Young Success

How this 22-year-old with Down syndrome built a multimillion-dollar business off his love of crazy socks

In a small warehouse in Melville, New York — a town located on Long Island — dozens of shelves of neatly organized bins hold colorful socks featuring every playful print imaginable. There are socks featuring avocados; socks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's face; socks that look like Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" painting; socks with sloths.

This is John Cronin's multimillion-dollar sock business. Cronin is only 22 years old and he also has Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition with symptoms that include low muscle tone, small stature and an upward slant to the eyes, as well as cognitive delays, according to National Down Syndrome Society.

It was in fall of 2016, Cronin's last year of high school, that the idea for John's Crazy Socks started to take shape.

Like many of his peers, Cronin was deciding what he wanted to do after graduation. But unlike his classmates, Cronin's options were somewhat limited. With Down syndrome, the career paths available to him didn't exactly pique his interest; many were gigs at retail chains and the ones that weren't had long waiting lists. (In addition to cognitive delays, some individuals with Down syndrome experience behavioral problems or are prone to health problems ranging from heart issues to trouble with eyesight.)

"There are not many options open to people with disabilities," Mark Cronin, John's father, tells CNBC Make It. "All job training programs and workshop programs had waiting lists and not many employers offer jobs for people like John."

"You were asking what are you going to do when you're done with school, and we were looking around at options," Mark adds, addressing John. "John didn't like the options he saw, and in fact the options for people with differing abilities are somewhat limited. So what did you tell me you wanted to do?"

"I wanted to go in business with my father," John responds. "Because I love my dad so much."

With their creative juices flowing, the father-son duo looked at what they could do. Inspired by the 2014 movie "Chef," they toyed with the idea of a father-son, food truck business. But neither could cook. The brainstorming continued, and then inspiration struck.

The pair took note of an important date coming up — World Down Syndrome Day, which is every March 21. Traditionally people celebrate by donning crazy socks in fun patterns and colors. Mark recalls they were looking for socks specifically celebrating Down syndrome that they could sell, but they couldn't find any.

"My idea is, I want to make one," John says.

So he did. John sketched his design of a sock: purple with hearts and "3-21," the date of World Down Syndrome Day (this date symbolizes the triplication of the 21st chromosome, which causes Down syndrome).

"John had worn crazy socks his whole life. That was his thing," Mark, 60, says. "He would go and wear these crazy, colorful socks; we'd drive around looking for him. I can remember on more than one occasion, one of his older brothers coming to me and saying, 'You can't let him go to school like that...'"

"He's not the fashion police!" John says in defense of his sock style.

"Yeah, he's not the fashion police," Mark says. "John always had a sense of his own style."

At the time, Mark was on the hunt for a job himself; another family business that he was working for (a law firm) had recently shuttered and he was looking for his next venture.

"When John came and said we should sell socks, well it seemed like an idea worth trying," Mark says. "And that's what we did. We didn't go prepare a business plan. We didn't do a lot of research...let's get something up and see how people respond."

In the beginning, it was just the two of them collaborating on the website. They picked out a few socks together, slowly scaling up an inventory. The Cronins ticked off all the steps typically taken in building a small business, from registering with the state to opening bank accounts. The only marketing they had was a Facebook page featuring low-fi videos of John talking about his socks. The initial investment in the business, Mark says, was just a couple thousand dollars.

The John's Crazy Socks website officially launched in December 2016, but it didn't go off without a hitch. Mark and John had intended to open the online store at 10 a.m., but that plan was quickly derailed when the website unexpectedly crashed. It was 3 p.m. by the time they were finally live. Despite the delay, the response from customers, Mark recalls, was promising. They received 42 orders that first day, all local and largely coming from nearby Huntington, New York. John, at the time, was a student at Huntington High School.

But instead of simply shipping out the socks, John had an idea, one that may just have been key to the wild success that would soon follow.

"I decided to do a home delivery," John says. "It was my idea, and I put a little something in red boxes." Every order of socks was neatly wrapped in tissue paper and packaged in a red box with a thank you note and candy. Then John hand-delivered his customers' orders on Long Island.

"I'd go out, knock on doors and the whole family are waiting for me," John recalls. "I jumped to the door and, their response: They loved it. They even took a picture with me, take a video with me. It's amazing."

What happened next?

"Word spread," John says.

John's enthusiasm for his budding business — and the emphasis he placed on customer service and providing a quality experience — did not go unnoticed. (Jeff Bezos, John notes, does not include candy with Amazon orders). In the beginning, John's Crazy Socks offered socks in 31 different designs, ranging from $5 to $12 a pair.

Videos and photos of John's home deliveries started to spread on social media, and sales began to skyrocket. In the first month, Mark recalls they shipped 452 orders, for about $13,000 in revenue.

"There were some comical things that first weekend, we sold so many socks," Mark, who is the company's co-founder and president, says. "It was wiping our inventory out. So I drove to every Kmart in Suffolk County, and bought all the Christmas socks we could, so that we would have something to sell. It was pretty good."

