TOMS Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie did not begin life dreaming of entrepreneurship, shoes or creating a socially conscious company. In fact, when he embarked on his college career almost 20 years ago at Southern Methodist University, Mycoskie had one professional ambition in mind.
He wanted to be Indiana Jones.
However, he quickly ran into an issue. Despite what the movies told him, archaeology was not an interesting course of study for him at all — Mycoskie likened the experience to “watching paint dry.”
Mycoskie quickly decided he needed a new course of study, and, after bouncing briefly into philosophy (which he described as “a life-changing experience”), he decided to drop out entirely after about 18 months and focus on entrepreneurship.
And so, TOMS Shoes was born — an idea inspired by his time as a contestant on a CBS game show, “The Amazing Race.”
For those unfamiliar with the reality show, teams of contestants race other teams of contestants in a multi-week, multi-stop, round-the-world race. Mycoskie, while competing with his sister in Argentina, spotted the local alpargata shoes. When he returned a few years later on vacation, he started wearing the simple, slip-on canvas shoes and realized he discovered the innovation the world needed. The idea for a business was born — and christened TOMS Shoes, short for Tomorrow’s Shoes. He sold his current venture — a student driving startup — for $500,000 and got to work.
More than snappy futuristic footwear, TOMS also brought a strong sense of mission to its product. For every pair of shoes the company sold, they donated a pair to a child in need. That sense of purpose, paired with a savvy presence on social media, brought the business a large and devoted following — and has seen the firm expand from shoes to other environmentally sound and charitably oriented accessories like bags, hats and sunglasses. Mycoskie is no longer CEO — after selling much of his share in the firm to Bain Capital in 2014, he has since moved to the official role of Chief Shoe Giver and has focused his attention on what’s next for TOMS Shoes.
The Importance of Direct Connections
TOMS — apart from cute shoes with a conscience — believes its ability to make fast connections with its consumer base is a strength — which can typically be a challenge for brands born digitally. The online customer is expensive to attract and not easy to keep. A customer who searches TOMS Shoes on Amazon, for example, is going encounter many of their products.
Those customers are also going to discover lots of shoes that look just like theirs that maybe don’t have as strong a social mission — or just aren’t as well made. Building a relationship with customers, on social media and in even in the physical world, means the search for TOMS Shoes remains a search for TOMS Shoes, without evolving into a search for similar canvas slip-ons.
This is likely why TOMS has been one of the many digital brands that has spent the last year experimenting with pop-up shops and physical stores. Shoppers’ needs are changing, and while physical hubs may not be the standard platform through which all shopping experiences occur, they will always be important for cementing relationships between brands and consumers.
“I personally think that brick-and-mortar done right is the most effective advertising to your eCommerce site, more than anything else. Even if our stores don’t make money, they just break even, but we keep customers who are now staying engaged with us and becoming eCommerce customers in the long term. That is what we see in the data — customers who have interacted with us physically are much more likely to continue interacting with us digitally over time. That’s much better than a magazine ad that you spend money on today and it’s gone tomorrow. So, I think brick-and-mortar, when done right, is really the future of advertising.”
Social Entrepreneurship Done Right
TOMS’ social message — and commitment to donating as much as it sells — has put a spotlight on the brand. That’s a great form of advertising as well, Mycoskie noted, but one that comes at a cost: People will investigate if a company is really charitable, or if the charity is really just a token effort to build out the bottom line.
For a few years, TOMS was dogged by media reports in places like Vox, Slate and The Economist — as well as critiques from academics studying global poverty — which stated that its donation platform for free shoes was actually more effective for marketing the company’s wares than helping people.
“You can’t eat shoes,” Bruce Wydick of the University of San Francisco said simply.
But while other socially conscious brands have chosen to get defensive when accused of being less helpful than they claimed to be, TOMS decided to study the question. And study it again. TOMS created several studies over the course of several years, all geared at answering one question: Were they actually helping the people they wanted to help?
The answer they got back — and which they publicly published — was: no. TOMS Shoes helped communities but created some major costs in the process.
Dependance being a major one — once TOMS started offering up shoes in a community, consumers stopped buying shoes from local merchants, choosing instead to wait for free shoes.
In order to combat this trend, the company shifted their manufacturing so that a third of their products were made in the communities to which they donated, so they became a boon to those local economies.
The company also expanded its giving purview to something arguably more impactful than shoes — sight correction. For every pair of sunglasses TOMS sells, the brand supports a corrective procedure for the visually impaired.
TOMS Shoes may not be able to change the world, but they might be able to influence how consumers think about buying products and the brands that sell them. Because, as a brand, TOMS is dedicated to finding ways to do more — consequently bringing in more customers with their efforts.