Online retailer John’s Crazy Socks started as a playful experiment, a father-son business built on a simple premise: spreading happiness through socks. Less than two years later, Mark Cronin ’80, (above, right) company president, and his son John (above, left), the company’s chief happiness officer, find themselves at the helm of an online retail phenomenon that has sold more than $3 million worth of socks to customers in the U.S. and 44 other countries. The company has grown solely through word of mouth on social media — primarily Facebook — and unsolicited media coverage.
“Our first viral experience came when the online journal ‘The Mighty’ released a video on John and our business that garnered over 20 million views,” Cronin says. “When we began, we thought of ourselves as a sock store, but we quickly realized that we were a social enterprise; we have a social mission and an e-commerce mission — those two strains are inseparable.”
The business’ social enterprise aim is paramount because owner John Cronin has Down syndrome. Minutes into a conversation, however, it becomes clear his differing ability doesn’t define him. Although Mark is the spokesman for this interview, there’s no doubt that his ebullient 22-year-old son is the force behind the company. Listening in on the conversation, the younger Cronin breaks in from time to time, laughing as he describes a current inventory favorite, voicing unbridled support for his beloved Special Olympics and ribbing his paternal business partner.
“When we started the company, John was still in high school,” Cronin says. “He said he wanted to go into business with me and his concept was a ‘fun store.’ We needed something that was a little more concrete. After another idea, a food truck, didn’t work out — we can’t cook — John came up with his eureka moment: socks. John had worn crazy socks his entire life; it was his thing.”
John came up with the company name, sketched out a website and, in December 2016, the duo got to work. By the time John graduated high school in 2017, the business was gaining speed.
“We launched in lean startup mode, testing the idea around the holidays,” Cronin says. “We got a strong response — around 452 orders and $13,000 in revenue — and thought, ‘OK, this can work.'”
The two began discussing exactly what the company was and what they wanted it to accomplish and identified four pillars on which to build the business: inspiration, giving back, gratitude and socks.
Inspiration springs from the fact that both men are deeply committed to demonstrating that John’s accomplishments are not unique: “We currently have 33 employees, 15 of whom have a differing ability,” Cronin notes.
Giving back was also key: From the outset, the company has donated 5 percent of its earnings to Special Olympics, in which John has participated for years. The company also supports other organizations, including the Down Syndrome Society and Autism Speaks, through the creation of themed “Awareness Socks.” They have raised more than $100,000 for their charity partners.
The gratitude component is easy — it’s part of the Cronin DNA. John demonstrates his appreciation for customers by including candy and a handwritten thank-you note in every order.
And as for the company’s raison d’être, shoppers can choose from more than 1,900 styles, ranging in price from $3.50 to $35.
The company’s mission is resonating with the public, and its impact continues to spread via major media. Since its creation, John’s Crazy Socks has grown rapidly and garnered coverage from local television stations to international outlets, ranging from Fox Business, Money Magazine and the BBC to NBC’s Today.com, CBS News and more. In April, the company made headlines again when former President George H.W. Bush wore a pair of John’s Crazy Socks to wife Barbara’s funeral in honor of her dedication to literacy. ABC News reported that Bush, a fan of fun socks who a month earlier tweeted a picture of himself wearing a pair of John’s Down syndrome “Awareness Socks,” reached out for suggestions on socks to wear to the funeral. John sent the president a few pairs to choose from and a handwritten sympathy note. The style — “Library Socks for Literacy” (black crew socks featuring stacks of red, yellow and blue books) — has since sold out, with the company announcing it has donated 100 percent of the profits to the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation.
While the company has benefitted from major press and social media engagement, Cronin points out that if he and his son were only selling socks, they wouldn’t elicit much interest.
“People are buying into the experience,” Cronin says. “By purchasing John’s socks, our customers are connecting with individuals who are intellectually challenged and supporting our efforts to give to others.”
Father and son are doing their best to keep pace with demand. A former health care and management technology executive, Cronin now works full time for John’s Crazy Socks: “We’re currently in a stretch where we don’t have a day off for six weeks,” he notes. In May, the pair traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Committee on Small Business about hiring people with differing abilities.
Mark’s wife Carol Schlitt ’80 and one of John’s older brothers remain at home in Huntington, New York, while Mark and John travel the country for speaking engagements. And people are listening.
“Since John and I started the business, I’ve reconnected with friends from Holy Cross that I hadn’t heard from in years,” Cronin says. “I loved my time at the College — Carol and I met there, and some of my best friends are from Holy Cross — so I’m delighted to renew those bonds.”
An English major, Cronin says he was profoundly impacted by professors like Robert Cording, who taught him to read texts closely, and Rev. Greg Carlson, S.J., who encouraged him to believe in himself.
“Holy Cross taught me that there are many ways to make a difference in the world and reinforced my belief that it’s important to look beyond yourself,” he says. “John and I both feel strongly that the more we can do for others, the better off we are and the better off our business will be. Be generous and be grateful … gratitude leads to happiness.”
How do you know ‘a sock that makes a difference’ when you see it?
I don’t, which is one of the reasons that we offer so many choices.
What’s the craziest sock you’ve ever sold?
Maybe the “Donald Trump Hair Socks,” although John has recently fallen in love with the “Poop Socks,” which bear the poop emoji. You can take the boy out of junior high, but you can’t take junior high out of the boy!
What’s the greatest benefit of employing individuals with differing abilities?
We get to see wonderful things and watch people flourish. Having these individuals on the job makes John’s Crazy Socks a better place to work.
What’s the happiest thing that’s happened because of John’s socks?
Honestly, every day there are little moments where we watch someone do something new or different and grow as a result. For example, we have an employee named Matt who has a form of Asperger’s. When we hired him, we explained that we like to do videos with our employees. He said he couldn’t, but I encouraged him to try, so he made a couple of videos and a short time later, when Fox Business News sent a reporter to do a story on the business, Matt stepped forward and said, “I want you to interview me!” It was amazing to witness, and the thing is, all we did was give Matt an opportunity — he made the most of it.
What’s been your craziest experience in running this father-son business?
Our experiences on April 11 of this year may qualify. We started the morning by meeting with congressmen on Capitol Hill on behalf of the National Down Syndrome Society, and John presented Sen. Chuck Schumer with an award. Then we caught the Amtrak to New York to attend the HeartShare Human Services of New York Spring Gala, where John and I received The Monsignor Thomas G. Hagerty Humanitarian Award. It seems a little crazy that the two of us are having these amazing experiences when we’re just a couple of guys selling socks.
Check out the BBC’s coverage of John’s Crazy Socks:
Written by Lori Ferguson for the Summer 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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