The Rise Of Storydoing: Inside The Staggering Success Of Toms Shoes

Stories live in the hearts of humans and should be at the core of every business. Here's how to take a page out of Toms founder Blake Mycoskie's business playbook.

It is 2002. A mildly successful serial entrepreneur named Blake Mycoskie is planning his next venture. The problem: He has absolutely no idea what he wants to do next. But an unlikely chain of events is about to make him one of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the world and a leader of one of the first companies of its kind: a "One for One" storydoing company.

As Mycoskie is considering his next move, he sends an audition tape in to a reality TV show, The Amazing Race. Once accepted, Mycoskie suddenly finds himself in exotic parts of South America, which kindles a lifelong love affair with Argentina. Mycoskie loves it so much that he decides to go back several years later on an extended vacation to spend more time really exploring the country. It is on this vacation that he discovers his true calling.

Getting outside of the major cities like Buenos Aires, he is deeply disturbed by the abject poverty he finds in the small towns and villages in the Argentine countryside. He is particularly affected by the number of children who are so poor they can’t even afford a pair of shoes. He learns that not having shoes can lead to a number of disfiguring diseases and that, almost worse, children without shoes are often not allowed to attend school, which means that their ability to improve their circumstance in life is nearly impossible. Standing in Argentina the second time, he decides then and there to devote the next part of his life to doing something about this problem in the world.

After thinking about it for a short time, he had the idea that would change his life forever: He would start a shoe company. But it was a shoe company with a special difference—for every pair of shoes he sold, he would give a second pair to a child in need. He also made a conscious decision to make it a for-profit business. His belief was that charities, as important as they are, were not helping to create sustainable change. What was needed were companies that were self-sustaining and doing the right thing. From his perspective, that’s how the really big dream, a truly sustainable global economy, could happen. And so Toms shoes, and the idea of "One for One," was born.

Note that the story I just told you is the key driver of the business model to this day, and it was baked in to the company from the very beginning. Toms rarely advertises. When you buy a pair of Toms shoes, you get a pair of shoes, but you also get a story. It is a story about children, poverty, hope, and giving back. It is a story that Mycoskie rapidly discovered people wanted to tell each other. It was a story that lit up the medium of people. This spring, Toms celebrated its 10 millionth pair of free shoes given to a child in need. Doing the math, that’s 20 million stories in circulation, and growing.

Clearly the story of Toms and the "One for One" movement is one that a lot of people want to talk about (as I am doing now). You don’t have to pay anyone to do it. And when you begin to consider where that story might take Toms, it gets pretty exciting. In June of 2011, Toms announced their next innovative action: the launch of Toms eyewear. A "One for One" program designed to save and restore sight in poor countries. This marks a very important point in the story of Toms. It is the point at which Toms stops being a shoe company and becomes a One for One storydoing company. Once the story moves beyond shoes there really is no limit to how far it can go.

The Rise of Storydoing

Toms is one of a growing number of businesses that I call storydoing companies. Today, there are numerous companies in multiple sectors that are building large businesses by pursuing the principles of storydoing—from startups to multinational corporations. And there are a growing number of companies that are beginning to do the necessary work of restructuring themselves to behave in this new way. It’s easy to see why: When it is done correctly, storydoing is simply better business. For instance, the best storydoing companies can reduce their cost of paid media dramatically—sometimes to zero. And there is growing evidence that this actually makes them more efficient businesses.

But there are other benefits. One of the other core attributes of storydoing companies is that they have a more clearly defined purpose than other companies, something that transcends creating shareholder value or maximizing profits. This attribute often creates intense loyalty among customers and employees alike.

When most people think about the word "story," they think about a narrative like "Jack and Jill went up the hill." Most of us have been taught that there are two basic kinds of story: fiction and nonfiction. Metastory is actually a third kind of story.

Metastory is a story that is told through action. It is not a story that you say, it’s a story that you do. Every individual has one. And every company has one, too.

The reason this is so important is that people are already innate storydoers themselves. They use the story of your brand or business to tell part of their own personal metastory. Put another way, people don’t buy products; they take actions that help advance their own personal metastory. As we grow up, all of us learn to manage our own metastory through our actions—the cars we drive, the clothes we wear. All of these choices are components that we know people around us will use to piece our metastory together.

If I want a new pair of shoes today, I have a huge number to choose from. If I pick Toms, it is because, in addition to protecting my feet, I want to take an action that signals my allegiance to the Toms tribe, to make their story part of my story.

Stories live in the hearts of human beings and in the future, should be at the core of every business. The truth is you have the power to become an agent of change in your own organization today. You just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Ty Montague is the CEO of co:collective, and the author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Follow him on Twitter, @tmontague.

[Image: Flickr user Danielle Henry]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Skepticpreneur

    The authenticity of the TOMS story and beginnings are questionable.

    The story they tell is one about a man who "unintentionally" stumbled upon the idea while seeing children in need of shoes abroad, loaded with altruism and selfless motives.

    If Blake didn't herald himself as the self absorbed, trendy "serial entrepreneur" that he claimed to be, this story would be so much more believable.

    But knowing Blake the "serial entrepreneur"; the more likely story is that he was in search of his next big business idea. He came across the unique Argentinian alpagata shoe. He knew that it was unique to the US market. He brainstormed around what clever marketing spin could be used to sell the shoes. Viola. Americans like to have their egos stroked and images of impoverished kids sell...

    Enter the birth of the One for One model.

    Unfortunately, this calculated and capitalist motivated story wouldn't be quite as compelling to sell shoes, so the wise marketing geniuses "massaged" the story to sound much more altruistic and selfless.

    One last comment. Blake and I share a few common business associates. What most people don't realize is that "Blake" is in fact his middle name. His first name? Thomas.

    TOM Blake Mycoskie.

    So much for naming a selfless little shoe company after the "Shoes for TOMorrow Project".

  • Isa

    I'm building a social enterprise at the moment and find the Toms story so inspirational. While we don't offer one for one we do give back (in our case to training and development programs in Rwanda to help break the cycle of poverty). I'm always looking for ways to better tell our story and this article has given me a few ideas on how to do that, thank you!