Breakout shoe-selling social enterprise TOMS has recently become the McDonald’s-like lightning rod for all that is wrong with well-meaning charitable organisations. The TOMS premise is that for every pair of canvas shoes it sells, it gives one pair to a child without shoes in Africa (or insert other struggling country or continent here). All of which sounds good and definitively feel good, until you realise that by swooping in with shoes, you’re not fostering local industries. Ergo, you’re perpetuating a cycle of charity handouts and poverty.
TOMS, the name of which is derived from ‘shoes for a batter tomorrow’ or ‘tomorrow’s shoes’, is not the only company to be accused of this—in fact, most world aid falls into this bucket—but its runaway success has catapulted it into the spotlight and made it the poster children for this complaint.
That well-what-is-the-right-thing-to-do controversy and the fact that all the cool kids are wearing the shoes made me want to read Start Something That Matters (SSTM), the autobiography slash business inspiration manual written by TOMS founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie, who goes by the more egalitarian title of Chief Shoe Giver.
SSTM doesn’t actually address any of the aforementioned criticisms, either because it’s adopting the McDonald’s response and choosing for the most part not to respond or because (more likely) it was written before the criticisms were levelled. Either way, SSTM is an engaging, speedy read, with Mycoskie first charting how he came up with the idea for TOMS—he was on holiday in Argentina, saw their awesome national shoe, the alpargata, recognised there was a market for it in the US, and decided to combine it with some charitable aims that helped poverty-stricken children—and how he then put that into action.
SSTM is something of a sweeping manifesto on how to find your passion and how to turn that passion into a job that saves the world. It starts off with TOMS, but also (surprisingly to me, at least) offers examples of other businesses that are trying to make a difference. One includes Falling Whistles, a non-profit organisation that sells vintage whistles to raise awareness about issues, and to promote peace, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (its tagline is ‘whistleblowers for peace’). Whistles, the business founder discovered, were reportedly sometimes what child soldiers were sent into battle with.
SSTM is rah-rah American to the nth degree, so I’ll not deny that there were moments that really grated. It’s not that Mycoskie is entirely cocky; it’s just that he’s blessed with that distinctly American self-confidence we Australians would swiftly identify, cringe at, and hack down. Still, for all its you-can-do-it enthusiasm, the book’s also honest about the mistakes made and lessons learnt along the way, such as the time they produced a shoe with too much material and people were slipping over in them. Or the time Mycoskie went all out on a design without conducting market research and ended up selling just five pairs—he wore one of the leftover pairs for months afterwards as a reminder to himself of the look-before-you-leap lesson he learnt from it.
TOMS’ success is undoubtedly its story—it’s interesting, it’s infectious, it’s gone viral, and Mycoskie is willing and able to tell it. The fact that the shoes are super cute and comfy rounds it out and makes it the difference between a well-meaning charitable organisation and a worldwide success. I might just be buying myself a pair or two of TOMS, although only after I’ve further researched this whole well-meaning, but not-so-helpful one-for-one giveaway controversy …