“Giving is a good business strategy. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Blake Mycoskie at last week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, TX.
As one of the keynote speakers at the conference—which drew thousands of influential, tech-savvy types from all over the world—Mycoskie knew what he was talking about. The founder of Toms Shoes, he used word of mouth, not advertising, to turn a tiny company based out of his California apartment into a multi-million-dollar business. And he did it using the simple model of “one for one”: For each pair of shoes sold, the company donates a pair to a child in need.
Listening from the back row of a cavernous auditorium in the Austin Convention Center, I couldn’t help but feel moved when Mycoskie talked about his visits to poor communities in South America, which inspired him to do something to help. I, too, have found my life transformed by traveling to places far outside my comfort zone. Most of all, I liked how he had found a way to make addressing poverty into something stylish, catchy, and easy to understand.
Still, I couldn’t figure out what Mycoskie meant when he called giving a “good business strategy.” Was he speaking as an idealist or a pragmatic entrepreneur? Did he really believe that a for-profit company could make as much difference as a charity? Or was he just stating a blunt truth: namely, people like to buy things that make them feel good about themselves?