Written by Jim Markley, Partner at Sockwell Socks
How We Found Each Other
The story of Sockwell starts all the way back in 1994 when I met Thomas Lee. In 1994 I joined Smartwool to launch a new technical merino wool sock brand in the outdoor industry! Thomas was the GM for Crescent Hosiery in Niota, TN, who made all of Smartwool's socks at the time.
Back in 1994, the outdoor industry was dominated by sock brands that exclusively used synthetic yarns—until Smartwool introduced merino wool to the outdoor industry. It didn’t take long for the industry to realize that merino wool was the best performance yarn for an active outdoor lifestyle. Ten years later Smartwool was the dominant brand in the outdoor industry!
When I take the time to look back on my life, it is amazing that Thomas and I have been friends and business partners since 1994.
Fast forward to 2002 when a sock designer from NYC, Mercedes Marchand, moved west and joined Smartwool. In my time there, I'd seen the company revolutionize the technical outdoor sock industry through the use of merino wool. Now we had the opportunity to launch an outdoor lifestyle category and Mercedes was the person that could make that happen.
Mercedes believed hikers and outdoor enthusiasts wanted more than the black, khaki, and olive green that dominated the outdoor technical market at the time. And boy was she right about that one! Her line of lifestyle outdoor socks was one of the most successful product launches in the sock industry’s history!
Fast forward again to 2006. Thomas Lee had left Crescent Hosiery in 2002 to start his own company in the fabricated manufacturing industry. In 2006 Smartwool was sold to Timberland, and I decided to leave the company to take some time off and look at other opportunities in the industry. Taking Smartwool from a startup to the #1 sock brand in the outdoor industry was an exciting ride. Mercedes stayed with Smartwool and became the VP of Design and Branding! She was a rock star at Smartwool. That's the story of how the three of us got to know each other and how we built a lasting friendship!
How We Decided to Launch a Compression Sock Brand
Thomas Lee and I reconnected in 2008, and after three or four meetings, we decided to launch a Made in the USA lifestyle sock brand called Goodhew.
We named the company after my brother-in-law, Duncan Goodhew, who was an Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow for Great Britain! Look him up, he has one of the greatest stories of any athlete in world.
Looking back, I don’t think we could have picked a worst year to start a new business. If you remember, 2008 was the start of the housing market crash, and we were in the midst of a financial meltdown. But somehow, we managed to sell enough socks to keep our doors open.
Then, in August of 2010 I got news that Mercedes Marchand had left Smartwool. I never thought that could be a possibility because she was the brand, but she decided it was time to go in a different direction. I contacted Mercedes, and two days later I was stepping off a plane in Santa Fe to meet with her to hear about her plans and discuss our desire to have her join Goodhew as our VP of Design and Branding. It would be incredible if a small lifestyle sock brand could attract one of the top designers in the world (that is not an exaggeration).
As I was meeting with Mercedes, she threw me a major curve ball and started talking about graduated compression socks. At the time, the market was dominated by medical brands, and they had two major categories...ugly and uglier!
Wow! I was not expecting this conversation. How in the world could we start another brand when we had one that we were struggling to launch?
That night as we were walking to dinner it started snowing. September in Santa Fe, and snow falling through the haze of street lamps and my thoughts of how was this going to come together. It was all so surreal.
At dinner Mercedes told me about her desire and passion to create a sock brand that focused on wellness, merging health and wellbeing with style and lifestyle! I was becoming more and more intrigued! She showed me a list of names that she had started to create, and at the bottom of the list was the name Sockwell.
I looked at her, and I said, "I love the name Sockwell, but it has to be trademarked. There's no way it's not trademarked already."
We immediately jumped on the laptop and unbelievably, no one had trademarked the name Sockwell. We applied for it then and there. How crazy was that! Sometimes things are just meant to be!
The next day, I told Mercedes that I would discuss her idea with Thomas and get back to her shortly. I knew that if we didn’t agree to launch Sockwell she wasn’t going to join our company. She was that passionate about launching a wellness brand in the sock industry! How was I going to explain this to Thomas?
I got home on Saturday and went straight to Thomas's office Monday morning. "You'd better sit down," I said. "Maybe put on a seatbelt, too. You're not going to believe what I am going to tell you about our meeting!"
I was right. He didn’t believe me, but as we continued our conversation things started to make sense. I remember us saying that Mercedes had that ability to identify future trends in the marketplace.
A week later, we were talking with Mercedes about joining Goodhew and launching a wellness brand called Sockwell.
Sockwell's First Show: Can Beautiful Compression Socks Be Successful?
We finalized everything in December of 2010, and Mercedes joined the company in January of 2011! We now had two sock brands Goodhew and Sockwell. It took us about 6-8 months to create designs, build samples, and produce our first catalog for Sockwell.
Boom! We launched Sockwell and made our first shipments in November of 2011! We were off to the races!
I remember our first industry show like it was yesterday. We were in Chicago at a footwear show, and the first customer showed up at our booth about an hour after the show started. His first question was, "Are these beautiful socks graduated compression socks?"
"Yes, they are," I answered, "We also use a custom blend of merino wool and bamboo to give your customer the best performance to handle the moisture coming off your foot!"
He wrote an $1,800 opening order, looked at me, and said, "You are on to something."
I was 10 feet off the ground! It's been just over 10 years now, and I've still not come down. Every day I wake up, look in the mirror, and say, "How can I get more people in Sockwells today?" I believe in us, our socks, and our mission that much.