Why volunteering is like dieting, how a for-profit mentality can sustain your social change mission, and other observations from social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie.

January 2011

Blake Mycoskie launched TOMS Shoes after seeing the hardships faced by children without shoes in Argentina. His for-profit company offers a unique one-for-one business proposition: With every pair of TOMS shoes you purchase, the company will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. The founder and chief shoe-giver of TOMS spoke to Walden about finding inspiration, staying motivated, and the importance of learning from the experiences of others.

YOU STARTED TOMS EVEN THOUGH YOU DIDN’T HAVE ANY EXPERIENCE IN SHOES OR FASHION. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE IN A SIMILAR SITUATION?

Blake Mycoskie: When I was starting my first businesses and I had no expertise, I tried to find people who would take interest in what I was doing and mentor me. To proactively seek out mentors is a great thing at any age. People in my company are in their mid-40s and have mentors because it’s important. You can only learn so much through trial and error, on the job, and through school. Having someone who’s been there, done that, and has already made the mistakes is a great thing. The other thing that I probably have learned the most from is reading biographies of people in the space I want to be. When people write a biography, they obviously had a certain level of success. So they don’t have insecurity about telling all the mistakes they made. When you read about someone’s mistakes, you learn from their mistakes and, you hope, don’t make them yourself.

IF SOMEONE HAS A GREAT SOCIAL CHANGE BUSINESS IDEA BUT HASN’T BEEN AN ENTREPRENEUR, WHAT ARE THE FIRST STEPS THEY SHOULD TAKE?

Blake Mycoskie: Some basic education is important. There are great books on writing business plans. There are great books on what has made other startup companies successful. It’s really not that different from company to company. They saw a need. They saw a problem. They saw something they didn’t think was right in the world. And they started small. If you think about any big company today that you really respect, I guarantee it wasn’t a well-funded startup. Every single one of them started in a garage with people, with their credit cards. I truly believe that creativity comes out of necessity. When you don’t have money and stuff to fall back on—or the experience—you sometimes get a more creative thought, which leads to a breakthrough in business.

HOW DOES SOMEONE DECIDE WHETHER A SOCIAL CHANGE IDEA SHOULD BECOME A NONPROFIT OR FOR-PROFIT BUSINESS?

Blake Mycoskie: There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. But just because you’re nonprofit doesn’t mean you can’t act like a for-profit. I think if nonprofits acted more like for-profits, they would have a lot more success. I see a lot of nonprofits that just because they’re nonprofit, their branding is bad. Their PR campaign makes no sense. They don’t have the same level of excellence that a for-profit does because a for-profit is worried about going out of business or losing money.

WHAT IS ONE OF THE GREATEST LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY TO GROWING YOUR SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSES?

Blake Mycoskie: I think one of the big things is just to keep it simple. One of the reasons why TOMS works is because it has a very simple message and a very simple idea. Therefore, it can be spread easily. We’ve been able to grow our business because people have told the story for us. Think of all the great pop songs: They’re simple. The great products, they’re simple. I’ve learned in starting any business that the more you can reduce the features, or the more you can reduce the ideas around it and simplify it, the better.

THOSE WHO DON’T WANT TO START THEIR OWN ORGANIZATION CAN VOLUNTEER WITH ONE THAT ALREADY EXISTS—AND WALDEN ALUMNI DO THIS AT A RATE ABOVE THE NATIONAL AVERAGE. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THEM WHEN GETTING INVOLVED?

Blake Mycoskie: The biggest thing is that it’s really never too early or too late to get involved in some form of service. I think it creates a change that affects all of your life in positive ways. Specifically, do it with people you love and care about and work with, because there’s a real community that forms when you serve with someone else. It’s something that I have experienced taking people on trips all over the world and with my own staff. You get such a joy, not just from what you’re doing, but from the relationships and the people you’re doing it with. I think that sometimes we’re so disconnected, especially in this day and age. We’re more connected than we’ve ever been because of technology, but we’re more disconnected in the types of personal relationships we have and the amount of time we sit in a room and talk and spend time together. Service is a great way to connect with human beings the way that we did a long time ago. I think that’s a very positive thing and something we need more of.

HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD SOMEONE SPEND VOLUNTEERING?

Blake Mycoskie: In a weird way, volunteering is like dieting. If you go on a diet, you do this extreme thing that causes you to lose weight. You’re going to have this great feeling, but it’s not really something you could do the rest of your life. Then you’re going to feel worse when you gain it all back. I think volunteering is the same. If you try to get too deep, and you get engrossed in it to the detriment of your other life commitments—family, school, work—it’s not going to be sustainable. You’re going to feel guilty later because you’re not doing it. So I always tell people it’s better to just enter slowly than to go really hard and fast, with volunteering or with service or even companies, to have a level of commitment that is truly a lifestyle change or a sustainable change.

YOU’VE SPENT A LOT OF TIME ABROAD. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE CONSIDERING VOLUNTEERING IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD?

Blake Mycoskie: You have to be careful because you could do it, and then the rest of your existence could seem a little bit bland compared to that emotional experience. People come on shoe drops with us, and it’s usually a pretty jarring experience. And they come back to the United States and live with this kind of guilt that they’ve seen what’s going on in Haiti. I think you have to be responsible with your emotions that way. Now, some people can go to Haiti, volunteer for two weeks, go back into work on Monday, and just have it as a nice memory, like a vacation. Some people, it gets so much into their core that it’s going to affect them. People need to be prepared for that potential effect on their life. By doing it in smaller doses at first, you at least start to get an understanding of your ability to make that commitment before you make too big of a commitment that you can’t continue.

IF SOMEONE WANTS TO DO GOOD IN THE WORLD BUT HASN’T BEEN PUSHED INTO ACTION BY AN EXPERIENCE LIKE THE ONE YOU HAD IN ARGENTINA, HOW CAN THEY IDENTIFY A SPECIFIC CAUSE?

Blake Mycoskie: I think you have to just follow your passion. If you get involved in a project but you’re not fully engaged and passionate, over time it will wane and won’t be as fulfilling. I tell people, “Don’t rush into something because you just feel the desire. Really take your time and do a little bit of volunteering in different groups and see what really connects to you.” So I think it’s important for people to take the time to figure out how their skill sets match their passions.

Watch an excerpt of Blake Mycoskie’s address