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Many years ago in a hotel bar in Zürich, Switzerland, eight-or-so hours after Eurobike had shut down, I heard the story of DeFeet from the cycling sock manufacturer’s Shane Cooper and Paul Willerton while sitting in oddly designed chairs with PELOTON’s Ben Edwards and Adam Reek and ordering Hendrick’s Gin with tonic and cucumbers. As the night progressed, the story of DeFeet continued and I learned about the fire and how Shane and crew fought to save their company and brand. I was inspired by the story and although the details that night were potentially compromised by the Bulgarian rose and cucumber that were infused into the Scottish firewater, I made a mental note to track down Shane and ask him to tell me the story again. It took a few years, but we made it happen.
HERE IS SHANE COOPER’S STORY OF DEFEET AND HOW THE COMPANY CAME BACK FROM THE ASHES.
Shane, tell us about DeFeet pre-fire and what you were doing as a company?
Our fire was October 21, 2001. We were set to celebrate our ninth birthday on November 18. Prior to the fire, our brand was the only sock game in cycling. By that, I mean other cycling socks were made in factories that churned out cheap, everyday casual socks. We created something entirely new, a design made purely for cycling. Riders immediately recognized us for authenticity, technology, durability, performance and style. The Aireator was the original mesh sock. Even a very famous (four-letter word) sports brand copied that design. The mesh panel allowed the CoolMax to breathe and wick moisture extremely quick. The Interbike press dubbed DeFeet socks “the underground currency of schwag” two years running. All the top cycling companies were using our socks as a promotional items, so folks started collecting them like Beanie Babies. To name a few of these companies: Sidi, LOOK, Shimano, Bell, Giro, RockShox, Specialized, Cannondale, Trek, Gary Fisher, Klein, Bontrager, LeMond, Mavic, PowerBar, Campagnolo and Land Shark. We called this our OEM custom business, and it was solid and growing.
Our heart was in bike racing, both road and MTB, so we were following the teams and worked with the athletes for our product testing. On the road, we had socks on nine pro road teams: Gan, Mapei, Festina, T-Mobile, U.S. Postal, Collstrop, LA Sheriff, Shaklee and Subaru-Montgomery. And for mountain biking: Specialized, GT, Gary Fisher, Diamondback, Schwinn, Bontrager and Giant.
When the fire happened, we had just begun creating an outerwear line and we were sponsoring the USPS USA Cycling U23 program. Actually, the contract for USA Cycling was signed the week after the fire. Sitting on my desk, post-fire, it was covered in black soot. Our accessory lines—Slipstream, Duraglove, UnDwear and Armskin—were selling very well too. Each of these were top-of-the-line products that outperformed more expensive competitors. You could say we were on top of the cycling world.
Can you describe the fire in 2001 and what happened to your business? You were nine months without production and I heard you say that it took seven years to become profitable again? How did you stretch that long and what did you do to get back on track and thriving?
It’s hard to describe how devastating a fire can be. It’s no wonder only one-in-five businesses are still around five years after a fire. Our business stopped that day…and so did my heart. Fires suck. Not just the flames, but the water and smoke. Water and smoke ruin what the fire misses. The smoke stays around for years. I could smell that soot forever. I got the call from the alarm company at 6 a.m. I could see the smoke billowing as I sped to the office. Realizing it wasn’t a false alarm, my heart sunk.
When I got there, the local firemen were battling the blaze. I was told there were 11 different fire departments on the scene. Using my flip phone to call my wife, I broke down trying to describe the scene. It was a Saturday, so fortunately no one was in the building. Telling the story still makes me feel empty. That day, nine years of 24/7 work, sweat and tears was all gone. I cried for 15 minutes until I was out of breath, literally on my knees. Then, something in me said, “Get up. Get up and fight!” That was it. Like I snapped and was able to move on. Not only did we need to rebuild everything we had created over nine years, I had a lot of hard lessons to learn about insurance policies and legal matters. It was like we were in a new race, except at the back of a peloton full of bad guys who wanted to take us out.
When the smoke cleared and the fire trucks left, all our sock machines were gone. Our building was a smoking mass of rubble. We had about 45 employees at the time of the fire. We did manage to save a few boxes of product that only had smoke damage. I recall a local volunteer fireman speaking to me. He was filthy, soaking wet and had his breathing apparatus on. I could see his eyes, full of concern through his mask. He was hauling out file cabinets, saving anything he could. I later connected those eyes to a local business owner—Tommy Frailey—whom we order embroidery from to this day.
On Day 2, post-fire, a guy drove up. He got out of the car and said hello in a thick Scottish accent. I assumed he was an insurance agent. Keep in mind, our rubble remained a crime scene for two weeks by order of the fire marshal and the State Bureau of Investigation. I asked him how I could help him, and he said, “What kind of needles do you use?” I said, “What?” “What kind of needles do you use?” he said again. I said, “Sir, please look at this rubble…we burned to the ground. We don’t have any need for needles.” He said, “Ah, but lad, you will rebuild and you will need needles!” That got me right in the heart. He and I became friends and he brought me a nice bottle of Scotch. Gotta love the Scottish way of looking at life. In a strange way, that motivated me.
