By Mission

“We have seen our business grow because we make people happy,” says John Lee Cronin, co-founder of John’s Crazy Socks. From the Youth issue.

26-year-old Special Olympic athlete John Lee Cronin is on a “mission to spread happiness.” In 2016, he founded John’s Crazy Socks alongside his father Mark X. Cronin. But the multi-million dollar business does more than make socks, it’s a social enterprise designed to empower all individuals, particularly those, who, like Cronin, are living with downs syndrome. As such, over half of the John’s Crazy Socks employees have a differing ability.

In the interview below, John and Mark open up about working together, creating a working environment where everyone is welcome, and their desire to push for legal changes that will allow people with a differing ability to retain more of their income and to keep their benefits.

Mission: How did you feel when you started this business with your father? Was it scary, exciting? Did you think it would do as well as it has done?

John Lee Cronin: I loved the idea of working with my dad. I had worked with him before and had so much fun. He’s kind and teaches me a lot. I knew we could work together and have fun. 

Mission: How did you convince suppliers to sell inventory to you during the nascent stages of the business? And how was your idea generally received by the people around you?

Mark X. Cronin: When we started, suppliers didn’t want to sell to us. They wanted evidence that we were selling before they would sell to us—a catch-22. It took a bit of cajoling with a few suppliers but we got them to believe in our mission. Of course, we had to prepay for everything. Once we had a few selling to us, others were willing to follow.

The concept was well received locally. People knew John and they knew us. They loved the idea of John selling socks, particularly his schoolteachers. Teachers, especially Special Education teachers, became our first customers and they have an extensive network, so word began to spread. 

Mission: Who came up with the idea of promoting the concept with your videos? Do you have a brainstorming session or does inspiration strike as you go?

Mxc: I suggested to John that we make some videos talking about the store.

Jlc: I love making videos. I just talk about my socks.

Mxc: We don’t work from a script. We might have a list of topics we’re going to discuss, but the videos we do are free-form.

Jlc: I talk about my socks and things that make me happy. 

Mxc: Now that we have more staff, we work with our colleagues on ideas for videos, like with the fashion shows we give. 

Mission: We see that you have weekly themes for socks—who comes up with these? Which ones have been the most successful?

Mxc: The picking of themes is a collective effort. We have a list of national days and we pick ones we like. We also think about new socks we have or things happening around our business or community. All the themes have to be fun and spread happiness.

Jlc: I like talking about different socks. When it is Shark Week, I talk about shark socks. When we got Harry Potter socks, I talked about Harry Potter socks. 

Mission: Can you explain how you make the work environment more inclusive? How do you hire people with differing abilities and how do they contribute to the business? 

Jlc: We want to show what’s possible. I love hiring colleagues with differing abilities because I know they can do a good job.

Mxc: We focus on what people can do, not what people cannot do. And we create an environment where everyone is welcome and treated with respect. Plus, we have fun together.

Everyone earns a job. Our entry-level position is a sock wrangler—they are the pickers in our pick-and-pack warehouse. They start by meeting with John and me. We want to make sure they understand our story, our mission, and our values. And we want to make sure the person is here by choice, not because Mom or Dad or a job coach wants them to be here. 

Then we provide training so the candidate can learn the job. Our current sock wranglers show the person the ropes and our folks love to do that. When the candidate is ready, he or she has to pass the sock wrangler test—pick five orders in 30 minutes or less. If you pass the test, we hire you. 

Mission: Tell us a bit about your giving-back program.

Mxc: It is baked into everything we do. We start by pledging 5 percent of our earnings to the Special Olympics.

Jlc: I am a Special Olympic athlete and I love the Special Olympics.

Mxc: Then we offer a series of awareness and charity socks that raise money for our charity partners, such as the National Down Syndrome Society and Autism Speaks. We donate gift boxes to charities to raffle or auction off during fundraisers, we sponsor certain events, and we offer a $3,000 Autism Can Do Scholarship each year. 

Mission: Your business has grown substantially in a short period of time—what do you think has made it this successful?

Jlc: We have seen our business grow because we make people happy.

Mxc: We have been fortunate with our growth. We start with great products and work hard to deliver great service. We have more than 22,000 online reviews and 96 percent are five-star reviews. We have very loyal and supportive customers who make repeat purchases. Those customers tell others, so we have grown through word of mouth. We also have a grown online community, as we share about our business and our colleagues. We share content that makes people happy. We have been fortunate to receive extensive media coverage. 

Mission: John, how do you feel about what you have achieved so far? How has it been doing this as a person with special abilities—have you ever felt there have been a few roadblocks?

Jlc: I feel very grateful to grow this business. I love working in my business. I tell everybody I have Down syndrome but Down syndrome never holds me back. I want to show the world what I can do and what my colleagues can do. 

Mission: You serve as a source of inspiration and happiness for a lot of people, differently abled and otherwise. What would you like to tell people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Jlc: My advice is to follow your heart, follow your dreams, and work hard to show what you can do. 

Mission: Can you tell us about some of the changes in law and policy for people with differing abilities that you have been advocating for? What’s the one thing about workplace policy that irks you?

Jlc: Everybody should have a chance to work. I want to stop companies that refuse to hire people because they have a disability.

Mxc: We want to see legal changes that will allow people with a differing ability to retain more of their income and to keep their benefits. We want to start by eliminating the sub-minimum wage, which allows employers to pay people with a disability less than minimum wage, as low as a nickel an hour. 

Our colleagues face a choice of work or benefits. If they work too many hours, they lose their Medicaid benefits. That is a terrible choice. We want to change federal law so a person with a disability can work a full-time job and still receive Medicaid. 

Mission: What are your future plans—is John’s Crazy Socks going to expand in the future? Are there plans to include other apparel or accessories as well?

Jlc: I want to offer more things that are fun and show what people can do. We now make greeting cards. I designed some of them and all of them are made by people with differing abilities. 

Mxc: We are slowly introducing new products. Everything we offer has to be fun, spread happiness and get John excited. We are expanding our collections or stores, if you will. So we are creating a Christmas store that will sell holiday socks and holiday cards and introduce ornaments designed by people with differing abilities, Santa hats, pajama bottoms, crazy sweaters, and more. Our Down syndrome collection will include our Down syndrome socks as well as greeting cards, pins, bracelets, T-shirts, and hats that match the socks. 

Photo by Erinn Springer

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