The TH Interview: TOMS Shoes (Part One)
If you have an entrepreneurial itch, a love of shoes, or a distaste for poverty, Blake Mycoskie, the creator of TOMS, is someone you should know about. In an odd twist, Blake took the favored footwear of Argentine peasants and sparked a hipster shoe meme, transmitted by word of mouth. In our interview, Blake tells us about how TOMS got started, what comes next, and what it takes to hand-place thousands of shoes on children's feet. ::TreeHugger Radio
(Full text below)TreeHugger: So, Blake, you make shoes. Big deal. What's different about TOMS?
Blake Mycoskie: TOMS is really simple. For every pair of shoes that we sell, we also give a pair away to a child somewhere in the world that doesn't have shoes.
It really came from an idea that I had when I met some children down in Argentina a couple of years ago that didn't have shoes. I wanted to give them shoes, but I didn't just want to give them shoes once. And I didn't want to start a charity, because I had no background in charities.
So I decided to use my entrepreneurial background and create a business model that would give one-for-one, so we could build a business by selling shoes and, at the same time, give them away.
TH: Tell me more about that experience in Argentina when this dawned on you.
BM: I'm a serial entrepreneur. I've started five companies in the last 12 years, mainly in media and technology. I was just kind of burned out. I went down to Argentina looking for some time to relax, experience the culture, take it all in.
I spent a couple of weeks doing that. In the process, I met some expats that were down there doing some really great social work in some of the villages on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. I asked them if I could tag along.
I'm always looking for new experiences. When I went with them to one village in particular, I noticed that most of the children did not have shoes, and that if they did have shoes, they had a shoe that was way too big, or duct-taped, or a flip-flop with a hole in it.
It just shocked me to some degree. Shoes aren't that expensive, so why don't they have shoes? And even more so, after I stopped a few of the kids and looked at their feet, they had cuts. They had hookworm. They had infections.
I thought that this is something that seems so easy to solve. There's this inexpensive shoe in Argentina, the alpargata. Why don't we just give them those? I remember having this discussion with the girl I was with at the time, and she was like, "Well, Blake, I think it's beautiful that you want to help them and give them shoes, but giving them shoes once isn't really going to do anything for them."
I said, "OK, well, what if we started a charity and we started giving them shoes every year, or every six months?" We started talking through this and what I realized at that point was, for me, the charity model wouldn't work. Because I could maybe go to my friends and family and ask them for money to donate to my shoe charity once and they might do it. Maybe they'd do it the second time.
But when it comes to the third, fourth, and fifth year, I just know my attention span. It would be hard for me to get excited about going out and continuing to ask my friends and family for money for my shoe charity.
So I really wanted to create a model where I would never have to do that. It would be sustained by a product that people would buy everyday anyway. That's when I came up with the idea of TOMS.
The idea that day on the farm was, "I'm going to make this shoe. I'm going to make this traditional Argentine shoe that people haven't seen here in the US yet. I'm going to sell it and for every pair I sell, I'm going to give one back to these kids in Argentina until they all have shoes. I'm going to continue to do it so they always have shoes." That was the idea two and a half years ago and it hasn't changed one bit since.
TH: Tell me about the implication of having shoes.
BM: I would say that there are really three things that you find. Number one is just that having shoes helps someone with their personal security and understanding. It gives them self-worth. It shows that they're valued. It's almost a sense of wealth in these communities.
It almost becomes a passport into other things that are very important. School, for instance, is probably the easiest example. A lot of kids cannot go to school unless they have a proper uniform, and a proper uniform includes shoes.
So, literally, I've met thousands of families that the first thing they say to us when we give them shoes is, "Oh my God, my kid will now get to go to school." That's a big deal.
To think that there are schools with open seats in the developing world that don't allow kids to come in because they don't have a pair of shoes To me, it's just ridiculous. But that's just the custom that they have. So giving them a pair of shoes allows education. That's one example.
Another example is that a lot of the kids, especially kids in their teenage years, they're responsible for a lot of daily chores. One of those daily chores in a lot of communities, especially in places like Ethiopia and South Africa, is getting fresh water for the family.
Usually, if there is a fresh water source, it's usually one to two miles away from where the villages are, because a lot of villages share this water source. That requires a lot of walking, and the road's usually rocky. Their feet get cut up and then they get infected, so it becomes a health issue, too.
The third piece of it is a derivative of that, but it's much more intense, and it's actually where my largest passion lies right now, my biggest focus. There are areas of the world (southern Ethiopia is an example) where there are horrible, horrible foot diseases that are completely preventable with shoes.
