The Build Cycle Podcast #004 – DeFeet Socks’ Shane Cooper

Shane Cooper started DeFeet socks without much of a plan and grew it into what’s arguably the largest, most popular cycling sock company. They now have international distribution, develop new designs every month and offer a massive custom sock program that works with some of the top athletes and teams. There’s a lot of tech that goes into making a good pair of cycling socks, and a lot of features that make it unique from standard athletic socks, but the really interesting parts of his story deal with how he overcame disaster, used smart partnerships to gain awareness, and the strategies he used to become a global sock powerhouse.

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

  • 01:35 – What does DeFeet do? Who do they make socks for and why not expand into more segments?
  • 04:50 – They were first to do a cycling specific sock, and they became a promo currency.
  • 05:45 – Why they started making socks, and how it became a business.
  • 19:35 – Disaster strikes, forcing them to start over and learn some hard lessons about insurance on a fast growing company.
  • 24:25 – What separates them from the competition.
  • 27:05 – How do they develop new models and features?
  • 33:20 – Do you need to be big to get special treatment from your suppliers?
  • 34:45 – Why did they decide to branch out from just socks? And how would they market and differentiate it?
  • 40:50 – How they would produce something that’s outside their core competency. And why diversify?
  • 43:30 – How did they get profitable after the disaster? And what’s the secret to their success?
  • 48:45 – How building product demand helped them grow internationally…
  • 50:55 – …and how to come out ahead when things don’t go as planned.
  • 55:25 – How the changing retail landscape affects them.
  • 60:20 – They launch a cycling-specific crowd funding site to introduce limited edition items and test new concepts.
  • 64:45 – Advice for anyone looking to start their own company.

POSTGAME ANALYSIS

Shane’s story shows you don’t always need a plan to succeed. I’d say it certainly helps, but in this case, he simply started doing something because he wanted a specific product for himself, and then started getting requests from others for the same thing. There are plenty of similar stories out there – someone makes something, their friends want one, then their friends want one, and boom, a business is born. In this case, there were some larger equipment needs, but it still shows the value of just making something.

It also shows the value of running a tight ship. If it weren’t for Shane’s wife looking after the numbers and keeping a tight reign on him, who knows where DeFeet may have ended up. Shane moonlighted with DeFeet while also helping with and then eventually running his father’s equipment distribution business. Again, the value of just starting, even if you’re saddled with a full time job.

One of the other big lessons I took away is how to limit the downside. At first glance, diversifying beyond their sock business when there was still plenty of room to grow might seem like a gamble. On the first go around, Shane leveraged his relationship with Greg LeMond to gain distribution and recognition for their planned apparel line. On the second try, in 2017, they’re launching it through a crowdfunding program that nets pre-orders (and thus implicit customer demand) prior to producing anything.

Lastly, they’ve taken advantage of others’ celebrity to provide mutual benefit. Their artist’s series socks provide exposure to the designer and provide DeFeet with fresh designs on a regular basis. This helps bring new customers to DeFeet and their partners, which is a win/win for all parties. Shane also mentions the value of aligning your brand with a quality product. For their artist partners, DeFeet provides a high quality product with which to attach their brand. For their part, DeFeet partners with well known, well liked artists that bring their own credibility.

LINKS & RESOURCES

  • DeFeet.com – their website, where you can get stock and custom cycling and run socks.
  • Barnstormers.cc – their ambassador program
  • DeFeetBespoke.com – Their new, proprietary crowdfunding program that promoted limited edition, local or small batch products.
  • The E-Myth – the book recommended by Shane, which was originally written in 1990, but has a newer version called The E-Myth Revisited.

 

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