The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Making Money and Making a Difference

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Start Something that Matters

by Blake Mycoskie

Reviewed by Blake P. Robinson

Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms Shoes, has written Start Something that Matters “with the aim of inspiring, entertaining and challenging you to start something that matters.”  In a breezy, familiar tone that doesn’t take itself too seriously, he succeeds in encouraging readers to do just that. Unless you’re quite resigned to the status quo, you’ll find it difficult to avoid daydreaming about your own personal entrepreneurial dream while reading this book – and when you’re finished reading, the odds are you won’t be resigned to the status quo.

Toms_Book_Start Something That MattersThe book is organized around six traits or lessons that Mr. Mycoskie believes “everyone should follow to start and sustain something that matters.”  Each lesson is supported by a host of stories from a variety of sources, including a powerful tale from his mother, Pam Mycoskie, the author of a best-selling diet book, Butter Busters, which she self-published with much perseverance and more than $30,000 in personal loans. The entrepreneurial spirit, it seems, runs in the family.

A native of Arlington Texas, the 35-year-old Mr. Mycoskie speaks with authority about start-ups, having launched four entrepreneurial ventures ranging from a laundry service to an all-reality-TV network (the cultural merits of which will not be commented upon here). He founded Toms Shoes in 2006 and pioneered a novel cause marketing concept called “One for One,” which means that for every pair of Toms Shoes that someone buys, a pair is given away to someone who needs it in the developing world.

In just four years, Toms has given away over 600,000 pairs of shoes to people in need – suggesting revenue for the privately-held company of at least $33 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, “One for One” has become a media sensation: Toms’ first drop of ten thousand shoes became the subject of a documentary; Mycoskie has been written up in dozens of magazines and newspapers. And every April 5th thousands of people mark an event called “One Day Without Shoes,” forgoing their shoes for a day in solidarity with those who don’t have any.

Critics claim Toms’ philanthropic marketing practices undermine local shoe production and distribution.  Toms is certainly aware that giving away shoes potentially undermines local businesses; the company says it tries to avoid that by partnering with established charities that presumably have the expertise to give strategically.  Although it is outside the scope of this article to investigate the merit of the criticism, the effectiveness of Toms’ giving program does matter.  And, the book, in my opinion, could have benefited from engaging with this thorny question.

Before starting to read Start Something That Matters, one of my concerns was that Mr. Mycoskie would overemphasize the grand, socially transformative endeavor at the expense of the small improvements that we each can and do make to our world each day. He goes out of his way to dispel that concern, opening the book by quoting from a poem entitled “Success”: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived | This is to have succeeded.”  Mr. Mycoskie is faithful to this line, which offers some solace to those of us who are unlikely to start a socially conscious business that changes the world.

Indeed, Start Something that Matters will provide inspiration and motivation for current and upcoming social entrepreneurs. The pitfall that Mr. Mycoskie does not avoid is that of looking down upon “mainstream” businesses – such as ExxonMobil, Union Carbide, Philip Morris and Goldman Sachs – the focus of which, he argues, “will always be on making money above all else, a perfectly defensible capitalist motivation.” While it is true that from most perspectives these companies have a less compelling story than Toms, they nonetheless have achieved much that matters.

Start Something that Matters is aimed squarely at the Toms demographic: young, fashion-conscious men and women who want to change the world.  The book maintains integrity with the simple, folksy style of the Toms brand.  It’s a style that certainly is not for everyone, and it can, at times lead a reader to look for more substantive analysis and justification for the principles in the book.  On the other hand, if Start Something that Matters gets people dreaming their entrepreneurial dreams – and not accepting the status quo – it will have indeed accomplished something that really matters.

A financial advisor at Fulcrum Securities, Blake P. Robinson helps individuals and foundations with a strong set of values to invest in a way that supports those values. Blake writes and speaks frequently on the topic of ethical investing.

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