Most people know the startup story of Toms Shoes: Founder Blake Mycoskie takes a life-altering trip to Argentina, discovers alpargatas, the traditional South American flat shoes, then spends a day fitting 250 children with their own pair. But what you probably don't know is the hilarious story of how the brand got into Nordstrom, which Mycoskie recounted at the World Business Forum on Wednesday.
It all started when Mycoskie met a shoe buyer in Los Angeles, who bought 80 pairs of Toms. A week later, he received a call from Booth Moore, the longtime fashion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Two weeks after that, there were two headlines on the cover of the newspaper's Calendar section: one on the blockbuster opening of the movie The Da Vinci Code and the other on Toms's social business.
That morning, Mycoskie woke up to the sound of his BlackBerry vibrating uncontrollably on his nightstand. "The phone was spinning around like it was possessed, then died after 20 minutes," he recalled. Then it dawned on him: He had set his site to send an email every time he got an order, and thanks to the cover story the orders were flooding in. "We sold 2,200 pairs of Toms on our site by 2 p.m. that afternoon," he said. There was just one problem: Mycoskie had only 140 pairs at Toms HQ, a.k.a. his apartment in Venice, California. "This was the first of many supply chain problems to come," Mycoskie said with a smile.
Convinced it was time to get help, he began posting ads for interns on Craigslist. By the next weekend, he had 10 of them. He convinced three to work without pay and told them their first task was to call the people expecting shoes in four days. Next, Mycoskie booked a flight to Buenos Aires and paid a visit to his shoemaker, of whom he demanded, "Muchos zappatos, rapido!" Without delay, all the shoemaker's friends began stitching together alpargatas.
Back in Los Angeles, business continued to skyrocket. Anna Wintour made a call, and in October 2006 Toms was featured in Vogue magazine. "Because it was Vogue, and because of their credibility, all of a sudden everyone thought we were a real company," Mycoskie joked. "We started getting calls from Paris--not Paris, Texas, but Paris, France--London, and Nordstrom."
When the assistant women's buyer at Nordstrom came calling two weeks after the Vogue feature, Mycoskie kindly explained he was dealing with a flood of online orders and was sold out. "It might be two weeks," he assured him, but for now he could only take down the order. "Well, this is just a test order," the buyer responded. "Bump someone else's order and send me the shoes." "Sir, I don't have any shoes," Mycoskie admitted.
At this, the buyer went livid. "If you can't help me, put me in touch with someone in the sales department," he huffed. Mycoskie glanced at the interns eating breakfast burritos. "Hand me the phone," one of them said, setting her breakfast aside. Not knowing what to do, Mycoskie gave her the phone. "Hello, this is Leni in sales," she said coolly. Within minutes, she had calmed him down and nonchalantly took down the order.
"That summer, we sold 10,000 pairs of shoes out of my apartment," Mycoskie recalled.