July 30th, 2020 | By: Jonathan Low
I had the pleasure of talking to Blake about his ideas and experiences as a social entrepreneur. I started by asking him about how TOMS started.
Blake: I started TOMS after a trip I took to Argentina in 2006. I noticed that many of the locals wore shoes that I learned were alpargata. I also noticed that in rural villages there were many children who were without shoes and how that was affecting their daily lives. I had to come up with a way to help and knew that relying on donations alone was not a sustainable solution, so I used my knowledge of business to come up with an idea. The result was a for-profit business model that empowers customers to help children through their purchases. For every pair of shoes purchased, a new pair is given to a child in need—One for One.
Jonathan: You’ve had great success with TOMS, but I’ve also read that you’ve made some of the typical mistakes that other entrepreneurs make. For example, “putting too many butts in too many seats.” What do you mean by that, and what key mistakes should other entrepreneurs try to avoid making?
Blake: TOMS started in my Venice apartment with a simple idea, a lot of passion, and a solid mission — to use business to improve lives. We grew so quickly over the first 6 years, and we had moments where we saw the challenges of balancing the rapid growth of a small company with remaining true to the why of TOMS. I learned that it’s so important to keep our mission at the heart of everything we do, and I encourage the next generation of social entrepreneurs to keep that passion and focus.
Jonathan: Typically, when startups grow, they begin to experience the problems associated with traditional corporations — for example, slow decision-making and infighting. Have you experienced these too, and how did you solve them?
Blake: There have been plenty of challenges as TOMS has grown over the years. Like most companies, you have to understand how best to structure your teams and bring experience and leadership to guide the next phases. I don’t believe this is something you “solve” but continue to learn and evolve from. Finding the right leaders for your organization is a big factor; and for us, that really means evaluating them based on the experience they bring to the table but also how they fit into our culture.
Jonathan: In 2015, you stepped down as the CEO of TOMS—after 9 years. Why?
Blake: I realized I needed both professional and financial backing in order to keep the company moving forward. It was a long process that I put a lot of thought into. I was really fortunate to be able to fund the growth of TOMS in the early days, so I never had to rely on investors. As the sole owner, it caused me a lot of stress to not have partners to rely on to make big decisions. In order for me to be a creative innovator for our company and focus on the things I do well, such as connecting with our Giving Partners and collaborating with our design and marketing teams, I needed to allow a really amazing CEO to run the company and be the business leader of TOMS.
Jonathan: What is the why of TOMS?
Blake: The why of TOMS has been and always will be about using business to improve lives. TOMS started as a busi- ness to help create a better tomorrow and encourages our tribe to be a part of the movement.
Jonathan: Please explain your One for One approach to readers that have never heard about this before.
Blake: When I came up with the TOMS business model, I wanted giving to be very straightforward and easy to digest. For every TOMS product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need — One for One. It began with giving shoes and has since expanded to helping restore sight, offering safe water, supporting the training for and distribution of safe birth kits, providing bullying prevention training and services, and finally providing solar light. All of this is made possible by our TOMS consumers and the Giving Partners we work with, who are nonprofit organizations on the ground in the regions in which we give.
Jonathan: Does the One for One approach really help people or does it risk becoming another example of a capitalist’s fly-by philanthropy?
Blake: We are constantly learning and challenging our- selves to enhance how we use business to improve lives. TOMS is mindful of the impact we have on the regions in which we give. We check in with our Giving Partners to get their feedback on how we can improve. Following our findings, in 2013, we challenged ourselves to help create jobs and build industry by producing a portion of our Giving Shoes in the regions in which we give them. We now employ locals in factories in Ethiopia, Vietnam, India, and Kenya.
Jonathan: “Giving is our future,” you say. What about the people who prefer not to give and just live their normal lives. Are they bad people, then—not part of the future?
Blake: TOMS has inspired many other companies to incorporate giving into their business model and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I hope we continue to encourage others to use their platforms to do more good in this world, as I believe we all have a responsibility to do so.
Jonathan: Why do we need social entrepreneurship in the world?
Blake: There is a responsibility for businesses to step up and use their reach, assets, and influence for good. But this is more than a responsibility; it’s also simply good business. As the world continues to shift, it is becoming increasingly clear that you can no longer do well without doing good.
Jonathan: You’re a big believer in traveling while you are young. Why do young people need these travel experiences?
Blake: Traveling is so important because it allows a person to experience different cultures. Having material objects matters far less than many of us are led to believe. There is so much beauty in the human condition and in the spirit of the people, we come in contact with every day. Although difficult, it’s important to witness what others go through in poverty-stricken regions so we can better understand their needs for basic necessities such as water, food, health care, and so on. I don’t believe there is anything more meaningful than making a connection with a person—a child—and sharing their emotions with them. I cherish these moments and the experiences I’ve shared with all the people I’ve met while traveling.
Jonathan: You’ve started investing in very interesting social startups such as Owlet, Cotopaxi, and Laxmi. Can you tell us some more about some of these startups and why you’ve also started becoming an impact investor?
Blake: Through the TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund, we’ve invested in 15 for-profit businesses with purpose at their core. These companies range from Rubicon, a tech startup dubbed “the Uber for trash” that is disrupting the waste and recycling industries, to Artlifting, an online marketplace for artists to sell their artwork and get back on their feet. I am committed to reinvesting in purpose-driven entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to help support others that are using business to improve lives.
Jonathan: Where in the world do we need social entrepreneurship the most currently?
Blake: I have recently become interested in the difference between an entrepreneur and someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. We need business leaders, founders, and entrepreneurs to harness the power of business for good. But we also need all people to bring an entrepreneurial spirit into their lives — to lead with purpose and to have the courage to imagine things that do not yet exist.
Jonathan: How can social entrepreneurs benefit from new disruptive technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, drones, and so on?
Blake: There has been such a gigantic growth spurt in technology since TOMS started in 2006. We have seen firsthand the benefits of the internet, particularly in social media. When we first launched, platforms such as Facebook were essential to building the brand and sharing the details of our movement. We have always had a minimal marketing budget due to our giving, so we rely on our community to help us spread the word. Technology really helped us share our story with our tribe, who then turned into the best form of marketing by posting on social media.
In 2015, we created a virtual reality giving trip so now our community is able to observe a shoe-giving trip in Peru. It allows them to experience giving and to see how their shoe purchase directly helps a child. This use of technology allows our consumers to establish a deeper connection with TOMS. I hope the continued evolution of technology inspires entrepreneurs to think differently in order to drive positive change in the world.
This article was done by the Danish serial entrepreneur Jonathan Low. Low is based in Scandinavia but has traveled the world interviewing and talking to some of the leading entrepreneurs and innovators on the planet. The article is part of this journey.
Jonathan Low is the founder of 5 tech-companies and the author of two #1 bestsellers about entrepreneurship and marketing. He is also a public speaker at events in both Europe and the US.
Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of JumpStory transforming the image industry online. JumpStory has experienced massive growth during the last year and has expanded from nothing to customers in more than 135 countries. Major media like Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, The Next Web, etc. have named JumpStory Netflix of images.