Meet John Cronin. John and his Dad, Mark, own the successful on-line business John’s Crazy Socks. John has Down Syndrome and it was his idea to start a business selling colorful crazy socks with his Dad. Today David Hirsch talks to John’s Dad, Mark Cronin about the journey that led to this crazy successful business idea. That’s on this Special Fathers Network Podcast.
Dad To Dad 17 – How John Cronin, who has Down Syndrome, and his dad Mark launched John’s Crazy Socks.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network Podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: And I’m Tom Couch.
John Cronin: Hi, my name is John Cronin from John’s Crazy Socks.
Tom Couch: Meet John Cronin, along with his dad, Mark, John owns the successful online business, John’s Crazy Socks.
John Cronin: My passion is socks, socks and more socks.
Tom Couch: John has Down syndrome, and it was his idea to start a business selling colorful, crazy socks.
Mark Cronin: Shortly before Thanksgiving, he sat me down and said, “Dad, we need to talk.”
John Cronin: I said to my dad, “Dad, I really want to go into business with you.”
Mark Cronin: He said we should sell socks.
Tom Couch: Today, David Hirsch talks to John’s dad, Mark Cronin, about the journey that led to this crazy successful business idea.
David Hirsch: So what’s the mission of John’s Crazy Socks?
Mark Cronin: We have a very simple mission—we’re spreading happiness.
Tom Couch: That’s on this Special Fathers Network podcast.
Mark Cronin: John sets the tone a lot. John is always looking to see what can we do for others. It’s a simple idea. The more you do for others, the better off we are.
Tom Couch: So here now is David Hirsch’s conversation with special father Mark Cronin.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with Mark Cronin of Long Island, a father of three boys and cofounder of John’s Crazy Socks. Mark, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Mark Cronin: Thank you for speaking with me.
David Hirsch: You and your wife Carol have been married for nearly 37 years and are the proud parents of three boys, Patrick, who is 28, James, who is 25 and John, who is 22, who was born with Down syndrome. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Mark Cronin: I was born in Queens, or in New York City. My parents moved out to Huntington Station on Long Island when I was one, so that’s where I grew up. I left home when I was 19 and swore, “I’m never coming back to Long Island.” And we’ve been living here for 20 years. I guess I was just born to be on Long Island.
David Hirsch: Got it. So how would you describe your relationship with your father?
Mark Cronin: It was a not unusual relationship for an Irish father and son. He was the man I respected most in the world. He was very demanding and very tough. He raised me to be a strong, independent thinker and to take responsibility for one’s beliefs. When he got what he wanted, it led to us banging heads for a while, when I was in high school and in my early twenties. I had to move out because the house was not big enough for the both of us.
David Hirsch: You had siblings when you were growing up, didn’t you?
Mark Cronin: Yes. I had two younger brothers and a younger sister. I was the oldest. Fortunately, my dad and I, while there was some rough years, we were able to reconcile. And in fact, one of the benefits of living on Long Island was living near him and being able to help him out as he got older.
David Hirsch: And what type of work did he do?
Mark Cronin: He was a defense contractor, and he spent most of his career working for a company called Sperry that got bought out and became part of Unisys. So he was a veteran, and then worked in the defense industry. He was very proud of that work.
David Hirsch: Did he serve in World War II or Korea?
Mark Cronin: He served at the very end of World War II. He enlisted when he was 17. He joined the paratroopers. As I understand it from him, it was because they got better food. He was training for the invasion of Japan. And after the surrender, he served in Japan as part of the occupying force.
David Hirsch: So just let me ask a question to clarify. He was a paratrooper, so he was jumping out of airplanes?
Mark Cronin: He was jumping out of planes.
David Hirsch: So I have friends who are also World War II veterans. One of them is one of the original Tuskegee airmen. His name is Lawton Wilkerson, And I was reflecting about some skydiving that I had done with some of my kids a number of years ago.
And he said that there’s absolutely no reason to jump out of a perfectly good plane. The only time you would consider doing that is if the plane was gonna crash. So it takes a certain type of person to want to be a paratrooper.
Mark Cronin: I would think so.
David Hirsch: And where did you go to school? High school, college, graduate school for that matter?
Mark Cronin: I had gone through public school through eighth grade and then went off to an all male Catholic high school called St. Anthony’s High School in Long Island, and then went to the College of Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts. I spent some time in a graduate program for literature at the University of New York. I have a masters in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
David Hirsch: So when you graduated from Harvard, what was your expectation? What was your vision of what you were going to do with your career?