With the goal of being a one-stop shop for all socks, John's Crazy Socks carries socks from over 20 different suppliers, with socks in 2,000 different styles. According to Mark, the socks they design themselves though — the charity and awareness socks — are the most successful. Two dollars from every awareness sock sale is donated to the company's charity partners and John's Crazy Socks also donates 5 percent of its earnings to the Special Olympics.

In fact, John's Crazy Socks is also a social enterprise; it employs people of differing abilities, ranging from individuals who have been diagnosed with autism to Down syndrome. Mark points out that while strides have been made in the medical and educational arenas for people with Down syndrome, it's a different case with jobs. In July, the Brookings Institution reported that only 40 percent of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54) had a job, compared to 79 percent of all prime-age adults.

That can raise serious concerns, and it's not all financial; research has shown that employment is linked to self-esteem, self-worth, purpose and identity.

They've seen such results up close. Mark says a friend of John's who is on the autism spectrum was shy — he did not want to talk to people or get in a car with others. But since being employed at John's Crazy Socks, he now rides the bus by himself to work. Another employee, Mark says, previously refused to shower, shave or leave his room. His mother called, asking about potential career opportunities at John's Crazy Socks.

"Now, [he] is showered, shaved and ready to go in the morning," Mark says. "He drives out with his dad — they talk about work, and [he] can't wait to be here. All we did was give [him] a job."

So far, John's Crazy Socks has created 35 jobs, 18 of which are held by people with differing abilities, according to Mark. Many of those positions consist of "sock wranglers," who sort and organize the inventory.

"Too often when we have discrimination in the workplace, it's because we focus on things that don't matter," Mark says. "If I'm putting a basketball team together, I want to know how you play basketball, so I want LeBron James. I have no idea if LeBron James can do calculus, and I don't care. I don't care if he speaks Greek or not. I need him to play basketball.

"Well, we need people working in our warehouse," he says. "I don't need them to show me all these other skills. Just, can you do the job in the warehouse? And I think if employers approach a job that way, focus on what you need and on what somebody can do, you're going to find success."

Hiring people with different abilities is not only beneficial to the lives of the employees, Mark says. Employing people of differing abilities benefits the business.

"We think we have a competitive advantage because we hire people with differing abilities," Marks says. "On Long Island, and in much of the country, there's now a labor shortage. Employers can't find enough good workers, and yet we have this great national resource of people with differing abilities who are ready, able and willing to work, and all you have to do is give them a chance, right?"

So John and Mark are trying to do something about that, using their platform (which includes an Instagram audience of nearly 36,000 and a Youtube channel of nearly 2,000 subscribers) to spread the message. In the past year, Mark and John have been to Capitol Hill four times, advocating for people with differing abilities and pushing for more employment rights, and they have testified before the House Committee on Small Business.

"It's to advocate both to lower barriers and change mindsets so that employers will hire people with differing abilities, but also to allow them to retain their earnings and to work more," Mark explains. "Most of our employees work part-time because they face a choice; they have to choose between work and their Medicaid benefits. If they work too many hours, they lose their benefits. That's not a choice we want them to make. So we're out advocating for that type of change."

Since its launch in December 2016, John's Crazy Socks has exploded. Last year, Mark says they shipped a little over 42,000 orders, totaling around $1.7 million in revenue. This year, they are on pace to do 160,000 to 180,000 orders, with over $6 million in revenue. Customers include high-profile people ranging from George H.W. Bush to Eva Longoria.

"When Mrs. [Barbara] Bush passed away, the office called and said that the president and the family wanted to wear socks to honor Mrs. Bush," Mark says (Bush died in April). "So we helped pick out some socks made by one of our suppliers, and sent those to the family. So he wore them the day of the funeral, and that got a lot of media attention." The pair that Bush donned were the Bibliophile socks, featuring piles of books, from supplier Modsocks, Mark explains. John's Crazy Socks re-named them to Library Socks for Literacy, with all profits going to the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation.

With so many sales rolling in from all around the country, John now only does a handful of local, home deliveries a week. Still, every order is shipped out neatly packaged with the thank you note (which John originally wrote, but has since been duplicated) and candy (they began with Hershey Kisses, but those melted. Then they experimented with M&M's and Swedish Fish, before ultimately settling on Skittles). John regularly posts videos on social media and also participates in speaking engagements around the country, where he talks about his business and entrepreneurship.

"Every time John stands up in front of an audience and talks about what he does, he helps change minds," Mark says.

John's official title at John's Crazy Socks is chief happiness officer, which is fitting in more ways than one. He oozes happiness and positivity and says he truly enjoys coming to work alongside his dad. At the end of the day, John puts his headphones on, dances and sings in the parking lot before heading home.

"I have Down syndrome," John says. "Down syndrome doesn't hold me back."

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