Sometimes you read a book where you grow to like the author and what he/she stands for. This is one of such books. Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie is the story of how Blake started the shoe company, TOMS, but it’s not a business biography. Blake’s intention is to teach and encourage people to start a business using his own experience. This is an endearing book which shows that you can create a company that does good and at the same time make money, and you don’t have to be a mean or bad guy to run a successful company.
Over 8 chapters Blake relates how he got the idea for his business, started iT and built it into a sustainable and successful company which continues to have a positive effect on people’s lives.
His story starts in Argentina where he is on holiday. At this time Blake was already running an online training company back in the US. While in Argentina he got to wear the local shoe Alpargata which was everywhere, but was not in the US, he had an idea of selling the shoe in the US, but he didn’t give too much thought to the idea. Towards the end of his vacation he met a woman volunteering at a charity that provides shoes for kids. She explained to Blake that a significant amount of children in Argentina don’t have shoes, and this led to other complications such as blisters, sores and inflections.
Blake wanted to do something about the situation, his first thought was to start a charity, but he didn’t think it would be sustainable, so he turned to an area where he had experience, business and entrepreneurship. Blake had launched various businesses over the past 10 years so he thought: Why not create a for-profit business to help provide shoes for these children? Blake went back to his idea of selling the Alpargata in the US. He decided to build that business idea, and that is exactly what Blake did. How Blake built that business idea and what he learnt from it is what this book is about. It also features stories from a lot of other people who started successful ventures.
To start the business Blake took some key steps:
-He found an Argentine partner, who happened to be his Argentinian polo teacher during his holiday.
-They looked for someone to produce the shoe.
-They got a prototype of the shoe built and tested its durability.
-They got 250 samples built and Blake took them back to the US.
He also decided that for each pair of shoe sold, a pair would given away for free. That way he had built social good into the business from the onset. In fact giving away shoes to the people that needed them was the original purpose for the business, the business model just funded it.
And that is how TOMS shoes started. Following is a brief review of what you will learn from Blake in each chapter.
Chapter One – The TOMS story: Blake tells the story of how TOMS came about and some of the challenges he faced setting up the company. Three learning points for me from this chapter were:
1- When you see a problem think about how you can use your strengths to be part of the solution. Blake saw the problem of people lacking shoes, he decided to use his strengths and experience in business to solve it.
2-Choose the right partner. Blake partnered with someone who understand the local market from where he would be sourcing his product.
3- Use your story. Blake used the story of TOMS to market his product, get media interest and attract customers.
Chapter Two – Find your story: Blake discusses the importance of using great stories about your business to get attention and attract customers. Apart from the story of TOMS, he uses examples of stories from other businesses. My key learning point from this chapter is:
1- People connect to stories more than facts. If your business has a compelling story, it will attract people.
Chapter Three – Face your fears: Blake introduces this chapter with a quote from Mark Twain which says that:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” So Blake also discusses the story of a woman who had dreamed of writing a book, but never got round to doing it until years later. That book eventually sold 1.4 million copies. What if she had succumbed to her fears and never wrote. Blake particularly tells that story because the woman was his mother. The message Blake sends out in this chapter is that if you have an idea don’t let fear prevent you from acting on it. Key lessons for me were:
1-Fear will always be with us so we can’t let it stop us.
2- We fear the unknown, but everything we face in life is not certain.
3- Battle fear in business by learning and surrounding yourself with enthusiastic people.
4- The timing for any idea is never right, do it now.
5 – If you have a project that seems overwhelming, start it in small steps.
Chapter Four – Be resourceful without resources
Blake didn’t start TOMS with much resources, so it’s no surprise that he includes a chapter like this. Think about this, at the onset of the business he:
-used a gmail address
-used his one bedroom shared flat as the office
Blake discusses examples of other companies that started with little resources, he also gives some tips on how to do it.
The key lesson for me was:
– Don’t let what you don’t have prevent you from using what you have. Focus on starting with what you have and as you progress you will attract what you don’t have.
Chapter Five – Keep it simple
I like the title of this chapter a lot. And the business story Blake’s uses to illustrate the simplicity of business explains his point well. Summarily Blake is saying a business model must be simple to deliver and understand. He uses a number of other businesses who deliver products and services simple to understand. Other area where simplicity applies are discussed. Some of them are:
-Uncluttering one’s workspace
-Take notes, don’t try to remember it all
-Own as little as you can get away with
-Don’t become a slave to technology
My learning points from this chapter come from a couple of questions which Blake suggests we answer to create a simple plan of what you are trying to achieve with your business plan. He also sets some boundaries, answer each question with a single sentence. Here are the questions:
1-What is your business about?
2-What do you want to be known for as a person?
3-Why should someone hire you?
4-What social cause are you seeking to serve?
5-If you are designing a product or service, look at it and then decide: What else can you remove from the design or service and still keep its function intact.
Chapter Six – Build trust
Blake believes trust is very important in business and he uses the story of Zappos, the online shoe business Amazon bought for $1.2 million. Here are some trust related quotes from Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos:
“Trust is fundamental part of a business.”
“A brand succeeds or fails based on whether or not people trust the company with which they’re about to do business.”
Blake admits that he actively works to make TOMS a trustworthy company, but issues a warning that it is important to balance internal trust so people don’t abuse it. My key lessons from this chapter are Blake’s tips for building trust which are:
-Talk openly with your staff
-Give away autonomy
-Trust that your employees will grow into their roles
-Follow the golden rule – if you enter into a dispute with a customer treat him/her as you would like to be treated.
-Be as open as possible
-Use your own products
Chapter seven – Giving is good business
The opening quote summaries Blake’s sentiments about this chapter: The more you give, the more you live – Bob Dedman. Blake is a master story teller and he tells a number of stories about giving which are quite moving. This is business with a conscience, business which isn’t just about making money, but making a difference.