We moved to a new location and set up shop about a mile away. We had to buy machines, but no single company could make enough machinery for us in a short amount of time. So we ordered from four different Italian companies, gave them each deadlines and challenged them to beat each other. Two of those companies won our business. It took nine months for us to get a new batch of shiny sock robots.
I mentioned the smoke-damaged boxes of socks we saved. We tried everything to clean the smell. We washed them over and over with everything we could think of. We ended up laying them on our roof in the sun, and that actually worked! The bad news is these socks were mostly Small and XL in size. We had a few very good independent sales reps that moved those things for us. Shops wanted our product, sometimes regardless of smell or size. We did have to lay off some very good folks, and we whittled down to 25 employees.
I am very proud to say we never missed a payday. For nine years we had been growing and we’d been profitable since day one. Our financials were in good shape. My mother and my wife’s folks helped by loaning us money. My wife, Hope, is our CFO and she brilliantly carried us through some terrible cash-flow issues. We had always been fast to pay off our debt, so the banks trusted us. The insurance still took three years to settle. We had to sue them to get the Business Interruption portion of coverage, which also triggered an IRS audit. We finally became profitable again seven long years later, in 2008, just in time for the Great Recession to start. Those were some lean years.
You then packed up and got on the road to salvage your dealer relationships, etcetera. Can you tell us about that journey?
Paul Willerton and Greg Demgen are both well known for what they did racing bicycles. They headed up our sales and marketing when the fire occurred. We went on the road together for most of 2002 to meet our customers, thank them for their orders, explain the fire and let them know DeFeet would rise from the ashes. It was one of the hardest years ever for us, but also one of the best. Most everyone we met had wonderful positive energy and support for us. Many treated us like family. Willerton and I did a long segment through Washington, Montana, Oregon and all of California. We stopped at five to seven bike shops per day. It was epic. We went home for a month, then started again. We rented a purple PT Cruiser and drove from Salt Lake City to Chicago. The memories are kinda bromantic now, but at the time it was raw survival. Those trips taught us so much about our IBD partners and the world of cycling retail. It was a really special time. We always left them a token of appreciation, custom “We Will Be Back” socks. Just this year someone sent me a pair back and said, “Welcome back.” Seventeen years later!
It takes a unique personality to start a business in any industry. What drives you even to this day to stay in the bike industry and thrive amid all the changes in retail?
Unique personality is one way to put it. I am sure if you were to take a poll, the most common thing you would hear would be Shane Cooper is a crazy MOFO. Yeah, I would say to start a business you might need to be a bit unique, odd or crazy. Starting a business is only the first step. To keep it alive and grow is something else. That takes a great team. Assembling people smarter than you, with incredible skills, folks that can do a better job than you, trusting them with your baby. I think my superpower might be my dyslexia. They say dyslexic kids learn to trust and delegate at a very young age. It also helps to have ADD, and I’ve got that as well. It allows the brain to flourish and innovate while those around you build the structure.
Success is never finished. Business is like cycling in that you can win today but you can get dropped tomorrow. I’m driven to push through adverse conditions and keep on going when most will stop. I learned that about myself riding a bike, first. That’s what DeFeet is about. To win you must defeat all odds. The changes in retail and models of distribution are huge hurdles for all of us right now. What I love about our little MicroSockery is that we are nimble and willing to zig and zag when needed. Right now our market seems to zig and zag more than ever. Our team at DeFeet are the reason we’re able to navigate it.
You have some loyal partners, especially Paul Willerton. Can you describe that relationship and how it helps you as a person and as a business owner?
Paul Willerton and I met in a parking lot at the 1993 Tour DuPont. I had a backpack full of socks that I was handing out to riders—low-cost marketing in other words. He was on Subaru-Montgomery and I gave him a pair. Those socks were like business cards, my phone number was stitched in the sole. He was the only one to call, and we became more than brothers almost instantly. Paul is also a partner in DeFeet and has been right by our side through thick and thin. Paul introduced Greg LeMond to the product and Greg came on board in 1994. We’ve been very lucky to have wonderful business partners and an excellent team of folks. That is the biggest reason we made it to this point.
What’s next for DeFeet?
I am very hopeful for the bicycle industry. The customer is in charge, and they will continue to ride their bikes. I see that as good news for DeFeet. We offer a lot of value in our long-lasting goodness. We will continue to find ways to make cycling more comfortable, sustainable and fun. We’re adding to a great community in cycling. We want our products to reflect how much we care every time someone pulls on our socks, accessories and underwear.