The founder of TOMS shoes and author of Start Something That Matters explains the backstory of his brand’s name and describes the model behind the socially-conscious business.
TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie
Tavis: In 2006, Blake Mycoskie had a unique idea for a business model: start a for-profit shoe company that would in turn help provide shoes for children in need around the world. The result was TOMS Shoes, which has donated now more than two million pair of shoes to kids in need the world over.
The new book about his inspiring story is called “Start Something That Matters” which he has certainly done. Blake, good to have you on this program.
Blake Mycoskie: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: The obvious question, when you talk to a guy named Blake who has a company called TOMS Shoes, what? Why is it called TOMS Shoes?
Mycoskie: I think that’s probably a good place to start [laugh]. Most people call me Tom now which I answer to as well. But when we started, I said, okay, if we can sell a pair of shoes today, we will give away a pair of shoes tomorrow.
Then we were gonna call them Tomorrow’s Shoes, but I couldn’t fit Tomorrow’s on the back of the tag [laugh. So I shortened it to TOM, not knowing that, for the rest of my life, people would be calling me that, but it's fine.
Tavis: And these are TOMS shoes that you have on now.
Mycoskie: Yes, I'm wearing TOMS, absolutely. I wear TOMS pretty much every day.
Tavis: Did you have any idea that this idea would just burgeon the way that it has?
Mycoskie: No. I mean, when we started, I was a software entrepreneur. I had gone to Argentina on vacation, so I wasn't looking to start another business or get involved in any kind of social enterprise. Originally, the goal was to help 250 kids. I talk about that in the book about the idea of starting small.
It was really powerful because we said, okay, if we can sell 250 pairs of shoes, we can come back by Christmas and give all these kids a new pair of shoes and then they're gonna wear out of them probably in four or five months, so we're gonna sell another 250 pairs and then we'll give them another pair.
That way, we can keep them in shoes instead of being dependent on donations as they were before we started. But we ended up selling 10,000 pairs in my apartment here in Venice the first summer.
Tavis: As a business model, for those watching who are in business or want to be in business, how does one make money? You are a for-profit, sure.
Tavis: How do you make money when, every time you sell something, you give something away?
Mycoskie: It's a very good question. The thing that makes TOMS unique compared to all other shoe companies I know of, at least, is we don't do any traditional advertising. So if you think of a big shoe company, they spend money hiring professional athletes, they do TV commercials, they have billboards, they're sponsoring sports teams, we rely on our community and a lot of social media to tell the story of TOMS.
So when you're wearing a pair of TOMS, someone says especially in the early days, "What are those shoes? They look a little bit different," we say they're TOMS and they understand that they tell the story. So by the customers doing the marketing for us, it gives us a lot of extra money, millions of dollars extra a year, to commit to giving it away.
Tavis: Do customers ever know, or will they ever be able to find out at some point in the future, what happens to the pair of shoes that they cause to be donated?
Mycoskie: Yeah. It's kind of my dream to actually link the exact customer to the exact person. I mean, we just gave away our two millionth pair of shoes, so that would be really cool to take those people and link them to a specific child.
But what we do do is, we're going on trips in the field all the time and we're taking vendors and friends and family and customers with us. So we're able to kind of group like, okay, you bought shoes in the last six months or last year. This is the work we're doing.
So last year around the holidays as kind of a thank-you to our community, we put out this giving report and it kind of outlined all the countries we're giving in, what types of shoes we're giving in those countries and why, and that gave the customers an opportunity to see the work that's being done because of their purchase.
We're doing the same thing with eyewear now as well. We just started selling sunglasses and, every time we sell a pair of sunglasses, we are either giving prescription glasses or doing an eye surgery like a cataract surgery or an eye treatment.
We just did our first group in Cambodia and Nepal and we're now giving those pictures back to the people who bought the sunglasses this summer so they can see people who've had their sight saved or restored. That's a really powerful experience.
Tavis: Tell me about making shoes. I know people who wear TOMS shoes. I have a pair of TOMS shoes given to me as a gift one year.
Tavis: But tell me how you affordably can make shoes that allow you to do the kind of philanthropy you do around the world.
Mycoskie: Well, I think one of the things is I always say it's better to be lucky than good. I think I was a little bit lucky in that I chose a very simple shoe to make. You know, it's basically a piece of canvas draped over a rubber sole. There isn't a lot of complexity in making these shoes.
So really, I mean, the key is in making shoes and especially making them affordable is to not choose a lot of styles. So if you look at another shoe company, once again comparing us to some other companies, there's hundreds of different styles. TOMS, any given season, I only have 25 to 50 styles. I'm talking about colors. Basically, only like maybe five or six styles of shoes.
