By John and Mark Cronin
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #1: The Employment Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
Our story starts in the fall of 2016. The business I (Mark) was working in shut down overnight. I was 58-years-old, wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Meanwhile, John was in high school, and the rule in our area is that you can stay in the public school system until you graduate, or you turn 21 – whichever comes first. John was 21, so this was going to be his last year of school. Like everybody else at that stage of life, John was trying to figure out what comes next for him.
We looked at a lot of options. John looked at some jobs, he looked at a college, and he looked at some social service programs. But he didn’t see anything that he liked. It’s a reality faced by many. We call it the 21-Year-Old Cliff. You’re taken care of medically, you’re educated, and then… nothing. The choices aren’t great.
John came to me and said, “I want to go into business with you.” He’s a natural entrepreneur, and he thought, “If I don’t see anything out there that I like, let me go create it.” Of course, I was excited. My son came to me and said, “I want to work with you.” He’s the youngest of three sons, and he’s the one I can actually work with!
We explored a number of ideas for the business. John’s first idea was to open a “fun store” – but neither of us had any idea what a fun store is. He pitched a food truck, but we ran into a problem: we can’t cook.
Then, right before Thanksgiving, John had his eureka moment. He wanted to start creating socks. “They’re fun, they’re creative, and they let me be me.”
John had worn crazy socks his whole life. He has a very particular sense of style. He would lay his clothes out the night before school and his brother Jamie would come to me saying, “You can’t let him wear that to school.” And John would remind him, “You’re not the fashion police!”
We figured, if there’s something you love, chances are there are going to be other people who love it too; there are going to be other people in your tribe. So, we decided to move forward with socks.
To John’s credit, he didn’t just come and say, “I want to sell socks.” He had the name, and he had drawn out what a website could look like. I suggested we could call it Mark’s Serious Socks, but that only ticked him off.
We opened bank accounts, registered with the state of New York, built a website and got some inventory. The only marketing we did was to set up a Facebook page and make some videos, starring John of course. He came up with a slogan: “Socks, socks and more socks.”
We opened for business in late 2016, and got a flood of orders right away. Most of them were local, and John had a plan: he wanted to do home deliveries. We got some red boxes and threw in some candy, along with a handwritten thank you card.
We made one of our first deliveries at 10 o’clock at night. We’re lucky we didn’t get shot! But in all seriousness, customers loved it. Word began to spread. That first month we shipped 452 orders. We felt awesome.
Right away we began hearing from families who had children with Down syndrome or other differing abilities. They told us John was an inspiration. It was a bit of a mental leap for me to make, because he’s just my third son. He’s just John. But early on, that was an important connection.
Our mission at John’s Crazy Socks is to spread happiness. That mission drives everything we do. With this purpose in mind, we have built a social enterprise.
It’s a different type of business model. We have a social mission and we have a business mission, and they’re indivisible; they feed off each other. We’ve built it on four pillars:
1. Make it Personal
2. Socks You Can Love
3. Giving Back
4. Inspiration and Hope
Making it Personal
The personal touch that started with our home deliveries continues to be so important. To this day, every package has John’s smiling face on the outside, and when you open it up, you get the socks, you get a note card from John whit the story of John’s Crazy Socks on the back, two discount cards (one for the customer and one for a friend), and some candy. You also get, on your packing slip, some stickers showing the names and the faces of the sock wrangler – that’s what we call our pickers – and the happiness packer who packed that order. When you open it, you’re not just getting socks; you’re getting a little dose of happiness.
If you post to our Instagram or Facebook page, John responds with a thank you video. It turns out that posting a 5- or 10-second video is a lot easier than John writing notes. When we were receiving 50 orders a day, John would hand write every note. Someone showed me a thread on Reddit where people were trying to calculate how many hours a day John was having to spend writing all the notes. That’s not possible now; we have to let him out of the basement occasionally!
Socks You Can Love
We have 2,300 different kinds of socks. That makes us the world’s largest sock store, in terms of selection. Some of the socks are specially designed by us, but most are purchased from wholesalers.
