Why This Former Starbucks Exec Left a CEO Job to Launch a Start-Up: ‘It's Odd and Scary, But Also Wonderful'

Photo: Cory Parris

As a teenager, former Starbucks executive Adam Brotman found inspiration in an unlikely place: a Costco parking lot. In 1982, his uncle, Jeff Brotman, co-founded the chain of big-box retail stores with James Sinegal — and when Brotman turned 16, he was recruited to organize shopping carts at the store's first location in Seattle. 

Brotman, who would later serve in top leadership roles at Starbucks and J. Crew, credits that first job with sparking the entrepreneurial spirit that landed him in business.

"Even when I was pushing carts outside in the rain, watching my uncle and Jim build this iconic company up close set the bar high for success," the 52-year-old tells CNBC Make It. "It created the aperture for how I would view success." 

The Seattle native started his career as a lawyer but quit his practice at 27 to launch in-store entertainment services company PlayNetwork. After several stints at other companies, Brotman joined Starbucks in 2009. 

What he learned from working at Starbucks

If you've ever used Starbucks points to snag a free latte or ordered on the app, you can thank Brotman. He spent nearly a decade as Starbucks's chief digital officer and EVP of global retail operations building its rewards program and digital platforms. 

The Starbucks app is considered a gold standard for franchises. As of April, mobile transactions make up more than 25% of all Starbucks orders in the United States. But Brotman didn't launch the app as a final, completed project. First, Starbucks launched the loyalty and payment features, then later added the functionalities for ordering and marketing. "The app wasn't an overnight success," he notes. "We were constantly improving and changing things based on customer feedback." 

Building the mobile order feature was the "most complicated" part of creating the app, according to Brotman, and involved several large teams including marketing, payment strategy and operations. That process taught Brotman the importance of aligning on a common goal, to make collaboration run smoother, and a creative tactic to problem solve.

"There was a windowless conference room behind my office at Starbucks, and I asked our maintenance staff if we could paint all the walls with whiteboard material," he recalls. "Each week all the teams would meet together in that war room and we would cover every single inch of that room with ideas to improve the app." 

'I decided it was time to stretch myself'

One would expect Brotman to build on his successes at Starbucks, either by staying in his role there or pursuing a similar job at another Fortune 500 company. Instead, he left Starbucks in 2018 to join J.Crew, where he was president and co-CEO, a leap not motivated by a love for fashion but for New York, where the company is based. 

"My wife and I always wanted to live in New York, 'the center of the universe,'" he says. "I decided it was time to stretch myself a bit by putting myself in an uncomfortable, new situation, and I was excited to apply some of the lessons I learned at Starbucks to a different iconic, American brand." 

Brotman only stayed at J.Crew for a year, which he spent launching the brand's loyalty program in hopes of replicating some of the digital innovation he brought to Starbucks. He wanted to create a mobile app for the brand and improve its personalized marketing, but he says those projects "weren't prioritized" by the team. Then, Brotman had a revelation: a lot of businesses were not taking advantage of data in the way that Starbucks had to personalize their marketing and user experience, in turn strengthening their relationship with customers. 

Returning to Seattle and start-ups

Homesick for Seattle and itching to be entrepreneurial again, Brotman moved back to Washington. It was there that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced him to Jon Shulkin, the chairman of Eatsa, a fully automated fast-food chain in California. The pair wanted to transform the struggling start-up into a software platform that helps other consumer brands, restaurant and retail chains digitize their businesses. 

Johnson and some of the venture capital sponsors recruited Brotman to lead the company's relaunch as Brightloom. In 2019 Brotman became the CEO of the Seattle-based (and Starbucks-backed) start-up, where he and his team are building software that helps smaller businesses use tools like digital ordering and personalized marketing. Starbucks also licensed its mobile and loyalty program technology to Brightloom so its customers can use it for their own businesses. 

The challenge of running a start-up was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. When Brightloom's office lease expired at the start of the crisis, Brotman decided he and his 51 employees should switch to permanent remote work, a process he calls "odd and scary, but also wonderful." 

Brightloom's business also received a boost from the pandemic as most businesses had to go online to connect with customers. "It's caused businesses to have a heightened sense of urgency to figure out how to have a better digital relationship with their customers," Brotman adds. According to Crunchbase, Brightloom has raised more than $45 million in funding.

To go from working in the C-Suite of some of the world's most recognizable brands to leading a small, relatively unknown start-up is surprising, to say the least. But as he was climbing the corporate ladder, Brotman realized that for him, happiness and career fulfillment didn't match up with traditional definitions of success. 

"Even back when I was a teenager, I've always gotten so much energy out of trying to solve a problem and build something new, which is what start-ups are all about," he says. "That energizes me so much that sometimes I even forget the existential angst of working at a start-up."

Of course, taking a risk and switching careers can be a lot more intimidating when you're not in Brotman's position, and don't have millions of dollars in financial backing, or the leaders of Starbucks and Costco as mentors. But the CEO hopes he can encourage others to be a little bolder in their careers. 

"Think about professional tennis players — they must master their serve, backhand, forehand, and net play before they can be the best," he says. "Start with an end goal in mind, then break down the craft into its component parts … and make sure you have the intellectual curiosity and commitment to each step of the learning process."

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