The Way I Work: Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes
Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes, built a lifestyle business based on social entrepreneurship.
Blake Mycoskie doesn’t like to sit still. A serial entrepreneur, Mycoskie got the idea for his latest company, Toms Shoes, while on vacation in Argentina. After spending time in several villages in which children didn’t own shoes, he created a company — originally dubbed Shoes for Tomorrow — in which helping those kids, and others like them, is part of the business plan. For every pair of shoes Toms sells, it donates a new pair to a child in a developing country. In the four years since its founding, the Los Angeles-based company, which has 72 employees, has given away 600,000 pairs of shoes. The company’s canvas slip-on shoes — the same type it often donates — now sell for $45 to $85 a pair in upscale retailers such as Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman.
The more Toms grows, the less time Mycoskie seems to spend in the office. He delegates the day-to-day operation of the company to his management team. That frees him up to spend much of his time traveling — spreading the Toms gospel, delivering shoes to children in Africa and South America, and taking fairly lengthy vacations. When he is not on the road, Mycoskie, 33, reconnects with employees in quick, focused meetings and in relaxed afternoons on his sailboat.
My schedule varies depending on what city I wake up in. These days, I’m home in L.A. about five or six days a month, and the rest of the time I’m on the road.
I live on a boat in Marina del Rey. When I wake up on the boat, it’s very relaxed. I usually get up at 8:30, have a Clif Bar for breakfast, and spend a few hours thinking and writing before going in to the office. Almost every morning I write in my journal. I’ve been keeping it for a long time — I’ve filled more than 50 books. bout what’s going on in my personal and spiritual life or what’s going on at work. It helps me keep things in perspective, especially when things get crazy or I get stressed or we have obstacles. When I go back a month later and read what I was feeling, I realize that it wasn’t that big of a deal — we got through it. And that helps me prepare for the next time that I deal with difficult stuff.
Lately, my wake-up call has been around 4:45 a.m., so that I can catch early flights. Often, I’m traveling around the country to speak at companies and universities about our business model. I love teaching people about what we do. My goal is to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and company leaders to think differently about how they incorporate giving into their business models. Plus, many of the people who hear me speak eventually purchase a pair of Toms, share the story with others, or support our campaigns like One Day Without Shoes, which has people go barefoot for one day a year to raise awareness about the children we serve. I also travel to meet with organizations like CARE and the World Health Organization. Then I’ll go to Ethiopia for three weeks to give away 3,000 pairs of shoes to kids.
I don’t get jet lagged that much. I’m so used to traveling and being in different places every day that I can sleep anywhere. I read quite a bit when I’m on the road. I’ve read a lot of business biographies. I dropped out of college when I was a sophomore, so those were my education in business. I’ve probably read 40 to 50 of them — on Michael Eisner, David Geffen, Howard Schultz. Ted Turner’s autobiography is really interesting, and so is Sam Walton’s. I read that one very early in my career. The great thing about biographies is the subjects have already been successful, so they’re not insecure about their failures. Howard Schultz doesn’t mind talking about all the dumb things he did when he started Starbucks. Reading about those mistakes taught me a lot.
I also use plane rides to catch up on e-mail. I go through these periods when I won’t respond to e-mail for three or four days, and then I’ll get on a plane and write 300 e-mails. People who work with me have gotten used to it. And they know when I’ve landed, because suddenly they’ll get a bunch of e-mails from me on a Friday at 10 p.m. My staff members call it the “Toms bomb.”
When I’m traveling, I usually send one e-mail a week to the whole staff. I try to stay connected to everyone through letters. Some people call them little manifestoes. I’m a very open person, so I really tell the staff what I’m struggling with and what I’m happy about. I tell them what I think the future of Toms is. I want them to understand what I’m thinking. It’s like I’m writing to a best friend.
Anything that really inspires me and that I think is relevant to our overall mission, I try to share with them. Sometimes, I’ll tell them about an amazing article I read in a magazine — about an issue we should challenge ourselves to think about. When I was gone a few months ago, I was reading a lot of Emerson, so I started sending the staff a lot of my favorite Emerson quotes and poems. When I got back, I printed all of the Emerson e-mails and put them in a binder, so everyone could read it throughout the year.
