What business are you in?

That chart above is a summary of Starbucks’ stock prices over the last few decades. Howard Schultz may be in the news for other reasons now, but a 2012 article about the Starbucks CEO/Chairman records a fascinating exchange with the head of a company that was about to embark on 7 years of growth. In it, the interviewer asks if Starbucks has lost its vision and strayed too far away from its core product. Here’s what Schultz says:

When I ask Schultz whether Starbucks might be straying too far from its core, he says, “Well, you have to ask: What is the core?” Starbucks is not a tech company, he points out, nor is it an apparel company. “We have 40-plus years of acquiring real estate and designing and operating stores all over the world. We understand how to elevate and romanticize an experience built around a beverage. And we think we can do that again on a platform of health and wellness, and elevate the nutritious value of what fresh fruit and vegetables can be in a world that is longing for educational tools to eat and live healthier.” The company can, he vows, “bring that to life in a way that has not been done.”

from What’s at the core?

If you’re at a college or university, what business are you in?

What we hear from Mr. Schultz at the front end of a series of successful launches (blonde roast, anyone?) and growth reveals that innovators don’t always answer that question in an expected way.

The standard brick and mortar residential college experience for 18- to 21-year-olds is one answer to the “what business are we in” question. But that’s not the entire market. (We know it’s a very small portion of the market). Others would say “research and knowledge creation” or maybe “accessible education for all.” Each answer defines priorities.

Regardless, the answer to the “what business are you in” question – and whether it is answered broadly or narrowly – defines focus in a way unlike any other. As we survey the current higher ed landscape, it may be time to ask better questions about the nature of our business and challenge ourselves to find new expressions and models.