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Doing Good by Shoeing Well

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In 2006, Blake Mycoskie, a Tiggerish Texan bounded off to Argentina on holiday. He was 29 years old and running a "green" drivers-education company, teaching people to drive using only hybrid vehicles. While in Argentina he came across a shoe called the alpargata, a kind of espadrille, and thought it would sell well in the United States. On the same trip, he met an American woman who was running a shoe drive, to deliver shoes to poor Argentine children. Twang went his entrepreneurial synapses: "Why not create a for-profit business to help provide shoes for these children? Why not come up with a solution that guaranteed a constant flow of shoes, not just whenever kind people were able to make a donation?"

Thus was born Toms Shoes, short for "Tomorrow's Shoes." Buy one pair of the company's alpargatas or another of its styles and Toms gives a pair of shoes to a poor child somewhere in the world. Last year the company reported that, with the help of charities and other groups, its giveaways had passed the million-pair mark.

I confess that whenever I have seen Blake Mycoskie in magazines or on television, I have thought him a rather too perfect ambassador for "social enterprise," that misguided and corrupting term for businesses that claim to "do well by doing good." Though General Electric builds power plants and life-saving medical equipment and Exxon heats homes in winter and keeps the world moving with its fuel, they are decried as the villains of society, while the "social" entrepreneurs are venerated for giving us hemp shirts and organic greens. It has never seemed a fair distinction. Even worse are those who use platforms like the Technology Entertainment and Design gatherings, called TED conferences, to brag of their good works. Mr. Mycoskie is the poster boy of the social-enterprise movement, raggedy haired, loose limbed and often in the smiling company of the Toms-shod poor.

So I was ready to be irritated by "Start Something That Matters," and the book does include a fair amount of gushy do-goodism. By the end, though, I was sold. Mr. Mycoskie tells a convincing and lively story. If his entrepreneurial insights are not original, he repackages them as well as he does the alpargata, taking the familiar and making it fresh. Having given away a million pairs of shoes—to children who, when barefoot, might be vulnerable to hookworm, tetanus and other soil-borne ailments—buys Mr. Mycoskie the credibility he needs. I finished the book not only wanting to buy a pair of Toms but also wanting to "start something that matters" myself.

Mr. Mycoskie describes six traits that "everyone needs to follow to start and sustain something that matters." His book, he promises, "will show that you can earn money, achieve personal fulfillment, and make a positive impact all at the same time." The six traits, or means to success, will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has dipped into the self-help chapters of other business books. They are: find your story; face your fears; be resourceful without resources; keep it simple; build trust; and realize that giving is good business. (On that point, Toms appears to be doing a good business, but it's not clear how good: The privately held company says it is profitable but doesn't disclose sales figures. Mr. Mycoskie's insistence on managerial transparency stops when it comes to exposing his income statement.)

An effective story is one that is easily passed along. The Subway restaurant franchise-chain was struggling to market its new line of healthy sandwiches until it came across Jared Fogle, a college student who had gone from 425 to 199 pounds by eating one of the company's low-fat subs for lunch and one for dinner. Mr. Fogle's story is just the kind that every company should strive to discover, Mr. Mycoskie writes.

Fear can be dealt with by taking small steps, realizing that the timing is never right and paying no heed to the disapproval of others. Spending as little money as possible is another way to reduce the fear and risk of starting an enterprise. Mr. Mycoskie started Toms in his small apartment in Venice, Calif., with three interns hired through Craigslist. Meetings were held at the kitchen table; the living room served as the shipping facility.

Keeping a business cheap and cheerful—say, by not wasting money on expensive offices but spending it instead on company ski trips—is vital to its survival and the enthusiasm of its employees. Mr. Mycoskie is a zealot for simplicity and de-cluttering. Businesses, like their bosses and workers, need a clear purpose. When designing a product or service, he says, your first thought should always be: What can I remove "and still keep its function intact"?

Toms has discovered what religious movements have known for centuries: people yearn to do meaningful work. Any organization scratching that itch will attract adherents. The human desire to give and to help others is nothing new. But attaching it to a shoe company is.

"Increasingly, the quest for success is not the same as the quest for status and money," writes Mr. Mycoskie. I don't think anyone with half a brain has ever thought success is just about status and money. Toms may not be the cure for all that ails the American economy. But as a creative and open-hearted business model for our times, it is worth pondering carefully.

Mr. Delves Broughton is the author of "Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School."


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