Why listening to your critics pays off: lessons from TOMS shoes

30 Nov 1999
In the immortal words of hip pop crew House Vs Hurricane, ‘Haters Gonna Hate'. Even if you're not a hip-hop fan, it's a widely accepted truth that when you, either as an individual, a company, or an organisation, get big enough you’re going to cop some flack. Especially if you’re doing something new, or different, or unique. If you’re changing the way the game is played, chances are you’re going to hear the naysayers saying... well, nay. And for the most part, we’re supposed to rise above the hate. Ignore your detractors. Steer clear of those who want to pull you, your company, or your organisation down. Instead focus your attention in delighting your believers, your supporters, your fans. But sometimes, we’re not supposed to do that. Sometimes listening and engaging with the so-called-haters can teach you something, and it can push your organisation to grow and evolve into something better. toms-shoes1 And that’s why I have so much admiration for what TOMS shoes is doing. Most people have heard of TOMS shoes, but if you haven't here's the lowdown: they are a US-based wildly successful social enterprise that, for every pair of shoes you buy, gives a pair of shoes away to someone in a developing country. In their success, TOMS has moved onto eyewear – using a similar buy-one-give-one model, as well as launching their own online Marketplace where you can buy products from other social enterprises. People embraced TOMS products everywhere – cool kids around the world wore their TOMS shoes with pride, knowing they weren’t just making a fashion statement, but were also contributing to the life of a person living in poverty somewhere. The appeal was immediate - look good and do good. Warm and fuzzies for everyone! Right? Unfortunately, no. The criticisms were obvious right from the beginning. Giving away free pairs of shoes is all well and good, and TOMS has pointed out the numerous health and education benefits of wearing shoes, but there wasn’t much that was sustainable about the model. If you gave a child a pair of shoes, but his family couldn’t afford to send him to school – what then? Or if you gave a pair of shoes to someone, but they were too sick to walk around and use them? Not to mention the effect on the businesses of local shoe-makers in the 50 developing countries where TOMS gave away their shoes, which were manufactured in Kenya, Argentina, Ethiopia, and China. There have been heaps of excellent blogs and articles written on problems with the TOMS model, on Why Dev, Kelsey Timmerman’s blog Where Am I Wearing, and a Tiny Spark podcast. Do a Google search and you’ll find plenty more. TOMS shoes-blake TOMS Founder and CEO Blake Blake Mycoskie distributing shoes to children in Ethiopa TOMS could’ve easily ignored the haters. Since 2006 they’d given away 10 million shoes, and expanded their line into eyeware to fund projects that save and restore eyesight in developing countries, as well as partnering with Giving Partners to help support other poverty-alleviating projects outside of their shoe-giving. Clearly, they were doing very well. But here’s where it gets good: TOMS listens. And not just in a, “Thanks so much for your suggestion, perhaps we'll take that into consideration... maybe” kind of way. Like, actually listens, to the point where they’ve rethought their model. toms-shoes-2 Late last year TOMS announced it’s plan to start manufacturing a minimum of one third of its shoes in countries in which it gives them away, using local labour and resources. They’re starting with a $10 million investment in Haiti to build a shoe factory, and production is expected to begin in early 2014. The factory will create 100 jobs,  as well as investing in the local Haiti Artists Collective who employ 30 Haitian artists to design and hand-paint shoes that will be sold online.
The TOMS team writes on their blog, “With your support, honest feedback and challenges posed to us, we have evolved One for One and have the potential to impact those we serve even more.”
TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie has said that this new model and decision to invest in a Haiti shoe factory is a direct consequence of the criticisms levelled at TOMS over the years, “if you’re building a brand you have to listen to the critics, and we have... Two years ago we were just a shoe company. Then we became a shoe and eyewear company. But we were only focused on aid. Now we’re focused on job creation. We are evolving through some major paradigm shifts.” (Click here for the full interview). toms-shoes-3 I love that. TOMS has taken the criticisms and acknowledged the holes in their model, and they’ve come up with a more sustainable and creative way to use their movement to create jobs, kick-start local industries and economies and continue changing the lives of individual people. One Girl is still very young as an organisation, but we’ve certainly encountered some critics, the first of the “haters”, if you will. In the coming years we’ll be looking to TOMS' example as inspiration as we grow and evolve our own organisation and programs.
And when the critics are making sense and putting forth constructive challenges – we’ll listen with the same sense of humility, continually learning from our mistakes and always seeking ways we can be better, and do better.
Because as TOMS shows, sometimes it pays to listen to the critics. So, if you’ve ever got questions, criticisms or suggestions for how we can be better, let us know! Email me (Larissa) at and let’s chat! We won’t hate, promise.

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