SURF THIS: Shoe story inspires at South by Southwest Conference

Jim Cota
April 2, 2011
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Jim Cota

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with more than 100 other people involved in the Indianapolis technology community. As a group, we were joining thousands of people from around the world who converged on Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference.

SXSW is really three conferences in one: film, interactive and music. The entire event runs for 10 days, opening with the interactive portion and closing with music, while the film portion overlaps each.

For first-timers and veterans alike, understanding the scope of the event can be daunting. For example, the Interactive Conference schedule showed, on the first day, 11 different things happening that started with ‘A.’ There were 37 events to choose from at 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. There were more than 70 venues for events, and that list excludes the multitude of local bars where companies of all sorts and sizes hosted parties throughout the week.

Speakers ranged from industry heavyweights to up-and-comers to total unknowns. Miller Lite, AOL and Chevrolet shared the spotlight with startups that had nothing more than an idea. Just deciding where to go, what to do and what to see is challenging.

At the convention center, the Hilton, and the Radisson, I watched panels discuss topics such as “Should Agencies Think Like Software Companies?” and individuals present their ideas about “Designing for Silence: Using E-mail for Good.”

I listened to Internet pioneers Tim O’Reilly, Jon Gruber and Jeffrey Zeldman. I had a fascinating conversation with producer-actress Ramona Pringle, who wondered why her intelligent, beautiful and successful female friends couldn’t find love, while people playing online games seemed to be doing just fine.

In a word, the scope of information was dizzying.

But the story that stands out above the rest belongs to Blake Mycoskey of Toms Shoes (www.toms.com).

Blake took a leave of absence from his software company a few years ago to travel to Argentina to deliver shoes to kids who didn’t have any. He and a few friends delivered 500 pairs on that trip, and he was moved by the reaction he received. Later that night, he lay awake bothered by one question: “What happens when these kids grow out of the shoes we’ve just given them?”

To Blake, the answer was obvious: They needed to bring back more shoes, but he had no idea how to do that, at first.

The result was Toms Shoes, a company founded on the idea that, for every pair of shoes they sell, they give a pair away. With nothing more than an idea, a few pairs of shoes, and a passion for helping in any small way he could, Blake set his sights on returning to Argentina within a year to deliver 250 pairs of shoes.

He was back inside of eight months with 10,000 to give away.

There were certainly several examples of serendipitous good fortune that aided him along the way, but his message is simple: Doing good is good for business. He challenged everyone in attendance to incorporate giving into their work, to find ways to infuse this sense of charity into our daily business practices. He’s living proof that all of us can make a difference—and, if we do, we’ll all be better for it.

He certainly had an impact on me, and I’m sure mine isn’t the only company now trying to find the best way to build this into what we do.

I encourage you to do the same and, if nothing else, at least consider buying from Toms the next time you’re looking for a new pair of shoes.

Incidentally, Blake announced Toms, the “one for one shoe company,” is evolving into the “one for one company.” The company will announce its new product line in June. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Having experienced this lollapalooza of information overload, I now realize the real draw of SXSW is the convergence of the people. I found myself having meaningful, valuable conversations on a daily (hourly?) basis that have altered how I think about the industry, my business and the future.

Interestingly, most of these conversations were with other people from Indianapolis. Seems I had to travel 1,000 miles to set aside the time to talk with people from down the block. By the time I made my way to the airport to head back home, I was exhausted, but energized. I was ready to get back to Indy and back to work, but found I was also beginning to think about next year, and what I was looking forward to most about SXSW. For more on the event—or, rather, the events—visit sxsw.com.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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