Mark Cronin: Oh, I was going to change the world. I started off working in and spent much of my career working in health care. And that’s what I was trying to do, to do what we could do to change the world.
I wound up at an early age running the Medicaid health services program in New York City and putting in place some programs similar to what we’ve been debating over the last decade, even though this was the late eighties, covering even more people with health insurance, and finding better ways to deliver the health care that would also lower costs.
And then after leaving that, I spent time in the same field working as a consultant, and then as a manager, setting up some Medicaid HMOs, and that evolved into running some healthcare management technology firms.
Early on, it was dreams that we could do things to change the world. And I was very fortunate to be able to work with some good people in some opportunities where we got some legislative and programmatic changes that made a substantial difference in New York, to get millions of people more in healthcare and to improve the quality of care they got.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So one of the things that piqued my interest is the technology firm. What was that? Or what did it lead to?
Mark Cronin: Well, there were a couple of different things, but one was…as I was working in the health care field, it became more and more apparent that technology would allow us to drive change, would allow us to change the way things operated.
So much of that work was with organizations of doctors to put them more in the driver’s seat financially, give them more independence, so that you had a tighter relationship between the doctor and the patient without the insurance company getting in the middle.
And then there was another track—and this was some of my entrepreneurial work in the early ‘90s or mid-‘90s—I set up a software development company. And we put out a couple of products, including something called Baseball 94 for Windows and Baseball 95 for Windows, that kind of some great reviews. And we lost every penny.
David Hirsch: I love those stories. Well, I’ve always wanted to be a social entrepreneur, and I can bore you to death with stories of things that were great on paper, or the people conceptually agreed to, that just didn’t meet their expectations. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Mark Cronin: Right. It takes a certain mindset to be an entrepreneur. You have to be willing to fail. And we’ll talk some more about John’s Crazy Socks. We’re having early success and we’re doing well, but it’s like that band that puts out a hit, and it seems like they’re an overnight success, after they’ve been on the road for ten years.
David Hirsch: Exactly. So all these experiences that you’ve had from a business standpoint, no doubt have been the foundation for what it is that you’re doing. Let’s talk about the special needs community, and initially your personal connection to it. Before John was born, did you and your wife have any connection to the special needs community?
Mark Cronin: We had a little bit. I had done some volunteer work in high school, working with people with special needs. There were some small family connections, good friends of my parents, who had a son around my age with Down syndrome. And they bucked the trend at the time, and they kept Tommy at home and raised him. If I look back on that, it must’ve been very hard, because there were so few resources.
And my wife, her mother worked for a long time for an organization called YAI. And my wife worked with them over the summers when she was in college. But we had some experience in the past working with people with special needs.
David Hirsch: So I remember you telling me in a previous conversation about the anticipation of John’s birth and the reluctance to get some tests. Tell me that story again.
Mark Cronin: Well, my wife would have been 37 while pregnant with John, and her OB suggested having an amniocentesis, to test to see whether or not there were any issues, including whether or not there was presence of Down syndrome. In those days, that was the only test. And the amniocentesis was painful, and it had fairly high risk of causing a miscarriage and a very high false positive rate.
My wife told the doctor she wasn’t interested, because it wouldn’t matter. Even if she had a child with Down syndrome and found it out, “So what? I’m gonna have a child with Down syndrome.” She came home and told me about it, and told me that the doctor said to her, “I’m going to want to speak to your husband.” And I think I would have liked to have been in the room for that, just observing.
And I look back on that with some puzzlement, because I was in complete agreement with my wife. It didn’t matter what the test results said. This was our child. This was going to be our child. The reason I’m puzzled is, it’s not in my nature to ever choose to be ignorant, but we did not know John was going to have Down syndrome.
David Hirsch: What was your first reaction upon that news?
Mark Cronin: “Okay. So he’s got Down syndrome.” I know that’s a lot of my character. You just take things as they come. We wanted to get information and data. We both come from large families or extended families. There was a lot of support early on, and there were some things I remember….
One of the things I remember was my mother-in-law saying, “Well, a lot of opportunities. And he could grow up to push a broom, working in a store.” And I know she meant really well, but that took me aback. Because when your child is born, you have some notion that everything is possible. It’s not, but you think everything is possible.
So already started hearing about limitations took us back a bit. But much of what we were doing was just focused on, “Okay, what do we have to learn? What do we have to deal with?” And John had some significant medical issues at birth, which is pretty common for people with Down syndrome. And we immediately became very focused on those medical conditions.
David Hirsch: And what were they?
