Today social good businesses are thriving. But back in 2006 when TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie was trying to get his fledging shoe brand off the ground with a “one-for-one” concept, this was not the case. He came up with a for-profit business model that helps a person in need with every product purchased after seeing kids in desperate need of shoes while traveling outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. “There were a lot of people thinking we were quite crazy,” says Blake, a serial entrepreneur whose early ventures spanned a campus dry cleaning service and outdoor billboard for country music. Today, as TOMS’s businesses have expanded, the company has donated 60 million pairs of shoes to children, restored sight to over 400,000, helped provide over 335,000 weeks of safe water, and supported safe birth services for over 25,000 mothers.
When you started TOMS, did people think you were crazy for wanting to do the one-for-one idea of giving back?
Yes. Yeah, it’s funny now, thinking back on it, because there were a lot of people thinking we were quite crazy. And then now, it’s been fun to see so many other brands building their businesses around giving back. It gives me a lot of joy to see that.
Did you just know that the one-for-one concept would work?
No. We had no idea. I wish I could say we were that smart. It was really an experiment. I had started four or five other companies before TOMS, so this was an experiment of can you build something and help people at the same time? And the experiment worked. It’s been amazing!
Do you think that the one-for-one element is part of why TOMS has been so successful?
I think the first five or six years, that drove a lot of peoples’ desire to support us or to participate, or be part of it. We’re 12 years old now, which is hard to believe.
Now, we’re very much a shoe and eyewear company. We’ve got a great product that is comfortable and stylish and durable—and all of the stuff that everyone else competes on. And we’ve got to continue to evolve our giving.
This is part of doing something with Kevin and 1Climb. It’s a great way of evolving our giving to do things a little bit differently than just giving out aid to stay fresh and relevant. But I still think our give-back element is a really huge part of why our most loyal customers support us.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a fellow entrepreneur building something from the ground up, what would you say?
I think the most important thing is—and it sounds like a cliché. But I truly believe that if you really start with something you’re deeply passionate about and commit your life, energy, and time to it, then you have a much higher chance of success than if you’re just trying to start a business because you want to be an entrepreneur, or you see a need, or you see an opportunity in the market.
I really think it has to come from a deep passion because being an entrepreneur is tough. It’s lonely, it’s risky, and if you aren’t grounded in that deep passion, it’s hard to be successful. So, that’s my first piece of advice.
My second piece of advice always is: Do not raise money unless you absolutely have to. The minute you raise money, other people, who may or may not share your vision, are involved. And that can be a distraction. If you end up having to raise a lot of money, you have to pay it all back, eventually, so it’s hard to create something that’s profitable. We never raised money with TOMS until we sold half of it. Now, it’s at a very different stage.
I always say to entrepreneurs: bootstrap, trade, be resourceful. Do whatever you can, but try not to have to raise money. It’s funny, because now I spend a lot of my time investing in companies, and it’s the very first thing I tell all of them in a meeting.
I had one this morning, actually, with some lovely women entrepreneurs. I said, “I would love to invest, but I think it’s too early. You’re going to have to give me too much of your company, based on the value.”
So, I always tell people to try not to raise money, unless you have to. Really follow your passion, number one, and make sure that you’re going to commit your life to building something that really is aligned with your values and your passion.
And the third is, really try to find a way to use your business for social good. I think that is important, not only in terms of the meaning that you’ll derive from it, but I think that we have proven that customers are more loyal. People are more supportive when they feel that you are doing something not just for the profit, but really for social good.
— Blake Mycoskie
Travel has inspired your business. How has seeing the world influenced you?
For me, I think the big thing is seeing the world and seeing that there are so many needs. We live in very disproportionate lifestyles and means; it’s important to treat all humans with dignity and respect.
While there are a lot of problems here in the United States that we want to solve and help with, there is also a lot of pain and suffering around the world. The more we can help others around the world, I think the more it even strengthens our life here.
The biggest thing is just to get out there and travel, and see where you can make a difference. You never know where it’s going to lead, when you’re traveling.
Is there one place that was very fundamental to shaping who you are?
Argentina, because that’s where I had the idea for TOMS and met the kids who didn’t have shoes. I think Ethiopia has been a big place. We do a lot of production and manufacturing there, now.
I spend a lot of time giving to charities that help build infrastructure; Charity: Water, etc., in Ethiopia. So, those are two of the places that are probably most meaningful to me.
A lot of your work is helping people overseas. But with this initiative with Kevin, it impacts kids here in the U.S. That must be kind of cool change.
