As the Original One for One Company, TOMS has always been in business to improve lives. Since 2006, the TOMS community has given nearly 100 million pairs of shoes to people in need. TOMS has always stood for a better tomorrow. Thirteen years later and nearly 100 million pairs of shoes given, TOMS has come to understand that communities across the globe face new and complex challenges, and TOMS believes it’s our responsibility to do more.
In 2006 Blake Mycoskie took some time off from work to travel to Argentina. Blake was twenty-nine years old and running his fourth entrepreneurial startup: an online driver’s education program for teens. They were at a crucial moment in the business’s development, but Blake had promised himself a vacation and wasn’t going to back out. Argentina was one of the countries his sister, Paige, and he had sprinted through in 2002 while they were competing on the CBS reality program The Amazing Race. (As fate would have it, after thirty-one days of racing around the world, Blake and Paige lost the million-dollar prize by just four minutes).
When Blake returned to Argentina, his main mission was to lose himself in its culture. Mycoskie spent his days learning the national dance (the tango), playing the national sport (polo), and, of course, drinking the national wine (Malbec). He also got used to wearing the national shoe: the alpargata, a soft, casual canvas shoe worn by almost everyone in the country. Blake saw this incredibly versatile shoe everywhere: in the cities, on the farms, and in the nightclubs. An idea began to form in the back of his mind: Maybe the alpargata would have some market appeal in the United States. But as with many half-formed ideas that came to Mycoskie, he tabled it for the moment. His time in Argentina was supposed to be about fun, not work.
Seeing a Need
Toward the end of Blake’s trip, he met an American woman in a café who was volunteering on a shoe drive. She explained that many kids lacked shoes, even in relatively well-developed countries like Argentina, an absence that didn’t just complicate every aspect of their lives — including essentials like attending school and getting water from the local well — but also exposed them to a wide range of diseases. Her organization collected shoes from donors and gave them to kids in need — but ironically the donations that supplied the organization were also its Achilles’ heel. Their complete dependence on donations meant that they had little control over their supply of shoes. And even when donations did come in sufficient quantities, they were often not in the correct sizes, which meant that many of the children were left barefoot even after the shoe drop-offs. It was heartbreaking.
Blake spent a few days traveling from village to village with the woman and her group, and a few more traveling on his own, witnessing the intense pockets of poverty just outside the bustling capital. It dramatically heightened his awareness. Blake knew somewhere in the back of his mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot, but now, for the first time, he saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.
Mycoskie wanted to do something about it. But what?
Call to Action
Blake’s first thought was to start his own shoe-based charity, but instead of soliciting shoe donations, he would ask friends and family to donate money to buy the right type of shoes for these children on a regular basis. Mycoskie has a large family and lots of friends, but it wasn’t hard to see that his personal contacts could dry up sooner or later. And then what? These kids needed more than occasional shoe donations from strangers.
Blake began to look for solutions in the world he already knew: business and entrepreneurship. An idea hit him: Why not create a for-profit business to help provide shoes for these children? Why not come up with a solution that guaranteed a constant flow of shoes, not just whenever kind people were able to make a donation? In other words, maybe the solution was in entrepreneurship, not charity.
Mycoskie felt excited and energized and shared those feelings with Alejo, his Argentinian polo teacher and friend: “I’m going to start a shoe company that makes a new kind of alpargata. And for every pair I sell, I’m going to give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. There will be no percentages and no formulas.”
It was a simple concept: Sell a pair of shoes today, give a pair of shoes tomorrow. Something about the idea felt right, even though Mycoskie had no experience, or even connections, in the shoe business. Blake did have one thing that came to him almost immediately: a name for his new company: He called it TOMS. He had been playing around with the phrase “Shoes for a Better Tomorrow,” which eventually became “Tomorrow’s Shoes,” then TOMS. (And now you know why his name is Blake but my shoes are TOMS. It’s not about a person. It’s about a promise — a better tomorrow.)
Blake asked Alejo if he would join the mission, because he trusted him implicitly and, of course, Blake would need a translator. Alejo jumped at the opportunity to help his people, and suddenly they were a team.
Blake and Alejo began working out of Alejo’s family barn, when the two weren’t off meeting local shoemakers in hopes of finding someone who would work with them. The tandem described to others precisely what they wanted: a shoe like the alpargata, made for the American market. It would be more comfortable and durable than the Argentine version, but also more fun and stylish, for the fashion-conscious American consumer.
Most of the shoemakers called them loco and refused to work with them, for the hard-to-argue-with reason that we had very little idea of what they were talking about. But finally Blake and Alejo found someone crazy enough to believe: a local shoemaker named Jose. For the next few weeks, Alejo and Blake traveled hours over unpaved and pothole-filled roads to get to Jose’s “factory” — a room no bigger than the average American garage, with a few old machines and limited materials.
