One for One: Blake Mycoskie Re-invents the Wheel
Sitting on a metal folding chair on the gym floor of the University of Dayton’s Rec Plex listening to Blake Mycoskie’s speech on how he founded TOMS Shoes was a defining moment in my college education, and one I reflect upon often. Blake was charming, funny, charismatic and not to mention, good-looking. The crowd hung on every word he spoke. His story was inspiring, and I left the gym that day thinking I had witnessed a true genius. And I had, just not the one I had made out in my mind that day in the Rec. Having been in the workforce a year, my experiences have elevated my opinion of him to a new level of appreciation.
Let’s start with a little back-story on TOMS Shoes. Blake founded TOMS Shoes after a visit to Argentina where he went to recharge while working on his fourth entrepreneurial startup, an online driver’s education program for teens. What started as a cultural exploration soon became another business venture, unlike any Blake had started before.
Blake met a woman in a café who was volunteering on a shoe drive, and Blake’s curiosity led him to accompany her on her organization’s shoe drive. He soon discovered that children in Argentina do not have shoes to protect their feet from serious infections and diseases. Some cannot make the walk to school because of these infections. With a simple pair of shoes, these children could get to school to get the education they need to make progress in their country. After seeing this need, Blake came up with the idea for TOMS Shoes. He decided to start a for-profit business to help provide shoes for children in developing countries. Blake told the audience at the Rec that day that to him, the solution came down to entrepreneurship, not charity.
The concept for TOMS is simple. Buy a pair of shoes, and a second pair gets sent to a child who cannot afford shoes. One for one. Blake – a man who didn’t know anything about the shoe business – created a company (it’s not just shoes anymore) that shows no signs of slowing down. Blake’s over-all message to us budding college students was this: incorporate giving into your business structure and “start something that matters.”
I thought his ideas were revolutionary, but admired them for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t until I got a part-time job working for the Epilepsy Foundation of Western Ohio that I began to fully understand Blake’s message. I spent my first days at the EFWO calling local businesses for raffle prizes and silent auction donations for our fundraising events. I suddenly became acutely aware that many businesses, large and small, already leave space in their budgets for charitable giving. They already incorporate giving into their business model. That idea is not revolutionary. Blake’s strategy is revolutionary. He created a brand based on philanthropic ideologies. It’s an emotional call to action on steroids.
Once people hear the TOMS story, they can’t help but tell everyone they know about it. Blake spends very little on advertising, and when he does, it’s exclusively through social media. Blake realizes that his best marketing tool is the consumer. TOMS is a brand built entirely on word-of-mouth advertising, and the whole world caught on quick. One for one. Blake sold 10,000 pairs of shoes that first summer out of his apartment with the help of just three interns.
It’s a great lesson in marketing. The emotional appeal in this campaign clouds the consumer’s logic. Consumers can almost ignore that fact that they are paying top-dollar for a glorified slipper. While the consumer buys an adult pair of shoes, a smaller pair (which uses fewer materials) is donated to a child. The one for one model doesn’t really match up when you break it down this way.
However, it is also true that providing “good-quality” shoes is not a part of the TOMS’ message. He set out to create a company that would be able to provide a constant flow of shoes to those who need them. A for-profit business does not have to wait on donations like a non-profit business model. No one said Blake had to give away a pair of shoes for every pair he sold. There’s no law requiring any business to give back. Blake made that a requirement in his business model, and he did it in a creative way. And that’s the message Blake really wanted us to take away – to think differently and creatively about how we incorporate giving in the for-profit sector.
A business built around philanthropy is one the world can embrace. A strong, consistent brand is often key to any business, and TOMS is no exception. Giving back is the message, giving back is the brand. And it’s a powerful one. At the end of the day you can walk around in your classic pair of TOMS Shoes and take pride in the fact that your purchase made a difference in someone’s life. The story became the brand, and you carry the message on foot. That feeling is priceless.