Q&A with TOMS owner Blake Mycoskie

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – December 1, 2014

It was a beautifully sunny fall day, and Blake Mycoskie, founder and owner of TOMS, was taking it easy at the store and café on South Congress. Patrons walked in and out without giving the guy relaxing on the porch swing a second glance—that is, until the entrepreneur/philanthropist/author/multimillionaire began discussing his plans and visions for his one-for-one charities, favorite books, workouts, and the measure of success. 

Q: How has the TOMS Roasting Co. venture worked out?

Mycoskie: Austin, and Texas in general, has always been a great market for TOMS for two main reasons: A, the lifestyle fits, and B, people are much more socially conscious and aware in Austin than in your typical city. So we’ve always had a great business here.

Growing up and going to high school here, I’ve always wanted to have a special place in the community; my wife [Heather Lang] and I were living here when we designed the store. It was kind of funny when we moved back to California. I was planning on hanging out here a lot more. People are using the space as we’d hoped, as a café, and different groups are holding events in the space in the back. It’s worked out really well. It’s a great venue—I like the idea that it’s a hangout space, but if you want to check out the new shoes or eyewear, you can—it’s not forced on you. That’s kind of our TOMS way of doing things.


You’re a native Texan, have lived in Austin, but now you’re living in California. Why?

I took about a year and a half off as a sabbatical. Since starting TOMS eight years ago, [the work] had been kind of nonstop. When my wife and I got married [in 2012], we talked and decided to take some time off. We looked at a lot of places, and said “Let’s go to Austin—it’s where you’re from, and we have a lot of friends there. Let’s just kind of see how it goes.” It was an interesting experiment. I took some time off, and then I started commuting back and forth, which a lot of people do, but for me, it was just too much travel. I already travel so much, and then to add work on top, it was just too much. After 18 months of being here, maybe 2 years, we were like, “[Moving would] just be easier.” My wife is pregnant, and knowing we were going to have a family, I didn’t want to be away so much of the week. So we moved back to California. But we love it in Austin; we still have lots of friends, and my brother lives here—we get back three, four times a year.


Our readers are interested in your fitness regimen—what kinds of things do you do when you’re here in Austin, and how does that vary from when you’re in California?

I like to be active, doing lots of activities. Here, we did lots of stand-up paddleboarding on the lake, lots of wake surfing, wake boarding, all that good stuff, because we lived on the lake, and that was awesome. Now, living in California, we do a lot of surfing. The funny thing is, wake surfing and real surfing don’t use any of the same muscles. Real surfing, you have to paddle to get somewhere and it’s all upper body. Wake surfing, you’re on the board for a long time, so it’s all lower body. But the one thing I do all the time, no matter where I live, is I use the TRX system. I do a lot of TRX—for me, I’m traveling so much during the year, that’s the one constant I can have in terms of working out. I can have it in my hotel room and put the TRX up; I’ve hooked it up to trees in Ethiopia and done [exercises] out in the fields; I have used it all over the world. When I was here, I did a lot of bikram yoga because we lived right next to a studio (Pure Yoga, I think it was called) and so my wife loves it too, so we did a lot. Lots of yoga.


Is there anything in particular that you do for stress relief?

Fitness. That’s the number one thing, getting that dopamine drip is the key for reducing stress. I’m better off if I start my day with fitness because I think it affects stress all throughout the day…The other thing, I read…But mostly [my wife and I], whenever we’re not working, do activities.


What books are you enjoying these days?

Right now, I’m reading A Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. I read The DaVinci Code [also by Brown] years ago, and then I was on a trip recently and you know how sometimes, in hotels, people leave books, and Inferno [a subsequent book by Brown] was on the desk. I picked it up and started reading it; it was good, so I’m reading that one. It’s kind of guilty pleasure, fun reading. There’s book I also just read going back into yoga and mindfulness, I think it’s called Search Inside Yourself [by Chade-Meng Tan]. It’s basically about this guy, an engineer at Google, who convinced the higher-ups that he could full-time teach mindfulness, and so he created a whole mindfulness class and practice at Google that’s really taken off. It’s really fascinating how this engineer turned into this Zen Buddhist and is practicing mindfulness. Finished that about two weeks ago, I read Give and Take [by Adam Grant] last month. As much as I travel, I’m always reading two or three books.


Do you prefer an actual book or reading from a device?

I have both. I read a lot of actual books because people send them to me. Fans or friends or authors send me books to read, so I end up getting a lot of actual books. But if I am buying books myself, I think I only buy them online for my Kindle or iPad. It’s so much easier, especially with travel, and at night you have a built-in light.


Do you have a book recommendation for someone who’s interested in living a better life, however it is that you
define “better”?

The best book that I’ve probably ever read in terms of living a better life is called The Art of Power. It’s by this Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s a very simple read, but it’s the best book I’ve read in terms of understanding how we create power, energy—not in terms of powerful people, but more like having that strong, peaceful energy and spirit. I’ve read it about five times in the past seven years. I probably reread it once a year and halfway through, I’m super inspired to be more mindful. That’s a great starting point for anyone who’s looking to work on the inner self. I always give it to people to read.


To date, TOMS has given away some 35 million shoes and 300,000 eyeglasses. Do you have any numbers yet on the new water program?

