Book Review: Start Something That Matters (Random House, 2011)
At the start of 2018, I made it my resolution to read one fiction and nonfiction book per month for pleasure. Now, that may not sound many, but I probably read at least two other books per week as part of my day job, so it’s a realistic goal rather than an ideal one.
In February, I chose Start Something That Matters, by the founder of the TOMS shoe brand, Blake Mycoskie. It's been in publication for seven years now, but I only came across it recently and was curious. I was interested in it because social entrepreneurship is such a growth area, and since TOMS launched, other “one-for-one” initiatives have sprung up. Did TOMS invent that model? Perhaps not, but it is certainly the highest profile example, and as such, it has undoubtedly inspired other for-profit companies that give one of whatever they sell to someone in need, including Warby Parker (eye glasses) and Smile Squared (toothbrushes).
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years and seen the struggle organizations have in raising funds, I LOVE the “conscious capitalism” movement. Companies like TOMS would never replace the not-for-profit sector, which often plays such a critical political role, but social entrepreneurs are adding something valuable to the philanthropic landscape. I have high hopes that, one day, giving will lie at the heart of every successful business and that corporations that don’t follow suit will simply not survive.
Mycoskie’s book is a clear attempt to influence people of his generation and younger to follow his lead. He says, “I feel a deep responsibility to share everything we have learned at TOMS, so that as many others as possible can start something important.” It could have been a straightforward business biography, with some advice thrown in, but in keeping with his view of the world, Mycoskie explores a range of other inspiring stories of mission-driven people with a simple idea who are making a difference.
“Simple” is a key message of the book. You cannot save the world yourself, but you CAN solve one of its problems. It’s a powerful point. Mycoskie had a lightbulb moment in 2002 while on a trip to Argentina. He liked to wear the locally made alpargata shoe and thought they would have a market in the United States. But then he discovered that local children were walking barefoot to school, and he realized how much easier and more comfortable the kids’ lives would be if only they had shoes, which is something we all take for granted in the affluent West. In 2006, TOMS carried out its first “shoe drop” of 10,000 pairs in Argentina and the brand was truly born.
The book is a useful guide and giver of inspiration. However, it’s not the most riveting read. My principal criticism of the book is that the writing is somewhat sterile, and I don’t get a clear impression of Mycoskie. He had a cowriter, which may explain this absence of voice. This is an issue for people who have something to say but need a cowriter or ghostwriter to say it for them, and even the best ghostwriter in the world will still act as a filter (perhaps unconsciously) that sifts out some of the nuance of an individual’s voice. But in this case, I doubt “voice” was Mycoskie’s main concern. He set out to honor his responsibility to share the TOMS experience, not blow his own trumpet, and he achieved it. And, if you yearn to start something that matters, you should definitely add this book to your reading list.