headset thing for various reasons.) Several times I was tempted to walk over and participate in the meeting, because I wasn’t getting any of my own work done. (Medical supply folks – take note!)

    I also think you should add two rules:
    - If you need to use a power source, be polite and bring a small strip, so you can offer to share the outlets with other people.

    • If the shop gets crowded at specific times, consider packing off to somewhere else and letting the office dwellers and soccer moms have a moment to relax and eat their lunch. Nothing’s more annoying than hoping you can get out of the office for awhile and finding your shop swamped with squatters on computers.
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    1. The power strip is a great idea. Maybe Starbucks should take note.

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  8. I work from home and there is a starbucks nearby, two in fact, and I think the suggestions are good common sense courtesy. I had a major broadband outage last year that forced me to work there for a day or so and the biggest problem I found was the noise. I just found the noise and the chicks floating through (south Florida) too distracting to get any work done.

    As for Raymond above, I don’t know what to say about him. Show some class dude.

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    1. How am I showing a lack of class? Where did I say how much I tip or do not tip if I’m working at a coffeehouse.

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      1. It has nothing to do with how you tip…it’s all about respect, and blanket condemnations of these young folks who are often doing a good and under-appreciated jobs is your lack of class. The mere fact that you don’t even recognize how condescending and demeaning your comments were shows you don’t understand the problem.

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      2. How am I showing a lack of respect. I’m not being rude to them. I’m just not making an effort to be nice. Your assertion that I’m being demeaning is laughable. I think most Baristas that work at Starbucks are poor. So what? It’s true. I also don’t expect most chefs at McDonald’s to be great cooks.

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      3. Because that barista is somebody’s son, daughter, mother or father, just like you. Granted, they may not be the best barista, but may be a decent human being, and even they are not, they deserve to be treated with some empathy, kindness and a minimal amount of respect. I think the expression is, “There but for the grace of God go I”.

        You may want to read Josh’s post below to see what is important to him. If you cannot say something nice about somebody, you might consider not saying anything at all. IMHO, words often say more about their author than their subject.

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      4. @Ken I’m choosing not to be especially nice. That has nothing to do with being disrespectful. Why is everything so black and white with you people?!?

        And yes, the proper response is, “Huh?!? What do you mean YOU people?”

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      5. Manpreet Singh Friday, July 2, 2010

        @Mr Padilla Be nice to the people there regardless of how they make coffee. And that means not ignoring them and getting to know them well even if you think they are bad baristas. Heck, if you are on a good footing with them, you can even politely make suggestions on how they can be better at what they do. That helps everybody. The general conversation with them also relaxes you in between your work.

        I had a barista at a local Starbucks who I used to have casual conversations with. Most of the time I would complement them for good coffee. Once or twice when the coffee was not to the mark, they would –without asking– give me a second cup and made an effort to make it better the second time.

        You don’t get that kind of service by ignoring them completely.

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      6. @Manpreet Singh You are more patient than I am and I admire that. Personally, I rather just go to a place with good baristas and free WiFi. Depending on where I am, that’s not always possible. As average as Starbucks is, they’re never hard to find.

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      7. Tommy Welty Sunday, July 4, 2010

        As a Starbucks barista I honestly resent how you talk about us in broad strokes. Starbucks is not the first coffee shop I’ve worked at, either. I’ve worked at independent coffee shops with delicious coffee.

        I would agree with you that our drip coffee leaves something to be desired. One friend of mine (also a lover of coffee) says it like this: “Starbucks brewed coffee is like a bad break up, but their espresso is like a great first date that ends with a kiss.”

        You asserted in some other comment that we make bad espresso. Which is kind of silly since we do not make the espresso. The farmers and the roasters make the espresso. We just push a button and pour it into a cup. We use automatic machines so it’s hard to mess up espresso drinks.

        You’re just being snobby. And, in the process have insulted thousands of people who are working a difficult and menial job just to make an honest dollar and get health insurance.

        It has nothing to do with if you tip or not. Most of my favorite customers never tip. Never. But, they treat me with respect and kindness. I speak for all my coworkers when I say kindness speaks louder than your lousy change.

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      8. @Tommy Welty
        You prove mr. Padilla’s point when you say “… we do not make the espresso. The farmers and the roasters make the espresso”.

        Espresso isn’t the coffee bean, nor the roast. It is the method of preparing the beverage out of it. If you want to make yourself noted as a good barista, you should know that.

        You also, despite your claims otherwise, demonstrate why Starbucks coffee isn’t good. “We just push a button and pour it into a cup. We use automatic machines so it’s hard to mess up espresso drinks.”

        Automatic machines aren’t the best way to prepare an espresso, but I have to concede that they are the most common nowadays, even in Italy. Still, a good barista should be able to tell a ‘ristretto’ from a ‘lungo’, and know how to prepare each, not only a ‘press the button and voilà’ kind of coffee most coffeehouses serve nowadays.

        So that’s probably what mr. Padilla means when he says Starbucks baristas ‘don’t know what they’re doing’. Dare you say he’s wrong?

        (FYI, I’m not a barista, I’m just passionate about my espresso. And I order ristretti doppii.)

        @mr. Padilla
        Sir, you seem to, unlike most American people, know your espresso. Yet, there are two thing condemnable about your attitude.

        First, same way as you don’t go to McDonald’s for a prime steak, you don’t go to Starbucks for an espresso. Both are big chain stores, they sell what the customer wants to buy – a cheap burguer or an espresso-like drink that fits the American taste.

        If you know real espresso, you know it can’t possibly come in a tall cup. Not because it’s too much caffeine, because it would be cold before you’re finished. You don’t need to boil your tongue in it, but espresso must be hot.

        Second, if your barista isn’t good, you are completely right not to compliment him. I wouldn’t – as someone suggested – give him tips about how to do a better job, either, unless he asked. I know I hate when people try to tell me how to do my job, even when it could be better. Whenever I want to know, I ask someone (and, for me, that’s frequent).

        But that’s no excuse not to be nice to him or her. Being polite means returning the treatment they give you, which is the least any decent person should do. It’s not about tipping either, which is why some are throwing criticism at you.

        Being nice could be simply asking “How do you do?” with a smile and actually waiting for an answer. Or make a joke. You don’t have to engage long conversations or help people with their problems if you don’t want to. If they say they’re ‘not so well, actually’, you can just ‘hope everything works out alright’ and smile.

        No matter how lousy anyone is as a barista, being nice isn’t a way of complimenting their skills (you can just say the coffee is great if that’s the purpose), it’s not the right thing to do, it’s not your single purpose in the world. But it might make their day better, and certainly won’t hurt yours, will it?

        Personally, I agree with you in that baristas at Starbucks – and most chain stores – are poor. But whenever I go there, I just ask for something else. And say my name is “Superman” with a broad smile.

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  9. Spot on Om about the tipping and buying items at least three times a day. I have never worked in a coffee shop, but anyone with half a soul can see that their jobs can be quite rough at times. If you go above and beyond you can be assured the baristas will as well when it matters most.

    With this weekend being the 4th, I am going to keep my eye out and see if more people are hanging around Starbucks than usual. I have a slight feeling that most locations will not see a serious uptick in the amount of freeloaders just because the wifi went free.

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  10. great piece.
    more items for your list:

    -bring a 4 slot surge protector and share it
    - be courteous to other laptop workers
    no skype voice–just text chat
    use video streaming sparingly
    throw out your own trash in the bins, and others as you find it at table area
    - put your phone on vibrate is a must if you get a lot of calls
    - don’t hog the comfy chairs all day
    - listen to your own music….hearing the Starbucks network loop 4x in a morning is numbing …..

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