Mark Cronin: Well, on day three, he had intestinal bypass surgery. To put it in some context, the way I think about Down syndrome is it’s kind of like an old Chinese menu. And everybody gets everything in column A, and then there’s column B, and you get to pick and choose, except you don’t get to pick and choose. And that gets decided for you.
So about 10% of people with Down syndrome are born with intestinal issues. The big one that concerned us was he had two heart defects, an ASD and a VSD, which basically meant he had two holes in his heart. About 50% of people with Down syndrome are born with a heart defect. So that concerned us, as you might imagine, and we add some troubles at first.
He was transferred to a major medical center. The doctors weren’t always straight with us. I mean, right from the beginning, when he was transferred there, I met with the neonatologist and his team. I had found out overnight about the heart issues, and I asked, “How is my son’s heart?” And the doctors said, “Oh, there was no problem. Everything is fine.” We finished that conversation. And one of his fellows went over to a phone, picked it up and then ordered an EKG for the Cronin baby with a heart murmur.
“Wait a second. You told me there was no problem.” And we had some contention like that. John was born via C-section. So my wife was at another hospital. When she got out, we met for the first time with a cardiologist, who very matter of factly said, “They usually try to save these babies nowadays.”
David Hirsch: Oh my God.
Mark Cronin: So there were some startling things. The good news is we were able to find a doctor, a gentleman named Welton Gersony, who is the head of pediatric cardiology at Columbia Presbyterian. We met with him to consult about John. We shared the medical condition and some of our concerns.
And he was so wise and helpful and kept saying, “Well, if this was my patient, this is what we would do. And if this was my patient….” Then at one point I looked at my wife, but we didn’t even say anything to each other. I just looked at him and said, “Well, what do we have to do to make him your patient?”
He predicted to the day exactly what would happen. It’s hard for us to think about this now, but John used to be measured in grams. And he predicted, “He’s going to go into congestive heart failure. His fingers will start to turn blue from a lack of oxygen, but then we’ll know it’s time to operate. And here’s the date that’s going to happen.”
And he was exactly right. On a cold rainy day in April, before John was three months old, we went in at night, and the next day he would be operated on. We were told it would be a seven or eight hour operation. They told us to go home and come back several hours later. We walked around the neighborhood until the rain drove us back in.
I was standing at the elevator—Carol had already gone ahead of me—and out of the side door, the surgeon walked. This was after about only two and a half hours. He looked at me and said, “Cronin. The operation is a success.” And he walked out.
The operating room was on the eighth floor. I think I could have flown up there. I got up and I grabbed my wife. “The operation’s over.” There was a panel with the information. And we went looking for him and almost walked into the OR.
So that operation was a tricky operation, but John has been healthy ever since. So early on, it was really a focus on those medical issues that consumed us. We then took to raising our son, but those first few months were difficult. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. So we’re very fortunate.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s a remarkable story. John’s start in the world sounded like quite a roller coaster ride for you and your wife, not just physically, with delivery and her recovery, but emotionally for the first few months—all the challenges that were laid out in front of you. And what a blessing it was that the doctor from Columbia Presbyterian was able to provide you with a vision of what to expect and that it actually played out that way.
Mark Cronin: Parenting is very humbling. There’s so much we want to give to our children, so much we want to do for them.
David Hirsch: So when you look back since then, what were some of the more important decisions that you and Carol have made raising three boys, including John, who had special needs?
Mark Cronin: Our overall approach—I think what we do as parents is to promote independence. And that’s been true for all three of our sons. You just want to keep pushing them to stand on their own two feet, to make their own decisions and to lead their own lives. We try to imbue them with certain values that we have, but in the end, they get to choose that.
And we did that with John. I don’t think of John as my son with Down syndrome. He’s my third son. John was very fortunate that we were able to get therapies for him when he was less than a year old. And he enrolled at a very early age in a preschool. We enrolled them into the public school system. He went through the Huntington school system. He was extremely fortunate. He had great teacher after great teacher.
David Hirsch: Were there any challenges along the way from an educational perspective that you can think of?
Mark Cronin: Oh sure. When he was young, John had difficulty communicating. He had trouble speaking. There was late development there, and even after he started, because of the Down syndrome. But he could communicate. So we all learned some sign language so he could communicate. And one of his speech therapists developed a communication device. And in those days it was cardboard that had little pictures, and he could pick them out to show.
One of the things we used to hear at school was, “John has a way of making his wants and needs known.” And he still does that. Even if he doesn’t know a particular word, he’ll get the message across.
