We spoke with Mark Cleveland, who is the CEO and part owner of Swiftwick sock company, which got their start through some twists of fate, at a mountain bike race. Speaking with Cleveland, you get the impression very quickly, that he’s VERY passionate about what he does. But even more than that, he’s quick to point out all the awesome things his “team” (of employees), and athletes wearing his product, are doing. Almost like a proud beaming father talking about his athletic son.
We’ll be testing out some Swiftwick socks over the next few months and will certainly let you know how things pan out. Most interesting to US Editor Daniel Dunn are the medically certified Recovery + socks. Do they really help with recovery and athletic progress and performance? Or are they just the hip sock du jour of the gear hungry masses? More to come on that, but for now, check out a really fun and interesting interview with the smartest sock guy out there that you want to have Sweet Lucys with.
Tell me about who you are and your sock company.
I’m Mark Cleveland, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftwick. We started the business because customers reacted with reckless happy abandon after trying the first product that we gave away at a 12 hour mountain bike endurance race called “Dirt, Sweat and Gears.” I was a partner in the event promotions business that put on that event, we acquired medical compression socks and put our logo for the event on those socks, and gave those socks away to the 400 or so competitors that were attending the race. And then, at the end of the night, hanging around the bonfire, drinking Sweet Lucys and everyone was talking about how great the race was, and I had probably more than 100 people come up to me over the course of that evening and say “Holy cow Cleveland, where’d you get these socks?”
So, just paying attention to market feedback is one of the hallmarks of a successful company, and we got a whole LOT of feedback about how great our compression sock was before we really existed. So I went to meet with friends and business partners that I had been developing business plans with, and I grabbed a brown paper bag with the remainder of the Dirt, Sweat, and Gears socks and poured them out on the table, and said “Hey guys, this is the business we’re going to be in.”
And what’s unique about it, is we intended from the beginning our of business planning process to be an American manufacturer, to be a model of domestic manufacturing of a top performance brand, and to be a global market leader. So, we had set these goals out for our organization before we even knew what business we were going to be in. And the sock business simply fit our passion for mountain biking, our passion for cycling and fitness, and our opportunity as we saw it then, as it’s played out now, to make a world class product in a marketplace that was accepting sort of sub standard socks with fancy designs on them, that were not performance socks. And we think we’ve been a part of the redefinition of the entire cycling industry’s expectation for a sock. We think we’ve led the redefinition of what an excellent sock is, and why it’s an excellent sock, and the experience that the athlete has wearing Swiftwicks has brought a new level of competition and a new level of competence and helped make people appreciate that the sock is as an important a piece of competitive equipment as any great shoe, or any great frame or component on a bike.
Tell me about your socks. Why are Swiftwicks the best?
I think it starts with a commitment to excellence for the sake of excellence. And we’ve hired people who are hungry, humble and smart. And we’ve built a culture around a performance expectation that has sustained us through difficult economic times, and the struggles of a typical small business. We’ve been committed to making the best sock possible from the very beginning. Our supply chain is 100% American domestic manufactured raw textile materials and domestic sources for merino wool. We’ve done a really purposeful job of sourcing in America, so that when we say Swiftwick socks are made in the USA, we’re not just talking about machines constructing socks with imported textiles, which is typical. We’re talking about 100% advanced, market leading technologies being deployed in a sock. Our moisture wicking performance is superior. I also think first and foremost, our socks last a long time. There are a lot of people who let me know that they still have socks from the Dirt, Sweat and Gears era, that are performing as well as they were then, still today.
We’d like to make our contribution to the environment by creating a product that you really have to work hard to wear out. So you get longer wear, great performance, and a greater experience out of a Swiftwick sock. We don’t use dyes, chemical dyes in our coloring process so we don’t have any wastewater discharge from our production facilities. We are the first company to use industrial recycled nylon in the production of a compression sock. We’re the first company to make cut resistant hockey socks that are performance compression socks that are for special niches like hockey. So we’ve taken what we’ve learned about the demands from a competitive cyclist and an endurance athlete and an Ironman, and put them to the specialty requirements and the technology needs of a niche market like hockey, or the open wheel Indy 500 driver. So, we’re growing in areas that are leveraging our technology and our experience that all has it’s roots in cycling.
How do your socks actually help cyclists and other athletes?
The first thing is that a compression sock properly constructed, is a performance enhancing tool. Because it assists the athlete with venous return, it reduces muscle vibration and offers thermal recovery properties that help keep the athlete cool when it’s hot, or warm when it’s cold. All of the contents of the sock, and all of the construction decisions, all the raw materials, even how you make it, makes the product perform better, from blood flow, to musculature support, to thermal regulation, to moisture wicking, to blisters. Those are really important things to endurance athletes. You lose your feet, you lose your game. You lose your connection with your power transfer. People don’t like to ride multi hour mountain bike rides with blisters. And you don’t have to. So comfort is really important. Moisture management is critical. And it’s how we go about doing it, that makes our product actually perform noticeably better, is really played out in the marketplace. That’s why were the number one selling sock in cycling, that’s why our dealers are so committed to Swiftwick and consumers are loyal to the brand, because we over deliver.
After speaking with you at Interbike, and now here, I would call you a sock “expert”. Were you like this before starting Swiftwick? You have a lot of sock “knowledge” and what it can do to the body.
Well, I stumbled into it with the Dirt, Sweat, and Gears experience. Making a compression sock, and offering it to an athlete who could tell the difference right away, was an accident of fate and good timing.
However, since that time, 2007, I’ve had plenty of time to gain expertise. I think that’s just a reflection that my team has, and the commitment that our supply chain has, to excellence. I really, really developed the same kind of rabid unreasonable commitment to business operations knowledge about my product that a competitive athlete dedicates to training so they can run the Trans-Continental race. My dedication to business and sock expertise is not a whole lot different than my customers dedication to performance in a competitive environment.
What’s your favorite memory or story from your years of interacting with customers?
I’m probably most proud of the amputee product that we make, a liner sock for athletes missing legs. We use the same technology that’s in our socks, but with some new techniques, and we think we’ve revolutionized the “stump” sock, that goes inside the urethane liner of a prosthetic limb. I have a number of friends who are amputees, so they’ve got one good foot inside a Swiftwick, and they’ve got a stump prosthetic limb, and they’re frustrated with sweat management and anti-microbial challenges, and in competition, they have to stop and take their leg off. You can’t complete a half marathon without having to stop, take your leg off, and dry it out, two or three times. So, when we got inspired by the grit and determination of your typical amputee athlete, we solved the problem with our Valor sock line.
And I know it’s not about mountain biking, but these guys ride bikes, and they run races, and compete in triathlons. My favorite story is related to the amazing appreciation and gratitude that an amputee has for their intense need for a solution. There’s nobody that appreciates moisture management more than an amputee. There’s nobody that appreciates having no blisters more than an amputee. I can’t tell you how great, or how intensely, that I’m inspired by somebody that’s lost a leg, maybe two legs, who’s still finding a way to complete a marathon, still competing in triathlons. Those are the stories that motivate me, and they’ve taken our technologies to the absolute infinite test and it’s just proven that we’ve been doing the right thing all along. We’re the number one selling amputee liner sock. For the category that we’ve essentially invented, we provided the bulk of the Para-Olympians in London with product. Our athletes won medals, and accolades and recognition for outstanding performances. World records have been set over the last couple years by athletes wearing Swiftwick Valor.
So, whether you got two good feet, or one good foot, or no feet at all, there’s no excuses.
Wow! Thank you Mark, that’s a good story.
Words, Photos: Daniel Dunn
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