Soon they started collaborating with some other artisans, all working out of dusty rooms outfitted with one or two old machines for stitching the fabric and littered with bits and pieces of cloth, surrounded by roosters, burros, and iguanas. These people had been making the same shoes the same way for generations, so they looked at Blake’s designs — and Blake — with understandable suspicion.
Alejo and Blake worked with those artisans to get 250 samples made, which Blake stuffed into three duffel bags.
Taking It to the Streets
Soon Mycoskie was back in Los Angeles with his duffel bags of modified alpargatas. Now he had to figure out what to do with them. Blake still didn’t know much about fashion, or retail, or shoes, or anything relating to the footwear business. So he asked some of his best female friends to dinner and told them the story: his trip to Argentina, the shoe drive, and, finally, his idea for TOMS.
Luckily, Blake’s friends loved the story, loved the concept of TOMS, and loved the shoes. They also gave Blake a list of stores they thought might be interested in selling his product. Best, they all left his apartment that night wearing pairs they’d insisted on buying from him. A good sign — and a good lesson: You don’t always need to talk with experts; sometimes the consumer, who just might be a friend or acquaintance, is your best consultant.
By then Blake had gone back to working at his current company, the driver’s education business, so he didn’t have a great deal of time to devote to hawking shoes. At first Blake thought that wouldn’t matter and that he could get everything done via email and phone calls in his spare time.
That idea got Blake nowhere. One of the first of many important lessons he learned along the way: No matter how convenient it is for us to reach out to people remotely, sometimes the most important task is to show up in person.
So one Saturday Blake packed up some shoes in his duffel bag and went to American Rag, one of the top stores on the list his friends had compiled, and asked for the shoe buyer. Every month this woman saw, and judged, more shoes than imaginable — certainly more shoes than American Rag could ever possibly stock. But from the beginning, she realized that TOMS was more than just a shoe. It was a story. And the buyer loved the story as much as the shoe — and knew she could sell both of them.
TOMS now had a retail customer.
Another big break followed soon afterward. Booth Moore, the fashion writer for the Los Angeles Times, heard about the TOMS story, loved it — and the shoes — and promised to write an article. One Saturday morning not long after, Blake woke up to see the front page of the Times’ Calendar section: It was Booth Moore’s story. TOMS was headlines! TOMS already had 900 orders on the website. By the end of the day, they’d received 2,200.
That was the good news. The bad news was that we had only about 160 pairs of shoes left sitting in Blake’s apartment. On the website TOMS promised everyone four-day delivery. What could they do?
Craigslist to the rescue. Blake quickly posted an ad for interns and soon he had selected three excellent candidates, who began working with him immediately. One of them, Jonathan, a young man with a Mohawk haircut, spent his time calling or emailing the people who had ordered shoes to let them know their orders weren’t coming anytime soon, because TOMS didn’t have any inventory — in fact, they might have to wait as long as eight weeks before they had more. And yet only one person out of those 2,200 initial orders canceled, and that was because she was leaving for a semester abroad.
Hollywood’s Stamp of Approval
Blake had to return to Argentina to make more shoes. In the meantime, back home, publicity kept growing as the LA Times article sparked more coverage. The next big hit came when Vogue magazine decided to do a spread on TOMS… although the fledgling company consisted of three interns and Mycoskie working out of his apartment. In the magazine, TOMS’s forty-dollar canvas flats were being featured next to Manolo Blahnik stilettos that sold for ten times as much. After Vogue, other magazines, such as Time, People, Elle, and even Teen Vogue, wrote TOMS up. Meanwhile, their retail customer base was expanding beyond the trendy Los Angeles stores to include national powerhouses such as Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. Soon, celebrities like Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson, and Tobey Maguire were spotted around town wearing TOMS.
TOMS ended up selling 10,000 pairs of shoes that first summer — all out of Blake’s Venice apartment, a fact they had to hide from Blake’s landlady because his lease didn’t allow for running a shoe company out of Blake’s living room. His landlady was something of an oddball and would occasionally walk into the apartment unannounced. Luckily, her car had a terrible muffler that announced her presence from a block away. Whenever anyone heard that racket, they’d perform an extreme cleanup and all the interns would hide in my bedroom; when she showed up, there was no sign that a full-fledged business was being run out of a residential apartment. Sometimes they’d even hold drills just to make sure we could clean everything up within a few minutes.
Blake Mycoskie is not perfect and TOMS has gone through its share of difficulty. However, it is amazing how they have chosen to create a better future by going the extra mile. Here are some questions we want to ask you to wrestle with:
- What do you think Christians are known for these days by the world at large?
- What do you think is the difference between trying to gain notice, and trying to fulfill God’s purpose for your life?
- Is there someone that is an example of going the extra mile? Who is the perfect example?
- When have you gone the extra mile and realized later just how significant it was to your life?
What is God nudging you to do?