There was a time when…we joke that that extra chromosome was a wandering chromosome, because John liked to wander. He would go wandering off. That was not always fun when you would lose sight of him and he’d vanish. He thought this was a great laugh. We were all panicking, looking for him.
I’ll give you an example. It’s a small thing. When he started school, they were going to arrange a special bus. We said, “Why? Let him take the regular bus with all the other neighborhood kids. He’ll be fine.” And he was. John never took what he would call a short bus. He would always ride the regular school bus. And John was very fortunate and continues to be fortunate, because his brothers always looked after him, helped out. But they also benefited having John as their brother. I think they’re better humans.
I do remember a funny conversation with them. When John started school, I sat them down and said, “Look, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But you know John’s a little different. People may pick on him. They may make fun of him.” Our eldest son Patrick thought about this. And he said, “Well, that’s okay. If that happens, I’m going to talk to them and teach them and let them understand.” Jamie smiled and said, “Yeah, we’ll let Patrick talk to them. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to punch them out.”
David Hirsch: Try diplomacy, and then go to war.
Mark Cronin: Fortunately it never came to that. There’s no doubt Jamie would have done it.
David Hirsch: So what type of activities were the boys involved in when they were younger?
Mark Cronin: Ah, sports was a big deal. So they were all very active in sports, as was John, though there have been some differences. The older boys played football and lacrosse and they both, as it turned out, both played some college football. John couldn’t play football, but from a very early age he played Special Olympics soccer. And he still does soccer and basketball, track and field and snowshoe. So that was always a part of our life, playing sports, following sports. John’s a Met fan and a Jet fan, so he’s used to losing.
David Hirsch: Hey, I thought we cornered the market on losing, up until two years ago when the Cubs finally won the World Series after more than a hundred years.
Mark Cronin: Plus as a family, we’d always be up for the small adventures and travel. A typical Saturday for us—we’d leave the house at 8:30 in the morning with whatever sport events were going on. And then we’d go through that. We’d go do other things, and we’d go out at night, and we may not get home until 1:00 in the morning.
David Hirsch: Oh wow.
Mark Cronin: And John to this day still loves that type of activity and travel adventure.
David Hirsch: Well, what I’ve heard you say is, “We have three boys, and we just tried to expose them to all the things that you would normally do, and it is what it is.” Right? Don’t treat them specially or coddle them or overprotect them. That might seem like the right thing to do from a safety standpoint, but you’re really limiting and maybe disabling somebody by doing that.
Mark Cronin: People have asked, and now we face a lot of interviews, “What obstacles does John face?” Last night, John was being interviewed by somebody who asked him about times when people told him he couldn’t do things. John just looked at him puzzled, because that hasn’t happened. We don’t even think that there are obstacles out there. And it’s similar to his two older brothers. It’s just, “Okay, you can do this. Let’s go push, and you can do this.”
A very small thing. Growing up, we’d be at a store, and I’d have the kids go to the counter and pay for things. Or if they had a question, they can go ask somebody at a store what was going on, or try to get information. We want them to be resourceful.
I think the challenge for us parents is we have to be willing to let our kids fail and to let them fall. And that can be hard. That can be hard. I have a theory that I’m only half joking about, that if you’re a bad parent, it’s actually good for your kids. If a kid is hungry, “Go learn to make yourself something. I’m not going to do it for you.” And then they go learn.
David Hirsch: You don’t want to take that to too much of an extreme, but I know exactly what you’re saying. You want to create independence. You want them to be able to do things for themselves, because you’re not always going to be there.
John Cronin: Hi, my name is John Cronin, and here is my father Mark.
Mark Cronin: What’s the name of our business?
John Cronin: John’s Crazy Socks.
Mark Cronin: What’s our mission?
John Cronin: Create happiness.
Mark Cronin: What made you really happy today?
John Cronin: Today is a pretty good day.
Mark Cronin: So Huntington school came through a tour today, and who went to Huntington High School?
John Cronin: I did!
Mark Cronin: Did you like Huntington High School?
John Cronin: I love Huntington High School!
David Hirsch: You and John are cofounders of John’s Crazy Socks. What’s the backstory for starting this for-profit business?
Mark Cronin: Well, it goes back to the fall of 2016. I was starting some online businesses. We had had a disruption in our family and what was the family business had to close suddenly. So I was starting some online businesses, and John was starting his last year of school.
So he was looking around, we were looking around. “What are you going to do when school is over?” We were looking at different options. And he came to me and said, “Dad, I want to work with you. I want to go into business with you.” He had worked for me previously as a mail clerk in an office.
