The Blake Effect

MONTAUK, N.Y. — Blake Mycoskie is proving that one little idea can make a very big difference.

The Toms Shoes founder last week gave out his millionth pair of shoes in a remote Argentinian province, marking a huge milestone for the company, which launched just four years ago and has helped improve the lives of children around the world.

“It’s an unbelievable moment,” said an emotional Mycoskie, who was joined for the occasion by his family, friends and first intern from Toms. “I didn’t know anything about the footwear business [when I started], but I had an idea, and thankfully, I acted on it. Now a million kids have shoes.”

For Mycoskie, it’s still just the beginning.

“From a business standpoint, this gives us legitimacy and says we’re here to stay. There’s so much more to do,” Mycoskie said, two weeks before the shoe drop, during an exclusive interview in Montauk, N.Y., where he spent most of August “thinking, writing and surfing.”

In between riding the waves, Mycoskie put the finishing touches on the first draft of his forthcoming, as-yet-untitled book, which will be published by Random House. In it, he details the rise of Toms and chronicles other successful social entrepreneurs. (Details couldn’t be divulged until the final edits are made.)

“I’ve been keeping journals since I was 15. I write every day; it’s part of my process,” said Mycoskie, who has been working on the book for about a year. “More than anything, I like teaching, so this is a way for me to expand on some of the lessons we’ve learned.”

It’s been a whirlwind journey for the 34-year-old, who went on a trip to Argentina in early 2006 to learn polo and came back with the idea for Toms after noticing that most of the country’s children lacked shoes. The company’s founding mission — to give away a pair of shoes for every pair it sells — has resonated strongly with both retailers and consumers.

“Our customers are passionate about Toms and believe in the mission of giving shoes to kids in need,” said Scott Meden, EVP and GMM for shoes at Nordstrom, which is launching children’s shoes with Toms next month. “This customer is very socially aware, wants to make a difference and loves the brand.”

Mycoskie’s outreach has centered on college students, a group that has fueled the company’s rapid growth.

“We really struck a chord with young consumers who want to incorporate giving into their personal identity,” said Mycoskie, who lives on a sailboat in Southern California and has shed many of his personal possessions. “It’s as much their brand as it is ours. You go to these campuses and the students have made T-shirts and flags, all kinds of [Toms-branded] things. Most shoe companies would freak out and worry that they weren’t making money off that. But we don’t care. We’re a movement, not a company.”

And while Mycoskie is at the center of that movement, it isn’t always easy to be its very public brand ambassador.

“I don’t want it to be the Blake show,” he said,. “It’s funny, in the past 18 months, I’ve become much more introverted. Every time I get recognized at the airport or on the street, it’s cool, and I don’t want to take that for granted, but it’s also draining. So I’ve been spending more time disappearing. That’s one reason I came here. No one cares.”

But that’s impossible: Mycoskie’s boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm, combined with Toms’ unique story, immediately draw people in.

Case in point: When famed fashion photographer Bruce Weber heard Mycoskie was in Montauk, he invited him to dinner. During the evening, Mycoskie told the lensman he had a cover shoot the next morning, and Weber promptly gave him his favorite T-shirt to wear. (See portrait at left.)

But the entrepreneur isn’t letting the growing celebrity status distract him from the main goal: to give away shoes.

The company now donates to 22 countries, with Argentina, Ethiopia, Honduras and South Africa topping the list of key areas. Recently, Toms started handing out shoes in Rwanda and has also increased its efforts in Haiti in the wake of this year’s devastating earthquake. The U.S. market is also part of the outreach.

“It’s becoming more important for our partners to experience what we do,” Mycoskie said, “and it’s impractical for [many of them to travel overseas]. So we’re looking to do more here, and it’s really just about identifying where the biggest need is.”

Is the one-for-one strategy sustainable? Mycoskie doesn’t see any reason why not, now that the company can funnel more of its sales into infrastructure and has worked through production wrinkles. Building a strong sourcing network has been one of the biggest challenges for the privately held Toms, which does not disclose annual sales.

“Production has been difficult. I had never made a shoe in my life, and that’s just not how my mind works,” Mycoskie said. During the early years, the company produced its shoes in a garage in Argentina. Today, most of the line is made in China and Ethiopia, and Mycoskie is also considering utilizing Brazil.

“I like to have a diverse supply chain, so you have less risk in one area,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot and improved a lot, and now people say our quality and on-time delivery is as good as anyone’s.”

