From Starbucks to Startups: Rob Grady’s Take on What Coffee and Web 2.0 Have in Common

Coffee is so last year. Just ask Rob Grady, the former Starbucks executive who joined Seattle-based social publishing startup Wetpaint as senior vice president of marketing earlier this month. OK, Grady still enjoys a triple tall Americano or a double tall nonfat caramel macchiato from time to time—his new favorite Starbucks is in the Wells Fargo building in downtown Seattle—but he’s moving on to a different kind of challenge now, and last week he told me why.

Grady was Starbucks’ vice president of global beverage (one of the best titles ever, in my opinion). His team was nearly 100 strong and produced several billion dollars in revenue. But the past year or so has been a time of great change at Starbucks, what with declining sales, the economic downturn, and Howard Schultz’s return as CEO. Grady didn’t point to any of those as reasons for leaving, but it sounds like he wanted to move on to bigger challenges.

“Two things have threaded my career,” Grady says. “Working for a company that can make a difference in the world from a social perspective. And creating a great consumer experience.”

Which is where Wetpaint enters the picture. It’s a startup, backed by $40 million in venture capital, that helps customers generate all sorts of new online content to turn business websites into Web 2.0 social-networking beehives (among other things). “Social publishing is the largest content-creation platform going forward,” says Grady. “Anyone on the Internet with a passion has a way to organize and galvanize around a cause…Online social publishing has great economic promise because it enables content creation that has much lower cost, but has great value.”

Matt Hulett, the chairman and CEO of Mpire (maker of Widgetbucks), has some valuable outside perspective on Grady’s move. He worked with Grady at RealNetworks back in the 1990s, and has known him for 14-plus years. “Rob is a powerful mix of analytic thinking, strong leadership, and a real passion for building creative products and solutions,” Hulett says. “If a guy like Rob is going to Wetpaint, I’ve got to think that he fundamentally wants to make their social publishing platform the ‘third place’ for all of us online, just like Starbucks has become our ‘third place’ offline.”

It’s a little too early to get into Grady’s strategic initiatives at Wetpaint, but he did point to one topic of discussion among the leadership team. “The biggest challenge for a company like us, where we have so many opportunities, is to focus,” he says.

Grady also shared some deeper insights into his new startup mentality:

—On what coffee and Web 2.0 have in common: “Trying to change the world, not only from a business standpoint but also a social standpoint,” he says. “There is some overlap in values between Starbucks and Wetpaint. We want to help people connect…I think of myself as being about the consumer experience, whether it’s technology or not technology.”

—On startup opportunities now, as compared to a few years ago: “When the economy is down, it’s a great time to start and grow a company,” Grady says. “If you talk to entrepreneurs, this is a fantastic time to grow a business…There are a lot more startup companies than in 1997. We’re onto the next wave. It’s a much more vibrant and complex universe, and that means there’s a lot more ideas.”

—On advice to other companies and entrepreneurs: “If you think you’re thinking big, think bigger.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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One response to “From Starbucks to Startups: Rob Grady’s Take on What Coffee and Web 2.0 Have in Common”

  1. IguanaBio says:

    I don’t get it. $40M in VC money? How is this site different from Ning, Crowdvine, etc?