This seemed like a good idea. “So what are we going to do?” John has always got ideas. His first idea was we should open a fun store, whatever that might be. He never was able to quite describe that. We then saw a movie called “Chef,” with John Favreau, and it told a father-son bonding story, where they opened a food truck. John loves father-son movies. So he loved this idea, and he wanted us to open a food truck. We would talk about what we could do. It was John who pointed out that neither of us could really cook.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, he sat me down and he said, “Dad, we need to talk.” He said, “We should sell socks.” And he already had the idea for the name, and he had drawings of what a website could look like. His entire life John had worn crazy and colorful socks. We used to go looking for them. And so this seemed like something that could work.
I tell folks that the traditional way to go about this is you develop a business plan, right? You do a lot of research, and gather a lot of data, and you work on projections, you work up this detailed plan to determine whether or not this would succeed.
That’s not what we did. We went the lean startup route, and said, “Let’s just get something out.” You can call it a minimally viable product. “Let’s get something up, and see how people respond.” We came up with a logo. We got some inventory. We built a website. The only marketing we did was to set up a Facebook page and have John talk about his socks and what he would have. We opened on December 9.
We were going to open it at ten in the morning on Friday December 9, but the website crashed. We had to scramble, and we opened by three that afternoon. And we weren’t sure what was going to happen. We read about online stores where it took a month or two to sell a single order. We were very fortunate. We immediately received a flood of orders, or what seemed like a flood of orders. And they were all local.
And this makes sense. If you start a business, frequently your first customers are family and friends. And these were people that knew John from high school and from the area. So we made a decision that day. We said, “Let’s find a way to hand deliver the socks.” We put the socks in a box, looked at that, and said, “It needs something else.” We went across the street to the grocery store, got some Hershey’s kisses and put them in, and John put a thank you note in. And we drove around delivering those socks.
John loved it. We were knocking on doors and making that delivery. We were very fortunate, because our customers loved it too. What they did was they took pictures of John and they took pictures of the box and posted them on social media. Well, we immediately began to grow. That’s how we got started. In that first month, really in two weeks, we shipped 452 orders. It was about $13,000 in revenue.
And we knew then that this was something that could work. We knew people wanted to buy socks. They wanted to buy socks from John. They related very much to him. Then we already were getting notes from people about how John was a role model. And we got some confidence that the two of us could go out and do it. But that’s how we got started.
David Hirsch: So what’s the mission of John’s Crazy Socks?
Mark Cronin: We have a very simple mission—we’re spreading happiness.
Announcer: We are here with John Cronin, cofounder of John’s Crazy songs. What are you doing?
John Cronin: I’m writing thank-you cards.
Announcer: Who are they for?
John Cronin: Our customers.
Announcer: And why do you write these thank you cards for your customers?
John Cronin: I want you to say thank you.
Announcer: Oh, that’s great. And you put a thank you card in every package?
John Cronin: Yes.
Announcer: What else goes into packages?
John Cronin: A thank-you card and some candy.
Announcer: You put some candy in every package?
John Cronin: Yes.
Announcer: And what else goes into every package?
John Cronin: Socks, socks, more socks!
Announcer: That’s great!
John Cronin: We’re in the business of spreading happiness, but we just want to make that customer happy. What can we do to make them happy? We’ve built the business on the four pillars. One, and the most important one is, inspiration and hope. It’s showing people what’s possible. It’s letting people know what can happen when we give someone a chance. And we’re really focused on people with an intellectual disability. John is the face of the company.
We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve hired 30…now it’s 33 people. We have 15 people with a disability working with us, who share what they do all the time on social media. We do school tours. We have visiting groups that come in. John and I now do speaking engagements.
The second pillar is giving back. We donate 5% of our earnings to Special Olympics. We have a series of awareness and charity socks, like our Down syndrome awareness sock, autism awareness sock, Williams syndrome awareness sock, that raise money for our charity partners.
The third thing is we’re a sock store. We have socks you can love. We’ve got 1900 different socks. We have a Sock of the Month club, we have gift boxes, gift packs.
And the fourth, we make it personal. So even though we’re out of that temporary office space in which we started, and now we’re doing many more than 452 orders, every package gets a thank you note, every package gets some candy. If you post a picture or video on our Facebook page, John’s going to make a thank you video for you. Anything we can do to connect with our cause.
David Hirsch: Let me go back to the sock store thing. I think you said, which was stunning, that you have 1900 different socks that you sell, and they’re all in inventory?
