Just seven years ago, Blake Mycoskie was selling Toms shoes out of his apartment. “It seems like forever to me,” he cracks. But since then, the canvas shoes have become ubiquitous, and Toms has turned into a global brand not just for shoes, but also for eyewear and now, Mycoskie has launched Toms coffee.
Toms is known for its one-for-one concept: Buy one pair of shoes and Toms will give a pair to a person in need. Toms’ coffee will also have a charitable bent: Every bag of beans gets someone one week (140 liters) of clean water in Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi, Peru and Rwanda — the same countries that house the coffee plantations.
Mycoskie hopes to turn the coffee trade upside down and have Toms coffee shops all over the country; he’s already opened one in Los Angeles and plans to roll out more around the country later this year, including in New York in the summer. But Mycoskie plans to launch a new product every year, hoping to become, as he puts it, the Richard Branson of socially responsible products.
Mycoskie, 37, gave us his top tips for young entrepreneurs hoping to break out with the next big startup.
1. Keep it simple: Mycoskie says it’s important not to be in a rush — don’t be so overly ambitious that you miss the big picture. “Don’t be afraid to be small for as long as you need to be small,” he says. “When you’re doing a startup, so many of them have this pressure where they feel the need to be so big and have so much revenue and raise money so fast.”
Instead, Mycoskie says, young entrepreneurs should hold their horses and let their businesses blossom. “There’s a gestation period during which it needs to organically come into the market,” he explains. Mycoskie says his initial goal was just to sell 250 pairs of Toms shoes every six months: “We ended up doing a lot more than that, but had we set out with a big, ambitious goal, I don’t know if we’d have the success that we had.”
2. Don’t choose entrepreneurship as a career: Mycoskie says it’s a big mistake to get caught up on the idea of entrepreneurship as a career. “If you’re at university saying, ‘I’m going to be an entrepreneur,’ and you don’t know what you’re going to start — that’s scary,” he says. “Find your passion about changing or doing something where the only way you can do that is to start a business.” Have a clear purpose in mind before you venture out into the scary world of startups.
3. Get ready to be poor: If you want to forgo the big corporate job to start your own business, get ready for a big drop in salary. “It takes time to raise money or prove your concept and generate revenue and profits,” says Mycoskie. “It’s not for the faint of heart.” Case in point: Toms lost money for the first three years after it opened. Mycoskie was the one who got hit the hardest by the loss because he was the only financial backer.
4. Be socially responsible: Mycoskie says the Toms concept of one-for-one wasn’t just good for the beneficiaries; it was good for business. “The more I focused on our meaning and purpose, the more I found our customers connected with it, my employees were more engaged, and our vendors wanted to work with us because they were excited about our idea,” he says. Mycoskie says it may be more difficult to make a quick buck, but ultimately customers care about the way you operate your business. “The idea that businesses have a greater responsibility to the community and human rights and the environment is much more talked about today than when I was doing this seven years ago,” says Mycoskie.
5. Cross your fingers and hope for a big break: Mycoskie still laughs in disbelief when he talks about how Toms exploded in the retail market. “We got support from an unlikely place — the fashion industry was so supportive of these simple canvas shoes,” he says. “First we were in the Los Angeles Times fashion section, and then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Vogue. After Vogue writes about you, then Nordstrom calls and Urban Outfitters calls.” Mycoskie is the first to chalk up his success at least in part to luck. “Unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark