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Book review: 'Start Something That Matters'

Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie lays out six guidelines for principled entrepreneurs.

September 21, 2011|By Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

With "Start Something That Matters," Blake Mycoskie, the sailboat-dwelling former reality show contestant, serial entrepreneur, unbridled optimist and philanthropically motivated founder of Toms Shoes, has added author to his resume. He's also managed to pen a quick read of a motivational guide for well-intentioned millennials and a dirt-easy-to-follow blueprint for anyone thinking about following in the footsteps of his alpargatas.

Alpargatas, of course, are the slipper-like, jute-soled, soft canvas Argentine footwear that are the foundation and literal sole of the Toms business, which Mycoskie discovered during a 2006 trip to Argentina. The book's first chapter recounts how he launched a for-profit business based on the premise that for each pair he sold, one pair of shoes would be donated to a child in need.

Mycoskie uses the lessons he learned launching that company as a template for others, laying out six (just six!) guidelines that folks should follow if they're thinking about "start[ing] and sustain[ing] something that matters."

"Something that matters" may sound like an overly vague goal, but in the six chapters that follow — each titled after one of his tenets (starting with "Find Your Story" and ending with "Giving Is Good Business") — Mycoskie is very, very specific, name-checking an inordinate number of people, brands and business ventures that illustrate his points.

One wouldn't think a guy who rubs elbows with likes of President Bill Clinton and Ewan McGregor and collaborates with the likes of the Row's Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Element Skateboards and Ralph Lauren, and a guy whose 5-year-old company donated its millionth pair of shoes last September and this summer launched a one-for-one line of sunglasses, would need to cite anything beyond his own track record. But his various and sundry shout-outs help illustrate how his advice can be applied beyond the "one for one" charity shoe model.

Mycoskie's philosophy comes to life through advertising campaigns — including Subway's "Jared" ads and the AT&T commercials featuring Mycoskie himself), inspirational people (his mother Pam, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Lauren Bush, the brothers behind the Veev spirits label) — and a laundry list of successful brands and business models that range from Method cleaning products and Charity: Water to Southwest Airlines, Netflix and Chipotle.

Many of the guidelines are as equally applicable to personal as business life — like Mycoskie's case for simplicity in message, in design, in the accumulation of personal belongings. In the chapter titled "Keep It Simple," he not only advises that an idea for a business should be honed down to a single sentence, he describes how he purged his life of accumulated "stuff," by moving out of his Venice apartment and onto a 200-square-foot sailboat.

Even the parts of the book that initially seem a little hokey — like his advice to surround yourself with quotes "from people who have seen their way through fear and failure and still risen" or to dispense with formal, hierarchical company titles (he's "chief shoe giver"; other Toms employees have been dubbed "Shoe Glue," "Cash Shoe," and "Shoe-per-Woman") — end up being illustrative if not downright helpful once Mycoskie points out how they helped him and his company achieve what they have.

Mycoskie ends the book with a challenge to readers — to volunteer at a homeless shelter, start a nonprofit venture or add a giving program to their existing for-profit business. "For me, the ultimate success of this book will be not by how many copies it sells but by the number of people it inspires and the number of letters we receive," he writes in the closing lines.

If Toms fans embrace Mycoskie's call to action as enthusiastically as they've embraced his shoes, he may well end up with a barge full of letters parked next to his houseboat.

And that's not the only way the book is trying to make the world a better place. Not only has Mycoskie pledged 50% of his proceeds from it to a fund that will help inspired readers make that difference, for every book purchased Random House will donate a book to a child in need.

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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