Mark Cronin: They’re all in inventory.
David Hirsch: Holy moly.
Mark Cronin: We think we have to offer our customers the greatest possible choice. At some point, we would like to say that we are the world’s largest sock store, not in terms of quantity sold. We’re not going to out-sell Walmart. But in terms of choice. And we may already be. We find that’s important for our customers. So that’s what we have out there in inventory.
David Hirsch: So there are individuals as well as companies and organizations buying the socks? What’s the typical order like?
Mark Cronin: A typical order is going to have four or five socks. It’s usually about $40 when you don’t count the Sock of the Month club, which has to be ordered separately. We have now started doing custom winter socks. So those are for not-for-profits. They use them as fundraisers. Or corporations that are giving them to customers or their board or their employees.
We’ve had two organizations, both of which are charity partners of ours—the National Down Syndrome Society and the Special Olympics—which make custom socks and give out to members of Congress. So we do a lot of that. We’re social entrepreneurs. We have a social mission, we have an e-commerce mission, and they’re indivisible. If we didn’t have the social mission, we would not be selling the volume of socks that we sell.
If we were only a charity, or if we ran mainly as a charity, saying, “Oh, we have a feel good story,” we wouldn’t have the impact that we have. For us to work, we have to be a great socks company. The products have to be good, the choice has to be good. Service has to be good.
We’re competing with Amazon. So we do same-day shipping. If an order comes in today by three o’clock, it’s going out today. Most of our customers get their orders within two days. And I like to point out that, unlike John, Jeff Bezos is not putting a thank you note and candy in those Amazon boxes.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So, I remember you telling me that there’s been three viral moments in the short history today of John’s Crazy Socks. What was the first one?
Mark Cronin: First one came a little over a year ago. We opened in December 2016. January was very slow. We did fewer than 200 orders. We grew five-fold in February 2017. So we had about a thousand orders that month. And that’s when we introduced our Down syndrome awareness sock and our autism awareness sock.
Then the first week of March, the online journal “The Mighty” put out a video. We went overnight from doing 60 orders one day to over a thousand orders the next day. Watch what you ask for—you may get it. Because at that point we’re in temporary office space. We had four part time employees. So that surge, that viral moment, wiped out our inventory, overwhelmed our staff, overwhelmed our space, and we spent the better part of a month scrambling to get caught up.
There were ways that were quite comical. We were in this old house that was converted to office space, that was built in the 1700s. When they tell you they don’t build them like they used to, be grateful. Low ceilings, tilted stairways. I can remember trucks showing up and unloading 50 cartons of socks, and we had no place to put them. They’d be sitting on the sidewalk as we were just stacking box on top of box. That was an adventure.
But it did help us grow. Last April we moved into this space we’re in now, which is about 6,400 square feet of office and warehouses. And we were able to build a stronger foundation that saw us through the next viral moment.
David Hirsch: So which was the BBC one? That’s the one that helped connect the two of us.
Mark Cronin: That came in January, and it shows the unpredictability of things. They were working on a story about us for a long time. Very late in the process they decided they were going to do a video to run on BBC One. And we were expecting maybe a small blip of orders out of the UK. Instead, last I looked, that video on Facebook alone had over 35 million views.
David Hirsch: Oh, my gosh.
Mark Cronin: And we’re grateful. We’ve grown mainly through word of mouth, positive media coverage, and then retention of about one-third. Our customers are very happy. So about one third of our orders each month go to repeat customers. We have 5,500 online reviews, and 96% of those are five-star reviews. We’re very fortunate.
David Hirsch: I need to give a shout out to my daughter, Emily, who’s currently in London at the London School of Economics. She was the one that forwarded me that video that you’re talking about that appeared on BBC.
And I got so excited about meeting you guys on a recent trip to London. And for some reason I just didn’t connect the fact that you weren’t in London, you were in New York. So this has made it much easier to connect with you. So the power of social media.
Mark Cronin: We’re very fortunate for that. So here we are, not quite a year and a half old. And there were a couple of ways we can measure how we’re doing. One way is we want the world to see what’s happening here. I want people to come in and see our workplace. It’s a unified workplace. We’re highly productive. Our people are really happy. And we get to see people develop every day.
So in that regard, we are getting word out. We make videos here. To call them low five would be to overstate it, but those videos that we’ve made, they’ve been seen over four million times.
John Cronin: Hi, my name is John Cronin of John’s Crazy Socks! And today’s sock is a compression sock, one of my best sock.
Announcer: Are you giving us a sneak peek of your favorite compression socks, John?
