Chief shoe giver
Denim shirt, a hat which has seen many, many things, light “Toms” shoes and a face, gently caressed by the sun and wind – Blake Mycoskie looks like a simple guy from the street, young father, handshome surfer. On top of that, he’s one of the brightest figures among the young generation of businessmen. A man, who’s still under 40 is a founder of a well-known shoe company “Toms”. Thanks to his unique model of business, every customer of “Toms” shoes makes our world a better place to live: every single pair bought means that a child in poverty will receive new shoes. Like this, step by step, during nine years the company of Blake has given away 45 millions pairs of shoes. Without the persistence of this man, all of this wouldn’t have happened. During the conversation B.Mycoskie confessed that during first four years “Toms” bussiness seemed to be far away from successful…
Forgive me for being so curious, but could you describe what you’re wearing right now?
From head to toe I’m wearing a wool felt Westerlind hat made here in the USA, Navajo Jacket from Ralph Lauren, a t-shirt from Aviator Nation, my sister’s brand, selvedge denim from Hiut Denim Co., a Shinola watch, and navy suede TOMS Classics.
How would you describe a stylish gentleman?
There isn’t one formula for a stylish gentleman, but something he does always have confidence and charisma. A good hat or a well-traveled, well-loved leather bag also go a long way.
Please name someone from the fashion industry whom you’d love to invite for dinner.
Ralph Lauren is one of my favorite designers and fashion entrepreneurs. Not only is he a style icon with an incredible sense of mixing and matching patterns and textures, he has also got a great way of offering unique and innovative details to classic, heritage pieces.
How do you usually come up with unique business ideas, like One for One, the initiative to help a person in need with every product purchased?
Almost every single social entrepreneur that has ever pitched me an investment, when I ask them how they had their idea, they say, “it was while traveling”. I don’t think one of them has said, I was in the classroom, or sitting at home, or in my dorm – every single one starts with a travel story. I was here, I saw this; I was there, I saw that, I realised I could do something. It’s uncanny.It’s the same for me. My experience traveling through Argentina in 2006 is where it all started for TOMS. I was intrigued by the traditional Argentinian shoe called the Alpargata. On this same trip, I discovered that, in rural villages, there were many children in need of shoes and the hardships that came along with that. So I felt compelled to come up with a solution: a for-profit business concept that empowers consumers to help a child through an every day purchase. For every pair purchased, TOMS can give a pair to a child in need. One for One. Since then, my mission is very simple: It’s to use business to improve lives. If you have an inclination to engage in something in the social entrepreneurial world, but you don’t know what yet, chances are if you travel for long enough, it’ll probably find you.
Would you agree that simplest ideas are usually the best ones?
TOMS started with a very simple idea: 250 kids in one village in Argentina who needed shoes for school. When people think about how we can create business that has more impact in the world, instead of thinking about big business, it’s about a lot of entrepreneurs working in an area that they can make a difference in: A simple idea has now grown into a global movement: TOMS Shoes has provided over 45 million pairs of shoes to children since 2006, TOMS Eyewear has restored sight to over 325,000 since 2011 and TOMS Roasting Company has helped provide over 175,000 weeks of safe water since launching in 2014. In 2015, TOMS Bag Collection was founded with the mission to help provide training for skilled birth attendants and distribute birth kits containing items that help a woman safely deliver her baby: So, yes, I think it all starts with a simple idea, and when progress happens, it doesn’t happen in big jumps; it happens in lots of good, small decisions. If I’d had all this new stuff to deal with at the beginning I may never have started. But it seemed very manageable when it was one village. If the project never grew beyond that, it’s still a great project. But, it all goes back to these simple, meaningful ideas.
More than 45 million pairs of shoes to children since 2006 – how much were you personally involved in this beautiful campaign since the very beginning?