So when you limit the number of shoes that you're producing, when you're doing production, it greatly reduces your cost because they're not having to change out parts and waste time and all that. So that's the main way we keep our costs down.
Tavis: And we say affordable. What's the range of price for TOMS shoes?
Mycoskie: Our kids shoes sell for $38; adult shoes sell for $44 up to $75. But most of our shoes, I would say, are in the $50 range.
Tavis: This inspiration thing obviously runs in your family. I was reading about your mother.
Mycoskie: My mom's amazing.
Tavis: Whoa! Tell me about your mama.
Mycoskie: Yeah. It was really fun to get to tell my mom's story in the book about kind of facing your fears because I think that anyone who wants to start something, whether it's a local commitment to volunteer in your community or a new business or maybe even just a new initiative within your company, the first thing most people have is fear.
My mom, back in 1995, wrote a cookbook. She had high cholesterol and she found out from some doctors in Texas that, by lowering the fat in her diet, she could lower her cholesterol. So she started making these recipes and they tasted good and, sure enough, her cholesterol went way down, so she wanted to share it. I'm kind of following after her in this in writing the book.
So she wrote this book literally in our house, bought a word processor at Wal-Mart, had no formal writing experience, didn't even graduate college. She went to self-publish it with my dad and made a really bad choice about the publisher and they lost all their money in this.
So she was horrified at the fact that, you know, they took out a loan to do this. It was a very big thing for my parents to do, but she had nothing to show for it. So when she decided to go back and to maybe do it again because everyone loved the content, she was really scared. She overcame that fear, they self-published it and then she sold 300,000 copies before she ever had a publisher [laugh].
I mean, I don’t know anyone that’s done that, did not have a New York publisher. I mean, she had all the major publishing houses flying from New York to Arlington, Texas just to like have coffee with her to find out how in the world she was selling this many copies literally out of her house.
I remember as a kid packing up boxes to send to Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club day after day after day, just putting the books in there and putting the tape on.
Tavis: And what did Blake take from that for his own business and inspiration to come?
Mycoskie: Well, first thing I did, I probably dropped out of college too early and probably to my dad’s dismay. But I realized you didn’t need a college degree, didn’t need any formal experience to start something, something you’re passionate about. So I think I get my entrepreneurial spirit from my mom.
I mean, I was a very formulable age. I was 15 years old when this was going on. Seeing her literally put her passion and her heart into something that she believed in and then becoming one of the best-selling authors of the ’90s in the cookbook category, which is incredibly competitive, really inspired me. I think that that’s why I started, you know, being an entrepreneur at a pretty young age.
I think specifically both of my parents – my dad’s a doctor; my mom is helping people with their health with the cookbooks. I think that’s where I kind of got this desire and kind of, I think, this feeling of responsibility that, if you’ve been blessed, it’s really important to give back and to do it in a way that will help people in their lives.
Tavis: I love the book and I love the title of it, “Start Something That Matters.” Again, you obviously have done that. But I wonder whether or not you think in the world that we live today, a world that obviously has, to my mind, at least, so much skepticism – not even skepticism – cynicism, and people are jaded in so many ways, I wonder whether or not you still think – obviously, you do; the wrote the book – that it’s possible to start something even today that really matters.
Mycoskie: Well, you know, one of the things – that exact question was important to me when I did research for the book because the book is not just TOMS story. It’s also the story about ten other entrepreneurs who have started something that really is about significance to life and to the people that are customers and their culture.
It was really important that I only really featured new companies. So all these companies and all these nonprofits and organizations have all been started, I would say, within the last five to seven years. So in a time where most people would have said, you know, it’s not a good time to start a business, we’ve had the recession, we’ve had problems.
I think that these stories will hopefully inspire people to see that sometimes when you’re in a time of economic difficulty is when there’s a great opportunity. Because the big companies and other people kind of hold back. They’re fearful. So that was really important to me when I chose the stories that I wanted to feature.
I wanted to make sure that they were recent stories and I also wanted to make sure that all the people that started them had no experience because I think that’s one of the things that people are most concerned about when they want to start anything is that that they don’t have experience. So I chose people who literally, like myself, had no experience before they started their organization or just even their initiative.
Tavis: Every company has a CEO, a COO, a CFO. TOMS has a CSG. Make that Chief Shoe Giver and that is his title on the cover of the book, the Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS, Blake Mycoskie. It won’t surprise you, given that he’s done it with shoes, given that they’re doing it with glasses.
It will not surprise you to know that now, with every purchase of this book, a new book will be provided to a child in need. That’s why I love this guy, Blake Mycoskie. Blake, good to have you.
Mycoskie: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: The new book is called “Start Something That Matters.” Take care of yourself, man.
Mycoskie: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.