John Cronin: Yes, I am.
Announcer: Ooh, I’m excited.
Mark Cronin: And then we have things like “The Mighty” video that has over 20 million views. That BBC video that has over 35 million. Google is making a video about us that’s going to be released on Father’s Day. We’ve got a documentarian who’s been in here filming us. So we’re making good on getting that word out to people, and making good on taking care of our customers.
We’re making good on giving back. We’ve raised about a hundred thousand dollars for our charity partners so far. And in terms of volume in sales, 2017 was our first full year. We shipped over 42,000 orders. We brought in $1.7 million in revenue, and we’re going to double that this year. So we’ve been very fortunate.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. I remember you telling me before that you have a way of referring to the people that are packing the orders. Because there’s a lot of that going on.
Mark Cronin: Right. Well, much of what we do here is we’re running a pick and pack warehouse. We call our pickers “Sock Wranglers.” We call our packers “Happiness Packers.” Names matter. Our customer service people are called “Happiness Creators.” The woman who runs our custom sock program and gets our new socks—she’s a “Happiness Imagineer.” We have our “Lord of the Socks” who runs our fulfillment, and our “Keeper of the Socks” who runs inventory.
We have a “Digital Overlord” as our webmaster, and we have two “Marketing Wizards” who have recently joined us. And we have Maria who keeps us all organized. She’s our community organizer. You get to have some fun.
David Hirsch: So Mark, are there any other stories that sort of emphasize John’s independence?
Mark Cronin: Yes, there are. There are a numbers of them, and we try to share these with people through our social media so they can see. Here’s another example. Last summer John and I were fortunate to participate in a business accelerator program called “Mass Challenge.” It was based in Boston, so we would spend two or three days in Boston each week. We would drive up on a Friday night and drive home on a Wednesday night. On one particular day, it was a Tuesday, John had go to New York in the morning for a doctor’s visit. And that evening we were scheduled to do a television show in Boston.
How’s he going to get from New York to Boston? He’s going to do what most people or many people would do. He took Amtrak. He got on the train. I picked him up at South Station, and we immediately did a video of John talking about being on the train. And it turned out he was giving out his business card to promote his business. That was easy for John to do. And we want people to know, of course he could take the train.
Or a week or so ago, he went to a hockey game, an Islander game in Brooklyn, with a work colleague. You don’t need mom and dad to do that. Of course you could go with a friend. And they took the train in and out. Our John may have an intellectual disability, but he’s capable of doing many things. And we want people to see that.
I could tell you similar stories about other work colleagues here. I like to tell stories about Matt. Matt has Asperger’s, and when he first came here, we told him, “You’re going to have to appear on videos, and we take pictures for social media.” And he came up to me and said, “Mr. Cronin, I don’t think I can do that. I’m very shy.”
“Okay, Matt, let’s just try.” We did a video of him and John and two other people eating lunch and just talking about what they did.
John Cronin: Hi there, I’m John. And today I am interviewing Matt.
Matt: I’m Matt, and it’s a pleasure to be here.
Mark Cronin: Matt kind of liked that. Then he did another. And then about a week later, Fox Business News was in here to record a story. And Matt went up to the reporter and say, “I want you to interview me.” And so Matt has now been on TV five times. We didn’t do anything magical. It’s just giving him an opportunity.
Or there was another anecdote. One day Matt didn’t bring his lunch. And he said to somebody, “I don’t know what I’m going to do for lunch.” And they said, “Well, why don’t you order lunch?” “But I’ve never done that.” So people coached him. “Here’s what you do. You pick out what you want in the menu. Call them up. Give them a credit card number. They’re going to deliver your lunch.” And everybody kind of cheered and helped Matt as he did it.
It all worked great, and Matt felt great about himself. So much so that the next day he wanted to do it again. He was in this wide open room we have. And I’m walking past, and he is, at the top of his lungs, reading his credit card number. I put my arm around him, and I said, “This is all good. But maybe you want to do that in private.”
David Hirsch: I love it.
John Cronin: We got to give people an opportunity to do things. And Matt clearly shows he can do that. Just give him that opportunity.
David Hirsch: I imagine you get some pretty positive feedback from parents of those that are also working there at John’s Crazy Socks.
John Cronin: We do. We hear from parents. We hear about transformations they see in their children’s lives. One young man, Thomas, is on the autism spectrum. There’s a lot of socialization issues. He’s close to monosyllabic. He rarely will look at you. He comes out from Queens, so he’s making an hour drive every day. His parents had asked us to give him a chance. Like everybody else, Thomas had to pass the test to show he could work as a stock worker.
