I’m sure most of you have heard of (or worn) TOMS, the popular ethical shoe brand that pioneered the one-for-one business model – for each pair of TOMS shoes purchased, a pair is given to a child in need. And now you have the chance to meet the man behind this revolutionary brand, founder Blake Mycoskie.
For the entrepreneur, philanthropist and chief shoe giver, the act of giving and improving people’s lives is fundamental to business success. Considering TOMS has given away almost 50 million shoes around the world, funded surgeries, provided safe drinking water, and created jobs in disadvantaged communities, we’d say he’s onto something.
Amodrn were fortunate enough to chat with the inspirational man himself to talk all things TOMS and the power of socially-minded entrepreneurship.
Meet Blake Mycoskie
Tell me a bit about your business, how did you come up with the idea of TOMS?
Back in 2006, when I returned home from Argentina, I told all of my friends and family, and pretty much anyone who would listen, about my trip: how I went to Buenos Aires to relax and learn to play polo; how I discovered the alpargata, a shoe that had been worn by Argentine farmers and polo players for more than 100 years; how I went on a volunteer “shoe drive” where used shoes were being collected from wealthy families and given to children in the surrounding villages; and how my goal was to create a for-profit business, not a charity, that would give new shoes to the children that I had met.
What were you doing before TOMS?
I’m a serial entrepreneur. I started five other companies before I started TOMS, mainly in media and technology. I was just kind of burned out so I went down to Argentina looking for some time to relax, experience the culture, take it all in. But I wanted to do something more, and that lead to TOMS.
How did you come up with the brand name TOMS? What does it stand for?
There is no TOM. We like to say that everyone is TOM, because what TOMS stands for, it’s a derivative of the word ‘tomorrow’ and the idea that we have a better tomorrow. When we started the project, it was called the Shoes for Tomorrow Project. Then it was just Shoes for Tomorrow. Then that didn’t fit on the label, so I just named it TOMS.
What is the story behind the distinctive design of the shoe?
The Alpargata is a traditional shoe. It has been around for hundreds of years. Farmers have been wearing it primarily. Just in the last 10 to 20 years it has become a hip, cool thing for the young kids and people to wear, even just around the house. So it is not just farmers anymore. But that is really where it started. The reason why it started there is the farmers wanted something really comfortable and really lightweight that would also dry quickly.
What does an average work day look like for you?
I don’t really have typical work days! I actually enjoy this though; I’m often traveling somewhere to share about the work we’re doing at TOMS, visiting a new project or I’m in our headquarters in LA, working with my team. I do like to make sure I have some constant routines like carving out time to journal, read and get some exercise everyday. I know these simple practices help me stay creative, healthy and inspired to invest back into the constant evolution of our business.
The idea that giving can sit comfortably alongside business and profit and not feel strange at all, and actually feels necessary, is what I am most proud of. To see that so many people in their personal and professional lives have been so inspired by the belief that we are all here for one another to make the world a better place — not in some idealistic hippie-like way but by using the power of entrepreneurship — is something of which I am extraordinarily proud.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
I believe TOMS came along at a time when people wanted to believe in something bigger than themselves, and that is more true today than ever. Our shoes are a symbol of being connected to the world and caring about it in a different way. Of course, the quality and style of our shoes and their affordability have always played a part in why people love TOMS, but it’s definitely the mission that comes first.
Many people know the old saying, “It is better to give than to receive” but I’m not sure most people understand what an amazing feeling it is to give. Not just to others, but to give of yourself, all day every day. I’m pretty sure that giving in this way increases levels of oxytocin. To be able to make a living while serving others is incredibly rewarding. The fact that I can do so while traveling the world and meeting so many wonderful people is really the first, second and third best thing about my job.
As an entrepreneur, what are your top tips for someone starting out?
I think if you’re passionate about something, you should try not to worry about the actual size of the problem or the need, or how big the solution needs to be. You might even want to distill it down to helping one person. Get it right in a small way first, and chances are you will learn so much through the process that can be applied to dozens or hundreds or thousands more people. What a lot of people do — especially entrepreneurs — is create these business plans and raise money they really don’t need because they want to get big fast, which is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. The main thing is whatever you’re going to do, do it really well and do it small and if you’re successful there, the size and scale will come. So that’s my big piece of advice: start small, focus, get it right and then let the growth come.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I really admire my father. He taught me to be persistent, hardworking and to continue developing into a man of character and integrity.
Who do you look up to and admire?
I think Malala Yousafzai is a phenomenal young woman. The work she has done with the Malala Fund is inspiring.
My journals. The journal is something that is very personal to me and I have been journaling every single day since I was 15 years old. It is a spiritual practice for me and helps me stay grounded and thankful for all the things that are happening in my life.