In Search of the Water Cooler


By Mark Henricks

With practice, you can spot them on sight. When they walk into a Starbucks for a business meeting, there is something about the homebased business owners that sets them apart from the employees, moms and students ordering iced mochas and double lattes.

But what is it? An air of confidence? Resourcefulness? Self-possession? Their reason for being in Starbucks, at least, is no mystery. It's quick; it's cheap; it's informal; it's familiar; and there seems to be one on every corner. What better place to meet clients, suppliers and colleagues?

Even Susan French, an Austin, Texas, recruiter for the hospitality industry, prefers Starbucks to restaurants. She doesn't want to eat a whole meal while interviewing job candidates. Considering she meets weekly with 20 or more chefs, restaurant managers and other candidates, you can't blame her.

Another consideration: At the coffee bar, she isn't interrupted by servers checking on her or asking for her order, a request French turns down with difficulty. She used to be a waitress, she explains, "and I know it's no fun having someone in your section who's not ordering."

If the woman two tables over in a Manhattan Starbucks looks familiar, it may be Dr. Gilda Carle. The suburban New York City therapist finds herself in a Big Apple Starbucks a few times a month chatting with TV producers who have helped make her a frequent guest on daytime talk shows.

"TV producers have very little time," says Carle. "They always have a phone to their ear and are always being called away." Starbucks' ubiquity, informality and speedy service make them tops on her list of places to meet the harried individuals who hold the keys to her self-promotion locomotive.

In fact, says Carle, sounding somewhat like a starstruck guest on Ricki Lake, "I credit Starbucks with boosting my career. It's given me an opportunity to sit with these people without feeling pressured to go or not go."

For other homebased business owners, Starbucks is a way to help ensure safety. Dallas media relations professional Terri Firebaugh snags a lot of prospects off the Web site for her homebased Firebaugh Communications. "If you're meeting people [you've never met in person]," she notes, "it's a good idea to meet them someplace besides your home."

Clearly, as a meeting place, Starbucks has plenty to offer. But it doesn't serve up the perfect business gathering place. The main problem is privacy. As French says, "When the whole coffee shop is listening in, I sometimes feel bad for the job candidates."

Not therapist Carle, who often counsels producers on personal career issues while seated at crowded Starbucks tables. "It's not stuff like `I'm having thoughts about killing my mother,' " she says. "And we can talk low enough that we get across what needs to be said."

Maybe that's what makes the homebased business owners stand out: They're the ones everybody is leaning toward, to hear what they have to say.

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

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