But what they told us was they couldn’t get him in any program. Nobody would have him. He spent most of his time in his bedroom. They would have trouble getting him to come out. He didn’t kind of take care of himself. They’d have to argue with him to get a shower, to do anything around the house.
And now they describe Thomas as being showered, shaved, and ready to go first thing in the morning, and asking them, “When do we leave for work?” I wish I could tell you that we were brilliant, and we knew the magic formula. We don’t. We just give people a chance, and there are good role models around. It’s a strongly supportive community. We are the lucky ones.
David Hirsch: Well, I love it. You’re literally changing and transforming people’s lives, and all because John had this idea to go into the sock business with his dad. That’s beautiful.
Mark Cronin: John sets the tone a lot. John is always looking to see what we can do for others. And we have found here, it’s a simple idea: the more you do for others, the better off we are.
David Hirsch: Yeah, well that would be a good model for everybody to embrace. Literally everybody to embrace, here or there and everywhere else. Very inspiring as well.
Well, thank you for sharing that about John’s Crazy Socks. And as we wind down, I’m wondering from an advice standpoint, what are some of the more important takeaways that come to mind that you might share about raising kids, typical kids and those with physical or intellectual disabilities?
Mark Cronin: There’s no single right answer. I know for my wife and me, we really focused on promoting independence. And when that comes to John, we doing the same thing we did for the others, setting the expectations of what he can do, and he rises up to those expectations. I think there’s a tendency to be worried, to shelter our kids—and I understand that impulse. But ultimately I think we’re doing them a disservice.
I’ll give you a recent example. Friday night, my wife and I went out to a concert. John was going to be home alone. We recently moved into an apartment in Huntington Village. One of the reasons we did that was so that John would have more independence, and I would welcome that.
So he said he was going to go have dinner at a local restaurant where his brother happens to be the cook. This was great. And my wife turns and says, “No, I don’t think it’s safe. I’d be too worried. I’d worry about you. I don’t want you crossing that many streets.” And I looked at her and I said, “Come on now. This guy’s got his own business. He can cross all the streets he wants.” We knew John had the ability to do this.
But what it was is…and I’m not picking on my wife. It’s always easy to see somebody else. She was more concerned that in that moment. She’s a great mom, but she was more concerned in that moment about how she felt in her worries, as opposed to John’s independence and what John could do.
And of course, he went out, and of course he did fine. It’s a bar restaurant. He sat at the bar, ordered himself dinner, and had a fine old time. Stopped on the way home to get some ice cream, got home, and was king of the castle. It was great. Part of our business is that we want people to know that, that of course John can do these things, and other people like him can do these things.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thanks for sharing that story. So why did you agree to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Mark Cronin: Oh, because you always have to give back. I’ve been the beneficiary of such great support from so many people. And I remember when John was born, there was a fair amount of uncertainty. We were focused on medical issues. I was very fortunate. One of my best friends from high school, who is still one of my best friends, happened to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. And I had him to lean on, and that was tremendously helpful.
I want to be available to families, just to let them know what life can be like. John leads such a rich and fulfilling life. I want people to know that. I’d like to know more for myself, not to prescribe things, but as a resource, a listener, and to let people know it’s going to be okay. Life can be very good.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I love the philosophy, the attitude, the “glass is half full, it’s not half empty” way that you and Carol raised all three of your boys. Thank you. So is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Mark Cronin: I think that’s it. I know what John would say.
David Hirsch: What would he say?
Mark Cronin: John would say, “If you want some great socks, come to johnscrazysock.com.”
David Hirsch: So if somebody wants information on John’s Crazy Socks, where would they go specifically?
Mark Cronin: Go to the website, johnscrazysocks.com, and also go to our Facebook page. We share a lot of information there. And we have the other social media accounts: Instagram, Twitter. We even have a LinkedIn page now.
But one of the things we do is we share a lot of videos showing what people can do. We’re in the process of developing John’s Crazy Socks Network that will either be hosted by or feature people with intellectual disabilities. So people can get information there.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Well, Mark, thank you for your time and the many insights. As reminder, Mark is one of the dads who’s agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21st century dads.org.
Thanks again, Mark.
Mark Cronin: All right, David. Thank you.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Fathers Network Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Again, if you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
I’m David Hirsch. And thanks for listening to this Special Fathers Network Podcast.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio. Music provided by Purple Planet. To find out more, go to purple-planet.com. And to find out more about 21st Century Dads go to 21stcenturydads.org.