TOMS | An Interview with Blake Mycoskie by Sophie Borch-Jacobsen

Back in 2006, we saw a simple alpargata inspired shoe arrive on the high street, with the promise to provide one pair of shoes to children in need with every purchase. Back then, this was a pretty novel idea, and for good reason this concept has grown in great strides since then. Today, the TOMS brand boasts 35 million pairs of shoes given to children, and has expanded their offering to eyewear and coffee; following the same one-for-one model and helping to restore sight to 250,000 people, and provide over 100,000 weeks of clean water. Their latest venture has seen them team up with Christy Turlington’s Every Mother Counts foundation, focusing on providing safe childbirth to women across the world. Most importantly, however, TOMS has proven that it is possible to run a successful commercial business with a strong social mission at its core, inspiring young entrepreneurs across the world to incorporate a giving aspect into their business. We met with the founder of TOMS, Blake Mycoskie, at his first UK flagship store, which opened last week off of Carnaby Street in Central London.

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Today is the opening of your first UK store – do you think that the London market is ready to embrace what you are doing? 

Blake Mycoskie: I think it’s going to be great! The UK is one of our top three markets, after the US and South Korea, and we have been here for a while so I think there is a decent amount of brand awareness. The idea with this space, similarly to some of our locations in the US, is not just to a store, but to create a community space – which is why we have the café, and we are hoping that we can invite people to come have a coffee, meet up with a friend, we will have different speakers, and more programming. It will much more focused on community building rather than just selling products. When I think about the future of retail, you can buy anything online. So why even go to a store? The idea is to give our supporters more of a full educational and inspirational experience, and then at the same time have the products for sale and that are merchandised in a way that is pleasing.

Also the company’s 9th birthday today, you started in 2006 on a relatively simple “one-for-one” business model. The growth of your business has proven that the model is a very successful one. How are you able to remain successful while giving so much back, and why aren’t we then seeing more of this in other businesses? 

I think we are starting to see more. It is not as widespread as we’d like to see it yet, but we are seeing more businesses involving a giving component or a social mission from the beginning. I think it is very hard for existing businesses to retrofit that way, and sometimes even if they do, customers almost feel as though it isn’t authentic. So I think its much easier to start that way, like we did. From the very first week we made sales we were giving away shoes. I think what is exiting is that we are going to see in the next 20 years or so a lot more business like this, because kids that are now in high school or in college that are maybe wearing our products and are inspired by this thinking, they are the ones who are going to be going to business school and becoming entrepreneurs and running financial institutions in the future. 9 years ago, when we started, people thought that it was really crazy and that it would never work, that there was no way we would ever make money, there was no way we could give this much away and still be profitable. Now people question if and when other businesses are going to do the same thing, and I think its just going to take time. I definitely think we are seeing early trends of people being more thoughtful and incorporating a social mission into their business.

What have been the biggest challenges that you have had to deal with while trying to start and grow a sustainable business? 

The biggest challenge has always been in the production realm, but in two very different ways. At first we had so much demand that we couldn’t make the shoes fast enough. I didn’t come from a shoe background, and very few of my first employees had any experience in shoes, and so we had a lot of trouble just making shoes that fit right and getting them to the stores. Then the challenge in production really came in the last 3 years, when we were confronted with some criticism saying that, if we were really serious about poverty alleviation, we couldn’t just continue to focus on aid. As important as it is, aid is just one of three main components–aid, education, and jobs. So if TOMS is making all these shoes, then the critics were telling us that we should be integrating our supply chain in a way that creates jobs in these local communities that we are giving in. So, actually agreeing with these critics, I wanted to figure out a way to change our business model so that we could create these jobs. It was difficult because in a lot of these places there is not reliable electricity, there is not the skilled labour, and there is no infrastructure set up for it, but nevertheless over the past three years we have successfully set up manufacturing in India, Kenya, Ethiopia and Haiti. That represents 40% of all the giving shoes that we give in those countries. So that is a really big thing for us, and it has made our impact on those that we are trying to serve much bigger.

Did you set up these factories from scratch or are you working with existing factories? 

We are working with existing factories in Kenya, India and Ethiopia, and Haiti we set it up from scratch, which was the biggest challenge. It took about two years to do it. It is still owned by the Haitians, we never want to own the factory, so that eventually they can make shoes for other people too.

The products that you offer now–shoes, eyewear and coffee–have been defined by the basic needs that you are providing at the same time. Do you think that the products can, or should, exist independently from the story behind the brand? Or do you think that the story is as much of the product as the actual physical object? 

What I would say is this: you have to have great products. So you might buy TOMS products once because of the giving and the mission, but you will never buy it twice because of that. You are only going to buy TOMS product again if you like the quality, if you think the price is right if you think it is stylish or fashionable. So the product has to stand on its own. But we would never separate the mission from the product.

As more businesses start from scratch with a giving component, do you think that we will begin to see companies naturally giving back without that being part of the brand story – just a normal aspect of being a business?  

Yes, we are speaking more and more about what are called the triple bottom line in business, meaning: profit, people and planet. I think that that is going to be the future of business. As a human race we are going to be required to make sure we are taking care of the planet, and as creators of brands we are going to be required to know we are impacting people in a positive way. Profit always has to be a bottom line, because without profit you cannot accomplish the two other things. So I think that that is going to be a big part of the way that customers measure businesses, and the customer ultimately decides the success of a business. So I think that business will change when customers decide to only support conscious organisations. But for that to happen, there needs to be a few businesses, hopefully TOMS being one of them, whose own level of consciousness allows them to act as predecessors to this trend. So there will be a few businesses like TOMS that affect the customer’s change in consciousness, and for that to happen the moral and social aspect of the brand needs to be very strong.

So you need in the first instance to have these very strong stories, before we can see that becoming an inevitable part of business. 

Its exciting that these questions are being asked now, because 9 years ago when we started the only question was “do you think there is any chance that this will work”! So I see that as progress already. The fact the question is not “Can this work?” but that it is “Can this change other businesses?” means that we have come a long way.

Although there are more and more international companies incorporating a social mission into their business, TOMs was one of the first and certainly one of the biggest, and I see this as a very American story in a way–an entrepreneur taking it upon themselves to make change happen rather than relying on existing systems. Do you think that in today’s corporate and political climate companies and business are better equipped to act in an efficient way than traditional non-profit or government institutions? 

I think that what makes them more equipped is simply access to a fresh way of thinking, and the more young people of the millennial generation fill executive positions in these companies, the more equipped they will be to tackle these issues. It takes a new way of thinking and it is very hard to get the old guard to think differently, but it’s much easier to get new leaders to embody their own beliefs. So it is a little bit of a time thing, and I do think that is takes more success stories as well.

How do you see TOMS evolving in the future? 

I think that we will divide our impact in a number of ways. Firstly we will continue to create products that allow people to give back through their everyday purchases. Secondly, the TOMS brand and myself become investors and incubators in other social enterprises, and start thinking about how can we help and support other brands that are doing great work. The bigger the whole movement is, the better it is for our long-term existence as well. And then the third thing is just to continue to share the story with more people, so that someone reading this might be motivated to do something similar. That’s a big part of my responsibility, because we have been successful. I need to share that story so that people can hopefully relate, connect and be inspired.

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Interview by Sophie-Borch Jacobsen

Conducted in London for the TOMS store launch, April 2015