It’s very cool! I love the idea of being able to really engage these kids and teach them about how to overcome difficulties and challenges on the wall—which very much lends itself to looking at life and being able to overcome things.
At the same time, it’s not quite the same as providing eye surgeries or access to clean drinking water like your other programs.
Yeah. It’s not a basic need, but I think it’s very much what we’re dealing with is kids’ self-esteem and psychology, and helping them. I think it’s great.
This is why I got involved: You look at the climbing wall. If you’ve never done it, it’s absolutely horrifying. It doesn’t seem like it’s possible. It’s all of this negativity.
The same thing, if you’re a kid living in south central L.A., Harlem, the projects of Chicago, life looks impossible. It’s like “I don’t know how I can ever get out of this place, or have a better life.” So, if you can take those skills that they learn in the gym and that belief in themselves, I think you can make a huge difference in these kids’ lives.
Absolutely. I would love to know about your interest in rock climbing and how you and Kevin got linked up.
We met at a conference, years ago. He was a speaker, and I was a speaker. I spoke after him, and I really loved the way that he talked about his experience on the Dawn Wall. I went up to him afterwards, and we stayed in touch.
Then, I started spending about half of my time in Jackson Hole. When I was doing that, I started climbing, and got really into the sport. I think we followed each other on Instagram, and he saw some pictures of me climbing.
He was like, “Oh, man, I’d love to come out there and climb with you!” I thought he was just being nice, but then, when I asked him, we did it.
Last year, we climbed the Grand Teton together, which is a big, long mountaineering project. Kevin’s more into doing big-wall climbing, not mountaineering, where there are long, long and painful approaches. He gave me a hard time about how much he suffered on that—it was great to see him suffering a little!
This year, we linked up for his style of climbing. We went to City of Rocks, Idaho, where there’s a lot of sport climbing, a lot of really technical stuff. I did some of the best, kind of highest-rated climbs that I had ever been able to complete.
He’s a great coach and a friend—and just a great human being. I’m really happy to be able to help support his vision for 1Climb. Then, with our other partner, So iLL, who makes great climbing gear, we can create some special stuff for people supporting the walls.
It sounds like you got into climbing not so long ago. What’s your perspective on trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone?
I’m always trying new things. I think that’s part of what let me be in Argentina and starting TOMS. I’ve always been curious. I’ve always liked doing new things. I get bored pretty easily. That’s why I love being out here in Jackson, too. There are so many activities and things to try and do.
Climbing is great because you can go all over the world and find a place to climb. Every route is a new route the first time you do it. And there’s a lot of personal growth, I think, that comes from being in the mountains—and being humbled by the mountains, as well.
So, now you’re a dad. Do you still get to get out and do those things?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s super important that my kids see that I make time for that. Obviously, I take my son to the bouldering park all of the time. He’s almost four. He loves climbing. Whether he’ll end up becoming a mountaineer or not, I don’t know.
But he knows, when I leave now, I’m going to climb the Tetons, or I’m hiking up in the mountains. He always tells me to be careful, but he understands that that’s really important to me. So, yeah.
It sounds like work-life balance is important to you.
It’s critical. Even way before we had any success with TOMS, I always took time off. I always travelled. I just feel like if you’re just in the office, working on a work problem all of the time, it’s hard to have new, creative ideas.
I find that time out of the office is as productive as time in the office, these days. It’s just something that I think we don’t take seriously enough. I think I’m probably a really good role model for people on work/life balance.
Does that come into company culture, as well?
It does. I try to have people emulate it. We give people opportunities to go on giving trips. We have a very good two-month maternity and paternity time off for a new baby, for men and women. We try to encourage people, you know?
I think people still work really hard at TOMS, and there are probably a lot of people at TOMS that say “Gosh, I don’t have good work/life balance, right now.” So, I can’t represent that everyone does, but I can definitely say that we try to help people do it.
One last question: Who is someone who inspires you?
Oh, man! In this space, I would say Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia has inspired me a lot with how true he has stayed to his values and his mission, all of these years. He has been a great inspiration.
The other person that I’ve had a really great opportunity to spend some time with over the years is Muhammad Yunus, who started the Grameen Bank, and really helping the poor, so the poor get access to credit and loans, to make their lives better, and make themselves entrepreneurs.
And then, my dad. My dad just climbed the Grand, at 69. It’s pretty amazing that he’s still trying new things at that age. So, that inspires me, as well.