TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie's secrets for success

American entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie hasn't yet hit 40, but he's an entrepreneurial phenomenon.

Not only is he founder of shoe and accessories company TOMS – Forbes magazine estimated his share, after he sold a 50 per cent stake in 2014, to be worth in excess of $US300 million ($434 million) – but he became successful spearheading his One for One business model: a person in need is helped every time a TOMS product is purchased.

The author of the New York Times bestseller, Start Something That Matters, Mycoskie is also part of Richard Branson's The B Team – a group of business leaders that includes Branson, Arianna Huffington, Paul Polman and Muhammad Yunus – whose mission is to "put people and planet alongside profit".

Mycoskie's start was an unusual one: a former contestant in the US version of reality TV's The Amazing Race, he and his sister Paige came close (four minutes!) to taking home the million-dollar first prize. On the show he visited Argentina, a country that would visually inspire the look of TOMS shoes (which were initially based on the soft canvas shoe worn there almost universally) and what their larger purpose would be, once he learned that even in Argentina, many kids didn't own shoes.

Sitting down with Mycoskie in Melbourne, it's impossible not to be inspired by his own take-home messages.

It's actually as cost efficient to be incredibly charitable as it is to do advertising.

Blake Mycoskie

He shares his top tips for success without compromising your ethics.   

Connect people to your product

"When we first started, I realised the most important thing was to be able to share the story of TOMS and what we were trying to do. Whenever I was in New York City, I'd always wear two different coloured TOMS shoes, because people would ask me why, and then I could tell them the whole story. Sometimes you have to do these quirky things when you're first starting to get attention.

"But even later on, I was very relatable to my customer. I started in my apartment, I had no experience in retail, no experience in fashion – I didn't even know who Karl Lagerfeld was the first time I met him. Now when I speak at universities, students look at me like, 'I can do that too'."

Philanthropy doesn't compromise profit

"Most businesses spend a huge amount of money on traditional advertising and marketing. If they're a footwear company, they will spend some on celebrity endorsements and athletes.


"When you look at our business, we're profitable and we give away a tremendous amount every year. When universities like Harvard do studies on us, they see it's actually as cost efficient to be incredibly charitable as it is to do advertising.

"And because the relationship you create with your customers and employees is such a huge part of the business and is so much more profound and long-lasting than flashy advertising, more and more companies – instead of just writing a charitable cheque at the end of the year as a tax write-off – are integrating these programs locally and globally into how they're doing business.

"Life isn't about scarcity. We all can have plenty. It's about sharing it and doing it a way that creates a stronger bond between your customers and employees and your company. For share-holders, that's going to be a better long-term benefit.

Live your own life, not someone else's

"At 29, I started TOMS and was very much living my own life. But at some level, the public persona of you can become someone else's life. This year, I'm saying, 'I'm not going to do a two-month press tour because that's what I'm supposed to do now that I'm Blake who started TOMS. What am I really interested in creatively? What's going to get me to jump out of bed in the morning?'  

"My dad, who's a doctor, [once] said to me, 'If you don't want to go to eight years of medical school, don't.' I dropped out of college instead. But I've always just been really curious. TOMS was almost a curiosity project as much as a philanthropy project. [I thought], 'Could there be a shoe company where people wore the shoes and felt good about helping someone?'

"I think life is a series of experiments, both professional and personal, and the minute you stop experimenting and being curious is when you stop growing as a human being."

Breaks are important

"I've grown to appreciate the importance of what I call the space in between. If you think about a great piece of music, almost all the emphasis is typically placed on what you hear, but really what makes music great is the silence and pauses in between the instruments.

"It's the same thing I've realised in my career. My creativity and ability to be an entrepreneur is oftentimes what people celebrate, but I feel like the time you take when you're not doing anything is what allows you to do that, and what makes it important.  

"Also, you don't have to sacrifice a family life or deep meaningful friendships or time for holiday to be successful in business, because those other areas of your life are what contribute to the type of thinking it takes to have a breakthrough idea. If you're just focused on business, business, business, and specifically the industry you're in, then most likely your ideas are going to be the same as everyone else in the industry.

"But spending a lot of time with your kids [Mycoskie and his wife Heather are parents to one year old son, Summit] might give you a way of looking at a business problem that is different, because you're now looking at it through what I call the beginner's mind. Sometimes you have got to get out of the space you're in to really excel.

You can't manufacture enthusiasm

"I personally have to feel connected. That goes for the giving side of TOMS, and the commercial side, too. Eyewear [which TOMS launched] is something I'm very passionate about, because when I was young, I had to wear really thick glasses. At 22, I had eye surgery, and now I have perfect vision.

"Every morning when I wake up and don't have to put contacts on, I'm thankful. So it's really exciting to be able to help people with their sight [the purchase of TOMS eyewear has meant that sight has been restored to over 360,000 people in need via prescription glasses, surgery or medical treatment], but also from a design standpoint thinking about how to craft beautiful glasses that people love to wear.

"If I lose my connection to something, then other people in the company start to feel that, and it has a ripple-down effect. If I'm excited about what I'm doing, then everybody feeds off that energy.

Start your morning well  

"My morning starts with a double espresso. I got professionally trained as a barista – I can do the drawings on top and everything – so the things that contribute to a great start to the day for me is coffee, 20 minutes for meditation and an hour for exercise."  

This week, TOMS announced that they will be giving shoes to children in need in Australia, through Save the Children. TOMS is available at Myer, Hype DC and various boutiques, as well as online.