CHICAGO--The concept was simple: You buy a pair of shoes for yourself, and TOMS donates another pair to a person in need. You feel like you are making a difference in the world. You tell all your friends. They tell their friends. Business prospers.
Since he founded TOMS, seven years ago, Blake Mycoskie has proved that giving is good for business. As of this week, the company has donated 10 million pairs of shoes in 50 countries, Mycoskie announced at Monday’s general session at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition.
“Giving just doesn’t feel good; it’s actually really good for business,” he said. “It can actually be a business strategy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For so long, we’ve been afraid to mix philanthropy and charity with business. But I believe TOMS and other companies like TOMS are showing that big problems can be faced in the world if we incorporate the two.”
Two years ago the company expanded, launching a simple line of eyewear. The sales have given sight to more than 200,000 people, supporting prescription eyeglasses and sight-saving surgery for people in need, he explained.
Mycoskie’s idea for TOMS began during a 2006 trip to Argentina, where he saw children without shoes and learned about the health problems that caused. Others couldn’t go to school without shoes because footwear was considered part of the mandated uniform. He helped a volunteer group distribute donated used shoes.
But Mycoskie wondered if there was a way to keep the shoes coming. He visited local shoemakers and brought samples home, which he showed to his sister and her friends. They liked what they saw. But when he brought out the photos of the children who needed shoes, the women couldn’t pull out their wallets fast enough.
When the entrepreneur’s new venture was mentioned in The Los Angeles Times, his phone began ringing nonstop. He hired interns through Craigslist to persuade potential buyers to wait until he could increase his inventory. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mycoskie said he’s learned several lessons along the way, which he hopes will inspire other companies.
“We all know marketing is important, but it is also very expensive,” he noted. “But what I learned is that, when you incorporate giving into your business, your customers become your greatest marketers.”
While waiting at the airport when his company was still very young, Mycoskie recalled, he saw a woman wearing a red pair of TOMS. When he asked her about them, she couldn’t stop talking about the shoes, the company and its good works.
“How many kids got shoes because that one woman took the time to tell the story? I realized we didn’t have to focus on marketing and advertising. All we needed to do was focus on giving and incorporate our customers into that giving so they could make the story their own.”
He also discovered that incorporating giving into the business strategy attracts employees and business partners. His own employees no longer work out of his apartment for free, as they did at the beginning; they receive paychecks and benefits and many perks.
But as Mycoskie pointed out: “What they really care about … is that they know that what they are doing is making a difference in the world, and it makes them proud. When employees are proud, they will work harder than anyone else on the planet.”
However, employers don’t need to change their businesses to do that. They don’t necessarily need to give something away. “But what you can do is give opportunities for your team members to serve locally and together,” Mycoskie suggested. The employees who have been bickering in the office come back from the experience with a new spirit, he added.
He urged the audience to “think about how you can incorporate giving into your culture. It’s not expensive. Anyone can do it, and I promise it will have a major impact in your organization.”
Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.