TOMS Founder Speaks
TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie speaks in the Orton Center. Photo courtesy of ASUR.
On Nov. 20, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie shared with University of Redlands students how he went from running an online driving school in 2006 to creating a company that has distributed more than 10 million shoes to those in need.
“You have a lot of ideas, but you never tell them to anyone or take them very seriously,” he said. “But this one, when I was writing it down, I was very excited.”
According to Mycoskie, the idea for TOMS came to him while on vacation in Argentina in 2006. While doing volunteer work, he was amazed to find out that children could not attend school without shoes, a luxury that many couldn’t afford.
“It seemed just crazy to me,” he said.
After noticing the simple shoes worn by polo players in Argentina, Mycoskie decided he would create a similar shoe, sell it in the United States, and give the same pair to a person in need.
“I had thought about having people donate shoes, but would the goodwill last?” he said. “But from a business perspective, it made sense to do something entrepreneurial and not a charity.”
When he returned to Los Angeles, Mycoskie realized he knew nothing about the shoe business, including what to charge and how to target an audience. He asked his sister and her friends their opinions, and after learning they not only loved the style but also the fact that a shoe would be given to someone in need, the first TOMS shoes were made.
“I sold 84 pairs to American Rag in Hollywood,” Mycoskie said. “After an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, we sold 2,200 pairs before 2 p.m. through our website. The problem was we only had 140 pairs.”
Soon, he grabbed the attention of Anna Wintour, and Mycoskie and TOMS appeared in the pages of Vogue.
“Here I was, this guy from Texas who knew nothing about fashion,” he said. “But when Vogue calls, you go.”
That summer, Mycoskie sold 10,000 pairs out of his apartment. It was time for him to distribute the pairs to those in need, and along with relatives and interns, he traveled back to Argentina.
“Working with a nonprofit organization, we went to some of the most impoverished areas in northern Argentina,” he said. “We put shoes on their feet and made sure that they fit. On the first day, I looked in the corner and there was my mom, not only fitting kids with shoes but cleaning their feet like she would for me, my brother or my sister. It was such an intimate moment to witness, and after five months of business I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
Another heavy moment came when Mycoskie saw a woman crying as his team left. They were tears of joy – previously, her three sons had to share one pair of shoes, meaning they had to take turns going to school. Now that they each had their own shoes, they could go together.
“It was an incredibly powerful moment,” he said. “That’s when I decided I was all in.”
Mycoskie sold his software company and watched as TOMS grew.
“The key is sustainability,” he said. “We recognized that we can’t stay with the same shoe that got us here. We have to evolve so we can give away 10 million more.”
In 2011, TOMS expanded to include eyewear, and for each pair of sunglasses purchased, someone receives either prescription glasses or medical treatment. By this time, Mycoskie said, the company was receiving criticism, largely from thought leaders at NGOs.
“I took it personally,” he said. “At first I wanted to fight it, but I realized some of it was because we hadn’t taken the time to explain our giving model.”
Mycoskie then explained some false notions about TOMS. The crazy patterns seen in stores aren’t distributed; the shoes are all black as they match most school uniforms. Not all people receive the same shoe – depending on location, some receive boots or athletic shoes. Finally, when shoes run out, they are replaced by other TOMS.
“The partners that we work with don’t exist to give shoes,” Mycoskie said. “It is integrated with vaccines, school attendance, and savings and lending.”
Mycoskie finished his speech with something he’s learned from running TOMS for the past seven years.
“Giving doesn’t just feel good,” he said. “It’s good for business and for building a personal brand.”
Posted: Nov. 22, 2013
Written by: Catherine Garcia