Several times a year, I lead shoe drops in different parts of the world. I’ll go with a group of 10 to 15 people — Toms staff members and volunteers — to hand out shoes. After an employee is with us for a year, he or she gets to go on a shoe drop. We’re giving away shoes in 28 countries now. The shoes not only help kids go to school, but they prevent life-threatening diseases. We’re helping to prevent hookworm in Guatemala. In Ethiopia, we’re preventing podoconiosis, a disease that can cause the feet and legs to swell to dangerous proportions. Kids get it from walking barefoot on volcanic soil. We’re getting more involved in getting the best doctors and clinics there, so we can take it to the next level of prevention.
When I go on shoe drops, I meet with our partners: nonprofits and other organizations involved in public health. They help us give away shoes all year long. We partner with organizations that are already in the community, because they really know what the kids need. They tell me what’s working, what they need more help with.
When we’re in these countries, we are in the field at least once a day hand-placing shoes on kids’ feet. It’s really important for us to go back and do that. It’s a renewable energy source for me. Seeing the smiles on those kids’ faces makes me excited to continue on.
When I’m traveling, I check in with the office occasionally, but I’m not the day-to-day manager. The reason I can travel so much is that I’ve put together a strong team of about 10 people who pretty much lead the company while I am gone. Candice Wolfswinkel is my chief of staff and the keeper of the culture. Candice has been with me from the beginning, and she tells me what the vibe is like in the office. That’s really important to me, because when I’m gone, letter, but I don’t get the feeling of the office.
I’m on the phone a lot with my assistant Megan Memmott, who handles my schedule and requests for meetings. She will even respond to for me if something’s a high priority. I have an amazing CFO, Jeff Watts, and I’ll check in with him twice a week. I talk to my sales managers on a weekly basis. I also call my younger brother Tyler a lot — he’s head of corporate sales. We’re eight years apart, so we weren’t that close growing up. But when he came out to L.A. in 2006, he started interning at Toms, and since then, we’ve grown a lot closer. Since I’m gone so much, it’s nice having family in the office. I can just call Tyler up and say, “OK, what’s the real deal?” and he’ll tell me.
When I return to the office, I make sure to hold an all-staff meeting. We all gather on one side of our warehouse. It’s a chance for me to tell everyone what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been, and usually I have something pretty exciting to share. It’s nice to come home and reconnect with my Toms family that way.
When I am in the office, there’s a certain energy. Maybe because I’m such an anomaly now. There’s all this excitement, and everyone wants to grab me. I have very focused meetings and sign off on things. I like making decisions, but I’m not big on sitting around and talking about ideas. I get bored really quickly in brainstorming meetings. I like it when the creative team has already thought of 10 ideas, and then we can just pick one. I prefer to be involved in the first meeting — to put my thumbprint on, say, a big marketing initiative or a new design — and the last meeting.
June and July are slow travel months for me, so I’m in L.A. working in the office four or five days a week. It’s a very open office environment. I sit next to the customer service people in a cubicle, just like everyone else. I like to stand up, walk over to people, and find out what they’re working on. I bounce around from department to department. Sometimes it’s disruptive, I think, but it’s just the way I build things.
I usually work until 7 or 8 p.m. In the summertime, I leave early and go sailing almost every day. A lot of times, I’ll invite employees to go with me, or I’ll bring friends. It’s my way of staying connected with my social group in L.A. I’m out there sailing and entertaining people and having a good time.
I’m a pretty social person, so almost every night when I’m in town, I also have some type of dinner or event scheduled. A lot of times, I’ll have dinner with one of my employees. For instance, if I haven’t had the chance to catch up with my CFO that day, we’ll go to dinner. I’m not a late-night person. After 10 p.m., I’m falling asleep. If I’m out at that time, I’ll be the one falling asleep at dinner.
For two or three months of the year,That’s one of my dirty little secrets: I take a lot of time off. I went surfing for a month in Costa Rica last November. I went to Uruguay and spent some time there. I’m going to Colorado for three weeks to go fly-fishing. Getting away from work helps me sustain my passion. my best thinking when I’m on vacation. I’m not just sitting on the beach drinking piña coladas. I’m exploring and meeting new people. I’m getting inspired.
Traveling as much as I do, I get lonely sometimes. I have friends now in cities all over the world, so I get to be social, but it’s hard to have the deep meaningful relationships, especially an intimate one. With my guy friends, I can show up once a month and go to dinner with them and they’re happy. But that doesn’t work so well with a girlfriend. Right now, that’s a sacrifice I’m making. I do want to have a family — I’m from a big family. In a year, I think I’ll make some different life choices, but I’m just not ready yet.