Here at Two Blind Brothers, we love what we do, and so we love learning how to do what we do better. In line with this, we recently had the privilege to pick the brains of Toms’ founder Blake Mycoskie on the Three and a Half Degrees podcast hosted by David Fisher.
In case you don’t know, Toms was one of the first, and currently one of the largest, cause-driven organizations in the world. Their cause is simple: for every pair of Toms bought, another pair is donated to someone in need.
There was a lot we could learn from Blake and the story of Toms. Two Blind Brothers is also a cause-driven organization: all our profits go towards funding research at the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Here are the four things we learned from Blake about using business and entrepreneurship to support worthy causes and bring about social good.
1. Customers Have Changed
When Toms started its social mission, the social impact cause was a major differentiating factor for their business. This cause-driven focus drew a lot of people to the brand and inspired lots of conversation around the brand and its mission.
However, today, Blake says, a cause-driven initiative is no longer a major differentiating factor for any business. In fact, it’s more of a point of entry for any business. Today, customers are asking hard questions of businesses and are more diligent in understanding the brands they support. These days cause-driven initiatives are more of a requirement than a competitive advantage.
Here at Two Blind Brothers, we’ve seen this reality unfold. When we started this project, we didn’t have a business plan. We really started it as a side project. It was not meant to be the business it’s become.
Because we were entirely focused on donating all our profits to the Foundation Fighting Blindness and we were completely and unwaveringly committed to the story behind the mission, we ended up building a mission-based company. This singular focus of Two Blind Brothers, in a way, managed to resonate with consumers, especially with those who were sympathetic to the cause.
So, in a way, we found ourselves at a point where consumers, who are skeptical of brands touting mission-driven slogans and who are looking for more from companies they support, caught onto our “selfish” passion for helping cure blindness. We had unwittingly and successfully tapped into the consumer trend of audiences who care about what brands are doing to better society.
And it’s not only Two Blind Brothers tapping into this trend. Bombas Socks donate a pair of socks for every pair bought and Budweiser, whenever there is a natural disaster, replaces all its beer cans with water cans.
What this consumer trend shows is large companies are now focusing on telling cause stories rather than competing on price and quality, which is indicative of a major paradigm shift in how customers view cause-driven brands today.
Customers today see cause-driven brands as a baseline rather than an exception, fundamentally affecting how businesses reach customers going forward.
2. Entrepreneurship Has Also Changed
If you’ve followed the Two Blind Brothers story so far, you’ll know we haven’t followed the traditional entrepreneurship path. But, neither did Toms.
In the traditional entrepreneurship path, there was this concept that you had to leave your job, mortgage your home, and sell everything you own to buy into a company or invest in publicizing your business. You basically had to bet everything on your idea achieving success and if it did not, you were in a really bad situation.
However, with the rise of social networks and technology and the resulting ability to find consumers who resonate with your story, brand or product, you can start at a much smaller place. As you gain momentum and tweak your idea, you are then able to build your concept into a more sustainable initiative.
Blake shares that he didn’t have to bring in any outside capital or investors until Toms had grown to a valuation of about half a billion dollars. By tapping into communities who valued Toms’ mission, Blake was able to grow the business organically.
In the same way, Two Blind Brothers has managed to leverage internal abilities as well as the connection people have to our story to grow to where we are. Through these social connections, we were able to start the business as a side project and work on it part-time until we saw enough groundswell and momentum to allow us to focus full-time on growing it.
Blake’s story resonated with us because he helped us see that starting small and bootstrapping a project for as long as possible can help you maintain focus on what matters to you. Meaning you don’t have to bring in outside influences by giving away parts of your company in a way that forces you to listen to competing interests.
Approaching entrepreneurship in this way allows you to pilot your idea through social media and the networks of people that care about what you are doing. It also allows you to make sure that one hundred percent of your focus is going towards your core mission and meeting the needs of your customers rather than satisfying other influences.
3. Start with a Simple Perfect Product
When Toms started expanding their products beyond their signature basic canvas shoe, this introduced a lot of challenges, Blake says. The entire Toms brand was tied to the basic canvas shoe, and there was a whole story behind why this particular shoe was chosen in the first place. As a unique shoe, Toms’ equity was centered around this shoe, which explains the challenges they faced when they decided to expand their product line.
How would they get people to relate to, and have the same convictions around, Toms if the original shoe were no longer the centerpiece of the story? Toms had to do this to further fuel the growth of the company and there is one key lesson we learned it.
These days, when you’re thinking of doing something, doing it small but doing it perfectly is a more effective and acceptable business model than ever before. This is a lesson we are learning and re-learning every day, as we focus on delivering the most comfortable and well-made apparel you have ever worn.
Today you can scale your idea to your ideal customer base in a way you couldn’t before. For example, if you were starting a clothing brand 20 years ago, you would have to purchase generic ads on daytime television and similar channels, contending with the big players. There wouldn’t have been any data to support your ad targeting, and thus your message would have ended up watered down.
Because technologies like social media and the communities built in digital spaces, you can now afford to start super small and access your ideal customers through these mediums.
At Two Blind Brothers, we’ve used this approach to stay small and focused reach just the right audiences that care about our mission. In this way, when we tell our brand story and build a narrative around what we are doing, we don’t have to spread ourselves too thin and in the process reduce the impact our story has.
The lesson we learned from Blake is to start with what you are really good at and then do it for as long as you can to avoid diluting your story and your mission.
4. Create an Authentic Connection Between Mission and Operations
For a mission-driven business to be impactful, there must be a genuine connection between the mission the business is serving and the operations of the business.
Although practical, and even attractive from a business perspective, it’s not enough to tape a social impact mission to your business as a means of attracting more customers. Today, customers see this façade for what it really is: a marketing stunt. To have a meaningful impact, such a mission must result in increased transparency and thoughtfulness; something today’s consumers are demanding.
Two Blind Brothers is perhaps the perfect example of mission blending with operations. As brothers who are visually impaired, we’ve been involved in the cause for over 25 years. Over this time, we’ve worked with the Foundation Fighting Blindness, followed research on blindness-causing diseases closely and been a part of the community we are trying to serve with our business.
Our stories and the stories of those who share the same experience are at the core of our mission and operations. By sharing those stories, we draw people to our mission, brand, and product in a way that would be difficult if that authentic connection between mission and operations were not there.
You need to stay true to your roots and keep it authentic. From your story to your mission and operations, these are pillars that form the backbone of why you started your business and why your current customers love you. If you change this story, your brand becomes a lot weaker, and you may alienate some of your original and most loyal customers.
In conclusion, one thing is clear: any mission-driven company must provide exceptional services and benefits to its customers while unwaveringly remaining committed to its core mission.
At Two Blind Brothers, this means we stay focused on delivering super comfortable apparel while we continue to support vision research. But beyond that, we are also using our mission, business and the platform we have to let those in the visually impaired community, as well as everyone else, know that our vision limitation did not limit us at all. Whatever your limitation, it should not limit you either.