Blake Mycoskie is best known for being the founder of TOMS, the footwear brand that gives away a pair of shoes to underprivileged children for each one sold. Since its launch, TOMS has given away 100 million pairs of shoes to children around the world, but in 2019 the company was valued at $625 million. While other entrepreneurs focus strongly on profits, all of Blake Mycoskie’s success came by focusing on karma. He believes in the joy of giving. And through his generosity, he has inspired other companies to follow in his footsteps with the “one for one” model. The truth is that success often comes from finding a way to help others. And for Blake, by giving, the universe was bound to give back.
THE TENNIS COURT ENTREPRENEUR
Blake Mycoskie was born in 1976 in Arlington, Texas. From the ages of 11 to 18, Blake’s entire life revolved around playing competitive tennis but, as with any sport, only a small number of people ever become a professional. So during the summer of his freshman year of college, Blake’s father insisted he stop playing tennis and get a real part-time job.
Blake knew his dream of becoming a pro tennis player was unlikely, but he didn’t want to give up playing tennis because of how passionate he was about it. While searching for a part-time job, one of Blake’s friends mentioned they would be happy to pay him to give tennis lessons to their kids. This sparked a lightbulb in Blake’s head. Maybe he could make money from his passion after all.
The most important step of all is the first step. Start something.” -Blake Mycoskie
Blake decided to make flyers advertising he was willing to teach kids to play tennis for $25 per lesson. He was able to teach multiple students at once, which meant he was making hundreds of dollars an hour. Blake’s father was shocked at how much he earned so quickly, and he couldn’t deny that his son’s new business would make him more than any normal summer job. And with that, Blake’s entrepreneurial mindset was born, and with it a belief that following his passion would lead him to success.
FAKING IT AND MAKING IT BIG
Not long after his tennis lessons took off, Blake created his second business. In his sophomore year of college, he injured his achilles tendon and couldn’t play tennis anymore. At the time this must have seemed like a huge setback, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since he was on crutches, Blake’s laundry began piling up around the floor of his college dorm. His roommates were complaining that he needed to clean up after himself, and it sparked an idea to start a laundry business for college students who were too busy to do their own cleaning. Blake and his friend bought a used van for $1,600, and called the company EZ Laundry.
The goal isn't how much money you make, but how much you help people.” -Blake Mycoskie
At first, EZ Laundry only had 10 customers on their college campus. But Blake was great at business psychology. He knew that college students usually wait to see all of their friends doing something first before they are willing to spend their money. So, Blake and his friends would bring back their customer’s laundry in multiple deliveries, making it more likely for students to see the truck driving around campus, and recognize the uniforms. It also had the added benefit of creating the impression that EZ Laundry was far more popular than having only 10 customers. And as a result, the business took off. Eventually, it became so massive that they expanded to several different colleges around the country. Blake became so successful that he dropped out of college to run the business.
After a couple years, Blake realized that while he enjoyed creating EZ Laundry, he wasn’t exactly passionate about it. So he sold his 50% of the company to his business partner, and traveled to Los Angeles. There, he saw massive billboards around the city. Blake called up the company, asking how much one cost. When he learned that they charged $7,000 per month, he knew that he could replicate that same business model somewhere else—anywhere that people had a big ego. So he moved to Nashville, and began selling billboard space to country music stars.
FINDING ABUNDANCE THROUGH GIVING
In 2002, Blake was making plenty of money through his billboard business. He even had the free time to compete in a reality TV series called The Amazing Race with his sister Paige. While filming the show they got to travel the world, and see the lives of people in vastly different cultures. The siblings came in second place and lost the $1 million prize by just a few minutes. But rather than being a total loss, the experience helped Blake make connections in Los Angeles, and he continued to build a few new businesses from the ground up. He was a “serial entrepreneur”, looking for money-making opportunities at every turn.
In 2006, Blake was traveling again, visiting Argentina on vacation. While there, he met a group of American volunteers working for a non-profit organization. These volunteers would gather donations of used shoes and money from the wealthy families of Buenos Aires and give them to poor children. It broke Blake’s heart to see so many children living without shoes to help them safely walk to school, and it took the non-profit so long to gather donated shoes, that kids had often already outgrown their pairs long before it was time to receive a new one.
We created karma by setting out to help people, rather than just making money.”-Blake Mycoskie
This sparked an idea in Blake’s head. The shoes he saw worn in Argentina were comfortable slip-ons called “alpargata”—and he could sell those to customers in the United States. For every pair of shoes sold, one pair would be donated to a child in need. He wanted to call the company “Tomorrow’s Shoes”, but ended up calling them TOMS for short. Before leaving the country, Blake purchased 250 pairs of alpargata shoes, and flew them back in his luggage.
Blake may have been a serial entrepreneur, but he didn’t know the first thing about fashion. And in the United States, only one retailer-—American Rag—was willing to sell the shoes. Out of the original 250 pairs, he only sold 80. But the small shoe display was spotted by a journalist from the LA Times, who said that she wanted to interview him for a story in the newspaper. One week later, Blake had 2,200 orders for his shoes, and $85,000. With only 60 pairs left, he needed to fly back to Argentina immediately to buy more.
TOMS BECOMES A GLOBAL SENSATION
During their first giving trip in Argentina, TOMS gave away 10,000 pairs of shoes to children. Blake went with a small group of friends, family, and employees, and it was a life-changing experience for all of them. But they knew that there were so many more children out there who needed their help. This couldn’t be a one-time donation. There needed to be a system in place to ensure that children received new shoes every year.
At the same time, word about TOMS was spreading. Soon after his first large order, Vogue Magazine called Blake wanting to do an article. After getting the media’s attention, TOMS started getting attention from buyers at some of the biggest luxury clothing retailers in the country like Bloomingdales, Barney’s, and Bergdorf Goodman. And before long, celebrities were wearing these shoes, and they became popular all over the world.
Anyone can make a difference, so you don’t have to have it be some huge global campaign. You can start small and that’s just as important.”-Blake Mycoskie
Blake realized that the more people who knew the story of the TOMS mission, the more they would want to help. So he purchased an Airstream camper and traveled around the country giving talks to students at universities, to explain the company’s mission. And the more well-known the mission and the company became, the more people wanted to buy the shoes. Wearing the shoes, it was a symbol that their purchase helped someone in need. And that was something that appealed to celebrities, entrepreneurs, and other high-powered people from around the world.
In the years since it was started, TOMS has partnered with several non-profit organizations like UNICEF, Save the Children, The Red Cross, Partners in Health, Faith in Action, March of Our Lives, and Everytown. By 2013, TOMS was making $250 million per year. And six years later its value had more than doubled. Today Blake Mycoskie is still spreading karma, but even with all his success he hasn’t forgotten where it all began: teaching people to do something he was passionate about, and great at. Even with all his success, Blake continues to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs today—people building businesses that help humanity, just like his.