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TOMS Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie: Make Giving Work as a Business Strategy
Compassion, altruism, and philanthropy are brand identities everyone can aspire to
By Mike Singer
At the 2013 AIA Convention in Denver, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, recounted how his multi-million dollar footwear brand began as a spontaneous act during an Argentina vacation seven years ago. Its early days were a bit frenzied and spontaneous as well, with Mycoskie and a few interns huddled into his apartment while he worked another job as software developer. But in just a few years, TOMS matured into an internationally-recognized and admired brand with a business model worthy of architects’ emulation.
“Giving feels good, and it is good in and of itself,” Mycoskie told the capacity crowd of convention attendees at the convention’s opening general session. “But what I have learned in the last seven years is that giving not only feels good, it can also be good for your business. It can be a strategy for your business and your personal brand.”
His company is famous for its “One for One” policy to give a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold. It all started during a month-long break from his former job. He went to Argentina, one of the countries he visited while a contestant on the reality television show, “The Amazing Race.” There, he met two women volunteers working on a “shoe drive” that involved picking up slightly used shoes from wealthy families in Buenos Aires to distribute in rural villages where many families could not afford shoes for their children, which made them ineligible to go to school.
“When I was told there were children who were being denied an education because they didn’t have shoes, I thought, ‘This was incredible!’” Mycoskie said. He asked the volunteers he met if he could participate in the shoe drop off. “I remembered thinking how incredibly different an experience it was from anything I had done before. These kids were acting like it was Christmas day. It was one of the most exciting things in the world for them and their families to get these shoes.”
“Then I thought, ‘What’s going to happen when those kids are going to wear out those shoes? Who’s going to give them their next pair of shoes?’ I remember going to bed that night with that problem in my mind. How could I help? How could I make sure these kids get the next pair of shoes?”
Start with a dinner party
Mycoskie, who had already run five companies, saw entrepreneurship--versus charity-- as the answer. He visited local Argentine shoemakers, and within two weeks, packed 250 pairs of shoes in duffle bags that he took to Los Angeles. For each pair that was sold in California, a pair was given away in Argentina.
At the time, he knew little about shoes, fashion, or retail, so he invited his sister and five of her friends to look at shoe samples before he served them dinner at his Venice, Calif., apartment. His dinner party guests liked the shoes. But when they learned about his business plan of giving shoes back for each shoe sold, he saw real excitement and engagement take shape.
Soon, a Los Angeles store bought 70 pairs of TOMS Shoes and displayed them in the front window, along with a cardboard sign that read, “With each pair sold, a pair will be donated to child in need.” That display got picked up as story by the Los Angeles Times, leading to the sale of 2,200 pairs of TOMS on the company’s web site in a single afternoon. A two-page spread in Vogue magazine followed. “Vogue made it look like I knew exactly what at I was doing, versus running an operation out of my apartment with three interns hired off Craigslist,” Mycoskie said. “And because it made it look like we knew what we were doing, the industry figured we did, and soon we started getting calls.”
Nordstrom’s, Barneys, and Urban Outfitters became customers. He sold 10,000 shoes out of his apartment before he left the software development enterprise he helped launch. His partners bought him out, and he invested all the proceeds into TOMS, hiring professional staff, helping him with supply chain management, distribution, and the other concerns of a retailer that as of last week, has broken into eight-figure sales (and charitable giving) numbers in just seven years.
“This is the first week I can make this announcement,” Mycoskie said. “As of last Thursday, TOMS has now given away 10 million pairs of shoes.”
A purpose beyond purchase
Mycoskie explained how incorporating giving could turn clients into a company’s greatest marketers. “It’s about connecting somebody who is making a purchase for themself to a purpose beyond that purchase,” he said. “It helps define not just the work you do, but who you are and what your firm stands for. Your customers don’t just become customers--they become supporters and evangelists. When you increase your giving, your customers increase.”
Mycoskie also emphasized how incorporating personal giving into business attracts and retains talent, as well as corporate partners. For TOMS, partners include Ralph Lauren, who had never before collaborated with another brand in clothing design, but agreed to design and carry TOMS shoes in certain stores. AT&T used TOMS in a documentary-style television commercial in Uruguay that allowed them to connect with their customers in a unique way.
TOM’s Eyewear launched last year, with the brand promise that for every pair of sunglasses sold, TOMS will give somebody their sight back. Mycoskie has identified the need for better eyesight, remedied via free eye glasses and nonprofits performing cataract surgeries, as a primary need in many countries.
This eyewear is now on display at Mycoskie’s first permanent flagship store, TOMS Casa, which opened in November, in Venice, Calif. It’s not far from the Venice apartment where Mycoskie started his company, and a reflection of the millions of ground-breaking footsteps taken in between.