One of them is called podoconiosis. Podoconiosis basically destroys the lymphatic system and causes people's feet to inflame almost to the size of an elephant's foot. What that does is it ostracizes the children and young teenagers from work, from school, any type of human interaction. People feel that they're almost like lepers, they don't want to be anywhere near them. They don't know if they're cursed. So they have no life when they get this disease.
There are 300,000 people in southern Ethiopia with this disease right now; and none of them should have this disease because the same silicone in the soil that's causing it in Ethiopia exists in Hawaii and the mountainous regions of France. The only reason people in Hawaii and France don't have it is because they have shoes.
The only reason people in Ethiopia do have it is because they don't have shoes. So one of the big things is we're really focusing on trying to prevent the next generation of young Ethiopian kids from getting this, and then educating the families about how important it is to wear the shoes once we give them to them.
TH: Is there a TOM? Is this a secret code? Is this a person? Is this your alter ego?
BM: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, I know. It's so funny. A lot of times I'll show up at a speaking engagement or something and I'll introduce myself, "Hi, I'm Blake Mycoskie." They'll look at me like..."where's Tom?" At that point, I explain that I'm basically the closest thing you're ever going to get to Tom.
There is no TOM. We like to say that everyone is TOM, because what TOMS stands for, it's a derivative of the word 'tomorrow' and the idea that we have a better tomorrow.
When we started the project, it was called the Shoes for Tomorrow Project. Then it was just Shoes for Tomorrow. Then that didn't fit on the label, so I just named it TOMS.
You buy a pair today, we give a pair away tomorrow. And collectively, everyone who buys a pair, everyone who works here, everyone who's an intern, we all are TOMS. So that's who TOM is.
TH: You describe yourself as a serial entrepreneur, but you also say that your background is in media and stuff like that. Do you come from a line of shoemakers, fashionistas? How did you figure out the actual nuts and bolts of shoemaking?
BM: Well, it's funny. I have absolutely no experience or background whatsoever in fashion or shoes. To be truthful, in the five businesses that I've started, I have no background or experience in any of those areas.
One of my businesses was a laundry and dry cleaning company. One was an outdoor advertising company. One was a television network. One was a tech company that provides education online.
What I find is I'm just very curious about the world and I guess when needs aren't being met, I like to create businesses that meet them. So, often times, it's a long learning curve because it takes a lot to learn the stuff.
I don't personally think that TOMS Shoes got comfortable until about a year ago. So for the first year and a half, I think I was doing a really good job of telling the story and a really poor job of making shoes.
I have hired a lot of people from some of the best shoe and lifestyle brands out there (Nike, Asics, Tommy Bahama) to help me actually make good products, which we do now. But yeah, no background whatsoever. I just learned how to do it, and it was fueled by my passion to help these initial kids in Argentina.
TH: The design of the shoe is based on this traditional Argentine shoe. What do they call that?
BM: They call it the alpargata. It's a traditional shoe. It has been around for hundreds of years. Farmers have been wearing it primarily.
Just in the last 10 to 20 years it has become a hip, cool thing for the young kids and people to wear, even just around the house. So it is not just farmers anymore. But that is really where it started. The reason why it started there is the farmers wanted something really comfortable, really lightweight that would also dry quickly.
So the nice thing about TOMS is that even though it is a canvas shoe, if you get it wet—at the beach or the pool or anywhere—it will dry really, really quickly in the sun.
It is also very, very lightweight. So it's not like a lot of canvas shoes like Converse or Keds that have that a really thick, rubber vulcanized sole.
Ours has a very thin EVA rubber composite that basically makes the shoe very light. If you put our shoe on a scale and you put a Havaiana flip-flop on a scale, our shoe actually weighs less than a Havaiana flip-flop. But it's a full shoe.
So it's really lightweight. I think that is part of the ingenious design of the Argentines who made it 150 years ago.
TH: Do you have any Argentine friends who were tripped out by seeing all these hipsters walking around in them?
BM: So many! They all think it's crazy. I mean literally, even in the highest levels of government in Argentina, from past President Kirchner to his wife, who is now the President, they just can't believe that I have taken a shoe that has been around for hundreds of years and basically created this little movement in the United States and Europe around it. They love it.
TH: Let's talk about the response of the people who are receiving the shoes and where this is going on. I have heard you describe them as "shoe drops." What is your distribution network? And what is people's reaction when you roll up in your truck with thousands of shoes?