We have a Sock of the Month Club, and Monday Madness: a grab bag of socks that John picks out. When I ask him what’s in it, he says, “It’s a surprise! I’m not telling you!”
John is a Special Olympics athlete, so we donate 5% of all profits to Special Olympics. And that’s just a start. We’ve also added products that raise money for charity partners.
The first one was a Down syndrome awareness sock. In January 2017, we discovered that on World Down Syndrome Day, people wear crazy socks to celebrate. You would think we knew that before starting a sock store owned by a person with Down syndrome, but we didn’t! We went looking for a Down syndrome sock that we could sell, and we couldn’t find one. So, John said, “I want to create one.” And he did. Two dollars from each pair gets donated: one dollar to the National Down Syndrome Society, and another dollar goes to a local group called ACDS.
When we sell this sock – and it’s our bestselling sock – people wear it to celebrate. It’s raising awareness and it’s improving acceptance. We’re not going to hide. We’re not going to be ashamed. We’re going to wear this, and we’re going to make sure everybody knows: I have Down syndrome, or I have a son with Down syndrome, or a friend or a family member, and we want to sing that out. That’s true about the Down syndrome socks, and it’s also true about our autism socks, our Williams syndrome socks, and others.
Inspiration and Hope
Inspiration and Hope is our most important pillar. We want to show the world what people with differing abilities can do.
We have different metrics than other businesses, because we have different goals. We are trying to come up with a happiness index; if we’re in the business of spreading happiness, can we measure that? But here are some of our current metrics:
I don’t like talking about money, but it helps us demonstrate that this is not just a nice story about a cute kid and an incredibly good-looking father.
That first month when we shipped 452 orders, we had $13,200 in revenue. Our first full year, 2017, we shipped 42,710 orders, for $1.7 million in revenue. Last year we shipped 144,000 orders and had $5.5 million in revenue.
When we say that, people pay attention. And we want them to know we’re able to do that because of the workforce we have. In a day and age where there is a growing labor shortage, we have an awesome workforce. It’s because we tap into people with differing abilities.
When we talk about “socks you can love,” it comes back to that social enterprise model. We have to be a great e-commerce business. We are competing with Amazon and Target and Walmart and all the others. We can never say, “Well, you have to understand: look who we hire.” It’s the exact opposite. We need to show we’ll go toe to toe. In fact, we do better shipping than Amazon. If an order comes in, it goes out by 3:00 that day. Our accuracy rate is high; our return rate is very low. And that’s part of the message: look what people can do. Plus, Jeff Bezos is not putting a thank you note and candy in his packages!
We have people with differing abilities working side by side neurotypicals. Everybody earns that job. You have to pass a sock wrangler test, which is really complicated. Here’s what it is: you come out and meet with John and me, because we want you to know what the business is about, and we want to make sure that you want to be there; it’s not just mom and dad or your job coach who want you there.
Then you go and learn the job from a current sock wrangler, who teaches you how to pull the orders. We’ve simplified the system; it’s an address system and it tells you: “Go to Aisle A, Rack 2.” You can take as long as you’d like to learn. We don’t pay you until you pass the test. Some people are good to go after an hour. Some people, it takes them weeks. They learn at their own pace, but they have to pass that test. And once they do, they are given a meaningful job that matches their ability, and the support they need to succeed.
You can say that our business model is a morally good thing to do, and I’m not going to argue that. It may make you feel better going to church or synagogue or the mosque on the weekend, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s simply good business. It gives us a competitive advantage. And we want other people to go and copy that.
Every time John stands in front of an audience and tells our story, it changes people’s minds a little bit. We’re doing everything we can to move from just raising awareness to acceptance, so that when you see people with different abilities contributing to the community, it’s just normal. Of course John runs his own business. Of course our colleagues are doing the jobs they do, and doing them well. Why wouldn’t they?
This article was transcribed from a presentation by John and Mark Cronin at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation in March 2019, as part of a USG-funded speaker program. Click here to visit John's Crazy Socks.