I’ve been very deeply tied with TOMS since the beginning. 9 years ago I have opted for the title of Chief Shoe Giver, rather than the traditional title of CEO, because giving is at the heart of the TOMS business model. My role takes me around the world to share the One for One mission, hand place shoes on children, meet the most amazing and inspiring people and work closely with my leadership team on various aspects of the business. I believe in hiring great people, encouraging them to be highly collaborative, and then creating an environment where they can do what they do best, whether I am around or not.
Are you an idealist deep down in your heart?
I have a clear defined vision – to use business to improve people’s lives. I really believe it’s the responsibility of business to impact the world in a positive way and make responsible philanthropic choices. It might be perceived as being idealist but I wish we all work toward a better world and live by the motto Carpe Momentum.
We live in the age of IT startups where the most innovative ideas are virtual are born online. Do you consider yourself a keen digital consumer?
Being digitally savvy is becoming more and important, but what’s even more important is the idea itself, which although may live online, is born from a creative, simple idea in your mind, and for me, a few scribbles in my notebook. TOMS has always embraced technology to share the One for One movement globally and we have been using social media and digital storytelling to build a deeper relation with our communities. Recently, technology has allowed us to go one step further with the introduction of Virtual Reality into our retail environments to allow everyone to go on a virtual TOMS Giving Trip and experience shoe giving in the field. Every TOMS product has a purpose and this 360 and 3D experience has been a great tool to share where the other pair goes.
What do you value most in the business world?
Business has the ability to impact the world in a positive way, and I really believe it’s a responsibility to do so. My dream is to have giving at the core of all commercial activity. I would love that every company looks at a triple bottom line, understands that charity is a viable growth strategy. I want to see that become standard practice both in private and public companies, that we aren’t just responsible for generating profits, but for our impact in society and community. We all gain when businesses makes human rights a priority.
Do you remember a certain point of your career when you realized it’s time to give back and start doing philanthropy?
I’ve always wanted to help people and make a difference, but the first time I got the idea that I could do so with business was really my trip to Argentina in 2006 when I first got the idea to start TOMS. After that first summer of staring TOMS, we had sold about ten thousand pairs, and I was still kind of thinking of it as a project. But it didn’t really ‘work’ for almost four years, and we lost money for three and a half of those, as we were still giving away tens, if not hundreds of thousands of shoes. But, the reason we were able to do that, and still have confidence that it would work is that I recognised early on that this business was about scale. We knew we could commit to our giving and knew that cost was going to be there, but we also knew that as we scaled up, our price of production would go down, everything would go down. And that would allow us the profit that would empower growth.
Do you have any personal mentors? And what would you suggest to young ambitious people willing to start their own business?
I’ve been extremely inspired by business and thought-leaders like Richard Branson and Muhammad Yunus. For young entrepreneurs, I think it’s important to remember that if you’re passionate about something, don’t worry about the size of the market or how big it could become. Get it right in a small way first. When we started, I was trying to help 250 kids. I wasn’t thinking about 45 million kids. The main thing is whatever you’re going to do, do it really well and do it small, and if you’re successful there, business will come. So that’s my big piece of advice: start small, focus, get it right and then let the growth come.
What do you do when you feel in need of a fresh start?
Movement – just moving and traveling – that’s a huge part of my whole life. And obviously, it’s part of the job now, but it’s also what inspired me in the first place. But it’s all about balance and I’m a big believer in time off. It’s not only good for your health, but for your relationships and your creativity. Surfing, sailing and reading really help me to unwind.
What were you doing before TOMS?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial – at university I ran a successful pick-up and drop-off laundry service and dropped out of college to concentrate on building business. At 22 I spotted a gap in the market for outdoor advertising when I noticed the big billboards you see in New York and LA weren’t present in secondary market cities like Nashville. I eventually moved to Nashville to develop the business before selling it to the industry leaders, Clear Channel so it ended up being a significant success, a real breakthrough, and something that taught me a lot about business. That’s not to say I’ve always been successful – I followed this by trying to set up an ‘all reality’ TV network. It was a disaster and my first big and public failure – after just three years we had to shut it down. But I bounced back in 2000 when I noticed teenagers were spending all their time on MySpace and created an online training education program that let them learn to drive online. My experience meant that when it came to TOMS I’d already been asking people to buy be part of something since I was 19-years-old. That wasn’t the part that was scary; it was having to present a new idea from a completely different angle without any experience of running a charity or philanthropic organization. For some people, it’s more about learning along the way. What I’m really trying to do is to educate people that you can have a business that has profit, but also has a real purpose.