BM: Well, I think the first thing is the word "shoe drop," while it has become a great phrase for what we do, it's a little bit misleading, because we don't drop any shoes. We actually hand place every single pair of shoes onto a child's foot.
So that is one of the first and most important things to realize. This is a very, very intimate giving environment. We believe that the child gets as much satisfaction and joy out of the personal one-on-one interaction with someone from the first world as they do from the actual shoes. So, that is the first thing.
The second thing is that one of the big parts of what shoe drops are, is they are not just a means to an end of delivering all these shoes that we have promised. But they are ways to involve all kinds of people from all over the world in the idea of giving. Oftentimes it is their first time.
So we take 15 volunteers every two weeks to Argentina, and then sometimes even to Ethiopia in South Africa, to help us give away these shoes. We have a whole team of people for whom their sole job at TOMS is to review applications, to book travel, to organize these trips.
Because we believe that it is not just that we're helping these people get shoes. But we're also about helping people in the first world have a quality, safe, life-changing experience in the idea of giving.
Hopefully when they go with us on one of these trips, they come back and they have the passion to do something on their own, or to get more involved in TOMS, so that more and more people can benefit from this concept.
TH: So can we tell TreeHugger Radio listeners that potentially, if they apply, they could go down and partake in one of these operations?
BM: Absolutely. You just go to our website at tomsshoes.com and in the section about Our Cause there is an application.
We also are doing some shoe drops in the United States this year, especially in the New Orleans area. There are still some school districts that are still hurt from everything that has happened there over the past three or four years and also in the Delta Mississippi area.
So whether you want to go to Argentina or Africa or do a shoe drop here in the United States, you can definitely sign up to go. It is really cool because we have developed an alumni of people who have gone. They still get together and have dinner and they interact. It is just a really cool community of people, because once you go, it really is a life-changing experience.
TH: Have there been naysayers along the way? And has there been any negative feedback, either on the purchasing end where people buy TOMS, or on the receiving end from those people who are taking the donations of shoes?
BM: Definitely not on the taking donations end. Every village and every place we have worked, and every nonprofit NGO partner, they are extremely grateful. They are in disbelief that someone would want to give.
A lot of people could potentially come and give them the most obvious necessities, and those are definitely needed and appreciated. But to give someone a pair of shoes, it's like, "Man this is cool."
It's like no matter who you are or where you are or where you live, getting a new pair of shoes is an awesome experience. So there is this great gratitude that we get everywhere we go.
It's weird. You even see this in the US culture. You might see kids living in the ghetto who can't afford school books. Somehow they are scraping enough money together to buy a nice pair of Nike basketball shoes. It's just crazy.
But for people all over the world, no matter what their economic level is, a pair of shoes is a real sense of pride. So on the giving end, whether it is for health benefits or personal pride and security, we have had nothing but great response on the shoes.
On the selling side, I think the only negative response we have had is—because the company has grown so fast—we haven't been able to satisfy all of our retailers or even customers in the way that they would want.
Typically, most people who are selling to these top retailers or in Nordstrom or in one of these big, big companies, are brands like Cole Haan and Nike and Tory Burke. So they are hundred-million-dollar companies.
So they have five people in customer service. They have 10 people in purchasing. So the problem is that you have got this little company in Santa Monica, California with a bunch of people who have no idea about shoes dealing to top executives at Nordstrom's.
They are like, "Dude, why can't you ship this at the right time?" We are like, "Because we have one person trying to ship to 400 stores." On the business level, I think that people are hoping that we can staff, and we are staffing. We have gone from nine employees last year to now having 42 full-time employees. So we are definitely staffing up.
They want to sell our shoes because our customers want them. But then they have to deal with a company that is one tenth the size or one twentieth the size of what they are used to dealing with.
TH: Do you have peers in the business world who have heard about your idea of giving a pair of shoes away for every one you sell who say that this is loco?
BM: Yeah. I think that when I first started, everyone thought it was crazy. It was one of those things where people said, "I don't understand. Why don't you just give away a percentage of your profits and really focus on that?"
The one-for-one model seemed very, very crazy to everyone I talked to when I first started. But now that it is actually showing that it can work, people are feeling like it is something that actually makes sense.
When I have a chance to really break down the numbers and describe that we don't spend any money on advertising but it's all word-of-mouth, then people say, "Man maybe this actually makes sense."
Because by doing something so bold and so gracious, it's going to inspire so many people to want to talk about it. And those people talking about it is better than any advertising that we could ever have spent.