South Africa inspires TOMS Shoes
by Toby Shapshak.
South Africa has provided the inspiration for the next phase of TOMS Shoes One-for-One-movement, its founder Blake Mycoskie said in a keynote at SxSW.
TOMS is an American shoe company that gives one pair of shoes to children-in-need around the world for every pair bought by its customers. It’s an inspirational story of how a business can succeed when “you incorporate giving into your business”.
Started in 2006, TOMS has given away over a million pairs of shoes to children, often in developing countries in South America. It began after he saw the hardships faced by kids growing up barefoot in Argentina when he competed in The Amazing Race TV show in 2001. He came second. “We lost $1 million by four minutes, and it was all my fault. I epitomised the cliché that men will never stop and ask for directions,” he joked.
During a holiday back to the country in 2006, the 34-year-old Mycoskie, for whom TOMS is his fifth start-up business, he thought up the idea for TOMS, using the Argentinian alpargata shoe. Worn by farmers for hundreds of year they are lightweight, made of canvas and easy to manufacture. Sold in bright colours, they stood out.
He chose shoes to counter soil-transmitted diseases in developing countries, “which can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes can help prevent these diseases, and the long-term physical and cognitive harm they cause,” he says on his website. “Wearing shoes also prevents feet from getting cuts and sores. Not only are these injuries painful, they also are dangerous when wounds become infected.”
And, he says, “many times children can’t attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform. If they don’t have shoes, they don’t go to school. If they don’t receive an education, they don’t have the opportunity to realise their potential”.
Once, when he returned to Argentina on his first “shoe drop” – where he physically put the shoes on the children – he took his mother. “When I first went to Argentina to put the shoes on those kids, my life changed,” he said at SxSW. “Five months before, it was just an idea. When I saw my mom on her hands and knees, wiping kids’ feet clean and putting shoes on their feet, I just lost it. I was crying so hard that I scared away all the kids who were around me.”
“When I got on my hands and knees and starting putting these
shoes on these kids’ feet. I was filled with complete joy. I was elated.”
He told the story of how after they had given out the shoes, an emotional mother of three sons came up to thank him.
Through a Spanish interpreter she explained her sons only had one pair of shoes between them and took it in turns to go to school. Now all three could go every day. He said the interpreter, himself and his mother all cried. Twitter was filled with messages from attendees who were crying after he told the story.
“If you incorporate giving into your business, it gets marketing. It attracts the most amazing people into your company.”
“The greatest competitive advantage is to allow you employees to do something that makes them feel like they are giving back.”
TOMS got lucky when the first shoe store he sold the shoes to put a notice in the window. It became a national newspaper story and later it was flighted on TV.
“TOMS did not have to focus on advertising, but on giving,” he says.
He had intended to sell 250 shoes in his first year, but sold 10 000.
Then he had two pieces of luck, he said. The first was fashion legend Ralph Lauren offered to design a range of shoes for his Rugby chain of stores. It was the first time Lauren, with his $3-billion a year business, had designed anything for another brand in 40 years.
Then AT&T used him in an adverting campaign, he says it was “an authentic story”, of how he used their network to stay in touch and work on the go.
“When you incorporate giving into your business you attract most amazing partners,” he says of these two pieces of good fortune.
“It would never have happened if we were just a shoes company, but because we’re a giving company. We sold and gave about an extra 100 000 shoes because of that.”
Mycoskie, who has a wild shock of curly hair, told a story of how, in the early days, he saw a woman in airport wearing a bright red pair of TOMS. He pretended he knew nothing about them and asked her. She related his whole story back to him. He then thought he had to tell her who he was, and her first response, to his brush cut, was to ask him: “Why did you cut your hair?”
But, he realised from this: “Giving doesn’t just feel good, it’s a really good business strategy. When you incorporate giving into your business, your customers become your biggest marketers.”
After telling the remarkable story about his firm’s origins, he explained how he is always asked two questions after he gives talks about the importance of giving in business.
“The first I always answer, the second I never answer,” he told thousands of listeners in the packed auditorium, and thousands more who watched it simulcast around the 10 venues that make up SxSW.
“The first (question) is who is Tom? The truth is there is no Tom. I wanted to call them Tomorrow shoes, but you can’t fit that on the little label so I shortened it to TOMS,” he said to riotous laughter. “I had no idea every single person would want to meet him. There is no Tom, it’s an idea for a better tomorrow.”
The second question, is “what’s next for TOMS?”
He says he’s known since 2007 when he came on a shoe drop to South Africa what that would be.
“I went to South Africa and saw how people experience extreme poverty and their many needs not being met.” After giving away 50 000 pairs of shows, “I realised TOMS’ one for one model was working. If it was this powerful for shoes, it could it meet other needs”.
Not that he’s telling. He showed off a large container on the stage. “The next one for one product is inside this mystery box will be opened on June 7th.
The truth is this: what’s inside this box is not near as important as what is represents. TOMS is no longer a shoe company, it’s a one for one company.”