SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — Who says socks have to be boring?
That was the million-dollar idea from the folks at Stance, who have built a healthy business, attracted heavy-hitter tech and celebrity investors and the attention of the National Basketball Association, based on that one simple thought.
“We went into this market feeling it (socks) had been completely underserved,” says Taylor Shupe, one of the five co-founders of Stance.
Consumers agreed. The company’s socks are nothing like your dad’s white tube or black dress socks. Instead, they are full of wild colors and patterns, and different materials Shupe says last longer, offer better foot protection and help prevent athlete’s foot, blisters and the like.
This week, Stance became the official sock of the National Basketball Association, creating colorful and pattern-filled takes on teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks, that sell for a premium.
Charging a higher price for unisex socks–which average $10-$25 a pair, hasn’t hurt the company at all. (A collection of 6 white tube socks from Wal-Mart sells for around $12.)
Privately held Stance won’t reveal sales figures, but expects to ship some 12 million pairs this year, compared to the 15 million total pairs sold between 2010, when the company started, and 2014.
Stance isn’t alone in rethinking the sock. Young tech executives–most notably Box CEO Aaron Levie–have been known to put splashy colors on their ankles; even old-time media baron Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp., was spotted at the Wall Street Journal WSJ.D Live conference this week in cherry red socks.
San Francisco based tech investor Hunter Walk says the tech crowd has taken to socks by Stance and others because “they’re fun, and a chance to put on something that’s a little unusual and unique. Tech people tend to wear monochrome and simple, so this adds a little pizazz.”
And Stance has been joined in the colorful re-think of socks by companies like Urban Outfitters, Happy Socks, Foot Traffic and Zoraab. The NPD Group, which tracks consumer sales, pegs sales of socks in 2014 at $5.6 billion, up 2% from the previous year.
Marshal Cohen, a retail industry analyst for NPD, says sock sales started rising in the past years as companies like Stance and others began exploring colorful hues.
“Most men always used to wear a tie, and that’s was their fashion statement,” he says. “Now that we don’t wear ties as often, it’s all about the sock. It’s our signature.”
Beyond the colors, higher performance sports socks from the likes of Nike and other brands helped goose sales as well, he adds.
Jon Rettinger, who reviews tech products for the TechnoBuffalo website, switched to wearing colorful socks when he started making videos. “I thought white socks looked boring,” he says.
He buys his from Nice Laundry, and likes that “show some personality,” on camera.
Connecticut based computer programmer Ray Gonsalves started wearing Stance socks after he saw actor Jim Parsons on TV. He liked the colorful hue he was sporting, and went out shopping, where he discovered Stance socks.
Pricing is “on the high side, but I love their designs, and that they’re more durable. Other socks start to shrink after 3 washes.”
Peter Pham, the president of Science, Inc., an investor in Stance, thinks the company could eventually become as big as an Adidas or Under Armour.
“The NBA deal shows they’re in the same class with them,” he says. “Fans will wear the team socks and start buying other Stance socks too.”
Science is an investor in tech start-ups like the Dollar Shave Club and DogVacay, and joins other tech VCs like Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Menlo Ventures, Omniture-founder Josh James, the NBA’s Dwayne Wade, rapper Jay Z and actor Will Smith.
Pop star Rihanna, the 5th-most popular celebrity on Facebook, is a contributing “creative director” currently offering her take on socks. The first collection of 16 knee-high socks for ladies was just released, adorned with piles of money, cartoon bats, candy stripes and peering eyes, “from the mind of a muse who know what it means to call the shots,” says Stance about the socks. The NBA’s Wade 22 socks are less flashy, with stripes, patterns and colors for men.
For the NBA, Stance approached the league, convincing them that “they were leaving dollars on the table,” says Shupe. “They never sold any sort of designed or innovative socks.”
Stance replaced supplier For Bare Feet, which made black and white socks with team logos.
In launching the company, Stance focused on action sports stores, appealing to skateboarders and surfers, and expanded to specialty retail stores like Fred Segal and American Rag.
“They went to small stores where people came in and asked for advice,” says Pham. “That’s called influence.” Or another form of social media, which expanded to online as well.
“The socks speak to our audience,” says Jennifer Fenderlander, a merchandising manager with the Tilly’s surf and sports attire chain. “They’re great quality, have a fun look and are really unique.”
Some 130 people work at Stance’s sprawling campus in a sleepy beach community of 65,000 people. The socks are designed here, but made in China, although the plan is to bring it back to San Clemente, where staffers work out 2 warehouses that resemble Silicon Valley type startups. There’s the usual tech collection of huge Apple iMacs on desks, ping-pong tables and free meals, as well as a full basketball court, workout room and mini-skate bowl.
There’s also a social media war room, with huge monitors that keep track of what people are saying about Stance socks online, and tracking the various hashtags Stance urges fans to use: #stance and #theuncommonthread.
“Even though Stance is a sock company, it’s a tech startup,” says Pham. “They are marketing online and using social media to grow their business.”
Additionally, Stance using new forms of machinery and higher grade materials for a new kind of sock than what you’ll see in the commodity socks sold at department stores. What you won’t see is bluetooth and sensors coming anytime soon for some sort of a “smart” sock.
“We don’t see the logic in that,” says Shupe.
Beyond the NBA, next week Stance is launching a new line of personalized socks called Canvas. Folks go on the website, pick a pattern, choose a color and pattern, add optional text and $26 later, the socks — which include your name on the back — will ship out within 48 hours.
And in November, Stance is expanding to underwear, bringing its trademark splashy colors and patterns to the land of men’s tighty whities.
“Like socks, the product had become commoditized,” says Shupe. “The fit wasn’t the best, the styles weren’t the best,” and men wanted a product “that felt more natural.”
Stance’s biggest challenge is fighting off competition from the huge brands, says NPD’s Cohen. “This is the fashion business, the biggest copycat business in the world. Stance has done a good job solidifying their position, and they can always sell direct to the consumer, but there’s a lot of pressure for them to keep finding ways to reinvent the sock.”
Follow USA TODAY tech columnist and #TalkingTech host Jefferson Graham on Twitter, where he’s @jeffersongraham, and watch and listen to his daily tech reports here and on Stitcher, TuneIn and iTunes.
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