The road to success is rarely a straight line, but some footwear entrepreneurs’ routes took especially winding turns. Ambitions that started in one place ended up somewhere very different.
What I thought I’d do in life:
I started my first company when I was 19. It was a laundry business. I was a philosophy major [at Southern Methodist University], and I knew nothing about business. But I quickly found that I loved the idea of entrepreneurship — using business to create new products or solve a problem or provide a service. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started five businesses in the last 12 years, most in media and technology.
The moment that changed things:
I was feeling kind of burned out, so I went down to Argentina looking to relax, experience the culture, take it all in, and that’s where the Toms idea started. When I returned home from Argentina in 2006, I told all my friends and family — and pretty much anyone who would listen — about my trip. How I went to Buenos Aires to relax and learn to play polo, how I discovered the alpargata (a shoe that had been worn by Argentine farmers and polo players for more than 100 years), how I went on a volunteer “shoe drive” where used shoes were being collected from wealthy families and given to children in the surrounding villages and how my goal was to create a for-profit business, not a charity, that would give 250 pairs of new shoes to the children that I had met.
My biggest obstacles in the shoe world:
I’ve learned that marketing is only as strong as the infrastructure behind the message. A few years after we began, we received some criticism about our production, and instead of spinning the story, I felt it was more important to look at the way we built our products and how we could improve our impact beyond just the shoes we give and the people whose sight we help restore. We are now able to tell our story in an authentic way, thanks to the criticism of our community and the opportunity to respond in a thoughtful way from the inside out.
Advice for my younger self:
If you’re passionate about something, don’t worry about the size of the market or how big it could become. When we started, I was trying to help 250 kids. I wasn’t thinking about 35 million kids. We did it right for those first 250 kids. Then we did it right for the next 1,000. Toms grew organically. But what a lot of entrepreneurs do is create business plans and raise money they don’t need because they want to get big fast, which is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Start small, focus, get it right and then let the growth come.
Would I do anything different?
No way. When we started, we knew nothing about footwear, but starting from scratch only made us work that much harder.