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Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith

Seattle startup vet Kelly Smith is headed to Shanghai.

But Smith — the founder of RocketVox (sold to ThePlatform), ImageKind (sold to CafePress) and Zapd (sold to RealSelf)— isn’t checking out China’s startup scene.

Instead, he’s been tapped by Starbucks to lead digital efforts in the fast-growing country, one of the coffee retailer’s most important markets.

How did Smith end up at Starbucks?

It started after he put his Madrona home up for sale, and Starbucks digital chief Adam Brotman inquired what was next for the entrepreneur after spotting the listing on Facebook.

“I said, you know, I am just trying to create some flexibility for myself, and get ready for another chapter, and maybe that means I won’t be in Seattle,” recalled Smith. “And, (Adam), said come see me, I have an idea.”

That idea was taking over digital efforts in China, everything from mobile apps to in-store Wi-Fi to social media to point-of-sale integration.

“There’s close to no infrastructure on the digital side there, and the market is growing way out in front of the digital infrastructure,” said Smith, who will hold the title of vice president of Starbucks China Digital.

China is Starbucks’ largest market outside of the U.S., with 238 company-operated and 502 licensed net new store openings over the past year. The company recently said that about half of new store openings will be in China/Asia Pacific for the fiscal 2015 year. Total revenue in the region hit $287 million for the quarter ended June 29.

china-starbucks11Smith speaks very little Mandarin, but he hopes to be a quick study. And he thinks the language of digital technology will transcend any potential linguistic weaknesses.

Joining a big company also represents a new challenge for Smith, though the lack of digital presence for Starbucks does create more of an open playing field. He’ll also be responsible for hiring the digital team in China.

“I love the lifestyle and thrill that is associated with trying to take an idea and turn it into a company,” said Smith. “But when Adam Brotman presented me with this opportunity, I saw a whole new set of challenges that are every bit as exciting.”

He added:

“There is a tremendous amount of digital innovation to explore and a highly curious culture that is extremely comfortable with mobile technology. I began to see how we can try some incredible new things around mobile, Starbucks rewards card, loyalty, digital payments and e-commerce. To keep things interesting, the social networks are different and the regulations are different. The brand has an incredible amount of respect in China. It is considered a brand of prestige — the ultimate lifestyle brand. Having an opportunity to take this affinity and pursue a wide range of technology ideas that could reach tens of millions of people is incredibly exciting. It is like a start up on a whole different scale.”

Smith also said he’s personally excited to learn more about China, a country he’s wanted to understand in greater detail.

“Each one of us is a part of the growth that is propelling China forward at a dizzying rate,” he says. “Their influence permeates every aspect of our lives. It is a complicated, energetic place and I needed to see this impressive global superpower up close and personal.”

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