We just started that in March [at SXSW in Austin, Mycoskie announced TOMS one-for-one program—one week of clean water donated for every coffee purchase]. The way the giving programs work, it takes about six months to implement whatever we’re doing in the field. So on a new project, we usually wait until our one-year anniversary [to give figures]. Coffee is doing very well. We’re in all the Whole Foods Markets across the country, and we have these two cafés now [the other is in Venice, California] plus more at the end of the year. It’s good; I think people have been surprised at how we started with shoes and now are doing with coffee but they’re great partners. We’re working with native farmers in the program—it’s all great.


One of the things you’re known for is always questioning and seeking ways to make TOMS better—what is an improvement you’d like to see?

The biggest thing is creating more jobs in the countries we give to. If you’re really serious about poverty alleviation, aid is important, but job creation and education are very important. We’ve done a lot of work in education space by helping kids get shoes if they’re needed for school, but I think in the space of job creation, we’re just getting going. We have factories we’re working with now in India that are a great success story, lots of jobs through our factories in Africa, Kenya, and then we opened a factory in Haiti. That’s been really exciting; I’m going back in two weeks to see. I was there when we picked the location…but it started operating in February, so I’m excited to see it in a couple of weeks. I think that’s a big part as we continue to improve—every job we create makes a big difference.


How hands-on are you with the business?

I’m hands-on in certain areas, in a kind of non-defined way. Sometimes, I’m really hands-on because I’m particularly passionate about a specific city as a retail location—like the creation of this [Austin’s TOMS store]—but I haven’t even seen the locations in Chicago or Portland. 

That’s the fun thing about my job: I’m not stuck focusing on one area. I have great people who can do it all so that I can follow my curiosities and the things that I love doing, and I think that’s good in the founder role. It allows you to stay more in this questioning, curious phase, and doesn’t allow anyone to get too complacent. So I’m kind of bouncing around on different projects all the time. I’ve been really involved in the Haiti stuff just because I really love Haiti, and I love having the ability to have this factory there. I’ve been going back and forth there the last couple of years quite a bit. But some of our other countries, I haven’t been to in years. It just kind of depends. 


Is there a pipeline of ideas for TOMS?

Definitely. I would say that, right now, we’re really focused on diversifying our footwear. Launching coffee helps [our team] with retail strategy for rolling out more of these cafés, but as far as new products, the focus is on diversification of shoes. If we’re going to do more cafés, we’re in more climates. Our traditional shoe is more of a spring/summer shoe, so right now we need to really focus on just new shoe designs that fit the TOMS lifestyle.


You have a new retail venture called TOMS for Target; what’s that all about?

It’s really exciting because we’ve created a bunch of new, affordable products [for the month of the holiday season sales] that we’ve never done before. There’s a cool poncho we created, some home goods, blankets, picture frames, journals, and stuff.  We’re [still] donating shoes but we’re also donating meals and blankets with every purchase to local homeless families via charities in the United States through that partnership. It’s all in the US.*


That kind of retail partnership makes it easy to be philanthropic somewhat passively—how do you spur people to be more active in their charity?

The thing is, we always say that TOMS could be the gateway drug to being socially aware. Yes, you’re going to make a difference in someone’s life by buying a pair of eyewear or a pair of shoes [with our one-for-one giving programs], but you can’t stop there. We’re not the substitute for amazing nonprofits or amazing work. We hope that, by someone wearing our eyewear every day or wearing our shoes every day or coming to the café, it keeps them reminded that they can do more and that there are more opportunities out there [to help others]. It’s definitely not a substitute for—it’s, hopefully, an entry point. I’ve found a lot through the years that people—it wasn’t even on their radar about some of these organizations in our field, and they learn about them through a purchase of our products…I think it’s something that we’re constantly working, striving, for our community to do more. 

And that’s why we do things around World Sight Day (Oct. 9); we’re doing a lot of events and activations all over the world to talk about how there are 284 million people that are visually impaired that don’t have to be—284 million people literally have sight with proper cataract surgery, prescription glasses, and medical treatment—and we are using that day of business to raise awareness for people to donate to these charities that really focus on that all year long. We try to use our consumer base as a voice, and that’s a big part of why we’re so active with event-type stuff. 

We also have Go Without Shoes Day in April every year. That’s a holiday we created, but World Sight Day is a global event that everyone participates in. [Go Without Shoes Day is] another day of the year that we try to raise awareness and get people to think, on that day, about how many people in particular don’t have shoes, and why shoes are important. 


On a personal note, how do you measure success?

Ah, man. There are a lot of different measures. The one I heard the other day—I’m sure someone famous originally said it—was, “Success is not about attaining something; it’s actually about developing the capacity to be happy with less.” And I thought, man, that is so dead on, right? 

The reason why it spoke so much to me is I meet so many people around the world who have nothing who are so happy. And they have mastered it. I think the hard thing is that people who are living in the First World who have access to so many things—the more experiences and stuff you have access to, the more it creates desire. When you have that desire, then, if that desire is unmet, that can lead to unhappiness. So, developing the capacity to actually be happy with less is the epitome of success. It’s more of getting to the core of what your needs are. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, one I’ve really worked on. You can still be ambitious and have goals, but you have to somehow find a way to have those in perspective with this idea of the capacity to need less. Because some of the times where I’ve been happiest myself, it’s been on road trips when I didn’t have anything…


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