Now the firm is facing another challenge. Skechers last month rolled out its new Bobs line, which is strikingly similar to Toms in name, styling and mission. The company said it will donate one pair of shoes to Soles4Souls for every pair of Bobs it sells.

For his part, Mycoskie said it was too early to tell what kind of impact the Skechers brand would have, but that he was focused solely on his own company. “This is nothing new; a lot of companies in the shoe industry do this,” Mycoskie said. “Am I excited? No, but I’m not naive enough to think it’s not going to happen. We’re just going to continue focusing on what we do, and I hope the consumer will choose the original.”

In fact, the firm has never been in a better position, Mycoskie said. In the past year, Toms has entered several high-profile doors, including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. And its latest collection of women’s wedges has been a strong seller among fashion-forward female consumers.

“The wedges were two years in the making,” said Mycoskie, who relies on a team of designers to churn out new styles, but is still very involved in the process. “It took a long time for me to wrap my head around how we could stay consistent.”

But don’t expect the company to venture too far from its core canvas product. “The last thing I want to do is have a lot of silhouettes,” Mycoskie said. “If you look historically at shoe companies, they have problems every time they try to overextend themselves. I’d rather just have a simple business and focus on giving.”

That’s also the main reason Mycoskie is adamant about keeping the company independent. “We’ve had a lot of people contact us,” Mycoskie said, “but I can say pretty strongly that it’s not something I would do. I want to [run this] in the purest and most transparent way, and all investors would do is complicate things.”

And the founder said there are no plans to venture beyond footwear, either. “At least right now, our focus is 100 percent on shoes. There are so many people who need them,” Mycoskie said.

So where does he see the company five years from now? “That’s an impossible question,” Mycoskie said. “Just look at what’s happened in the last four.”

Blake On…

His most memorable Toms experience:

“These three boys, even after they had their shoes, kept pulling on me to come with them. I finally followed, and they took me to the back of their school, where there was a soccer field. Instead of grass, there were rocks; it was very rugged. But they wanted to show me how much better they were playing because of their new shoes. I remember that as an athlete growing up, it was always exciting to get new gear or shoes, and now they got to experience that same joy of getting something that helped them do their sport better. We played soccer for an hour, just me and the kids — no journalists, no photographers. It was such a beautiful moment.”

The company he admires most:

“Patagonia is a real inspiration to me. Their founder, Yvon Chouinard, wrote a book called ‘Let My People Go Surfing,’ and I read that once a year. It keeps me focused on why we started and what we’re doing. They’re still a private company; they haven’t gotten too big and they never took on investors. I really look up to them. The ultimate dream would be for people to talk about Toms the way they talk about Patagonia.”

His fashion mentors:

“Kenneth Cole has become a good friend and a good mentor. There have been a couple of times where I’ve been at a crossroads and I’ll call Kenneth and he says, ‘Let’s have breakfast and talk about it.’ He has a great soul. He was doing social activist campaigns before it was cool, and I give him a lot of credit for using his brand to raise awareness of important issues. Ralph Lauren, from a classic American style point of view, is a great company. It was such a special experience to do a collaboration with them.”

His biggest piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:

“Follow your gut. There is a lot of negativity out there, but the truth is that all great things start out with a great idea. Look at Apple or Virgin or Patagonia. People should trust their instincts.”

Whether he would ever launch another new company:

“I don’t think so. I started my first business when I was 19, and I’ve been an entrepreneur for 15 years. The idea of starting all over again isn’t as exciting as it was when I was a little younger. I feel like I’ve hit a stage in my life where I want to have a more well-rounded existence. And I get so much fulfillment out of Toms.”

The power of social networking:

“We use all of it, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it. The masses tell us what they want [through social media]. For example, the wedge came about because so many people would tell us they wanted something with height. It’s a very democratic way to interact.”

His biggest pet peeve about the industry:

“Why do we have to ship seasons so early? To ship fall when it’s still 110 degrees in Texas, I don’t get it. It causes us to have to design so far in advance, and the whole thing is backward. I wish someone would figure it out.”

Trying out Toms’ women’s wedges:

“I was at a beach party in California over the July 4 weekend, and a girl came up to ask me about the wedges. She said, ‘Everyone’s talking about them, and they’re so cute. But are they comfortable?’ Without thinking, I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ She looked at me and asked how I knew. She was right, I shouldn’t have given such a strong endorsement of something I’d never worn. So the next week, I wore them for three days straight in the office. I’ve never worn a wedge before, but I thought they were pretty comfortable.”

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