Doubt is what kills many beautiful ideas, isn’t it? Did you have any doubts and fears before starting the TOMS story?
We all have doubts, but the key is working through them with passion and hard work. It’s easy to be insecure when you are starting something that is totally different or new, like TOMS was when I started in 2006, but I kept pressing on because I realized it could work.
Shoes, eyewear and even coffee now! Do you think that successful businesses should incorporate various fields of products and services?
Not at all. It’s one interesting model and allows us to leverage the relationship of a consumer and a recipient, empowering our community to give with a model that is very simple, but it’s certainly not the best or only way. At TOMS it’s started with shoes, then sight and giving clean water, and now safe birth. Along the way, I’ve realized we aren’t just a shoe company but a giving company. I envisioned expanding our One for One model to a number different products and categories to reach a wider audience and give them a chance at the same time to extend the give. We empower our customers to make a difference with their purchase and join our One for One movement. Our customers want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and give back.
Do you pay attention to clothes at important business meetings?
I always like to be comfortable and stay true to who I am. Luckily, we make some beautiful (and comfortable) brogues at TOMS that make it easy to dress up when I’m on the go.
What’s your everyday outfit?
I keep it simple with selvedge demin, a t-shirt or denim button up, and of course some TOMS – classics or mateo chukka boots in Fall and Winter.
Do you ever feel the lack of time? How do you cope with it?
We just hired a CEO, which means running the day-to-day business will take less of my time. I need to be more on the ground, visiting more partners and leaders in different countries. I would say a third of my year is spent in the headquarters, a third of my year is spent on business travel and meetings, and I actually take off a third of the year. I don’t keep it a secret, but it’s surprising to many people. “I’m a big believer in time off. It’s not only good for your health, but for your relationships and your creativity”.
They say that fashion is like a circle that constantly turns around. What do you do to meet the needs of your clients, to surprise them?
I’m constantly inspired by fabrics and styles that I encounter around the world. Visiting our TOMS Giving Partners in the field is a great source of this inspiration. Whether it’s unique boots in Nepal, beautifully crafted flats in India or colorful fabrics from Guatemala, I like introducing these to our design team to consider ways we can integrate them into our seasonal design concepts.
What does your office look like? Is the surrounding space important to you when at work or spending time at home? Where do you look for unique design pieces? And what’s your favorite corner at home?
My office is my second home. It really reflects the company’s creative culture, entrepreneurial vibes and innovative approach to charity. It’s a comforting space and very inviting. It’s important for me that we create an environment for people to embrace collaboration and working away from their desks, whether it’s the coffee bar, barn, or mid-century modern couches, for ideas to always brew. My wife, Heather and I live with our son Summit in Topanga Canyon, California. A place that feels connected to nature. Our home is inspired by treasures from our travels – the master bath’s rustic Indian doors, the Balinese desk in my office, and a massive Buddha statue in the garden. We are not fancy people, we need imperfections and like everything to feel personal, layered, and evolved – nothing too designery. Life is about memories more than things and thus every room is redolent of stories and experiences and filled with reminders of our histories. Our home speaks to who we are and what we love. It’s 100 percent us.
Do you like sports and healthy living?
I really love to be active in the outdoors. I am an avid golf player, surfer and snowboarder. I love spending time on my sailboat. These are all ways to get outside with my friends or family and relax. Some of my best ideas come when I’m away from the office and doing something active.
What are your favorite movies, books, music?
Movies – Dead Poets Society. Book – The Art of Power by That Nich Hahn. Music – I listen to many different types of music, but I think I most enjoy bands that seem authentic and have a lot of fun while they perform.