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For DeFeet International, It Started 30 Years Ago With Innovative Bike Socks And Grew From There

The founding of DeFeet International, which produces American-made cycling socks and other bike garments in North Carolina, goes back to a few critical elements from the childhood of the company’s founder, President and Chief Sockologist Shane Cooper.

First, Cooper was born dyslexic. A lot of people would think of that as a disadvantage. But not Cooper. “I consider dyslexia a superpower,” he said. Why? It’s pretty simple. “Dyslexics learn to trust at an early age. So we learn to delegate, too, because it comes from the power of trust. Hiring smarter people is a result.” For Cooper, partnering with his wife Hope to round out the skill set of finance, and international branding expert Paul Willerton, an early business partner in the company, was an example of trusting those around you to do things he couldn’t.

Second, he was bitten by the cycling bug. “I got a 10-speed bike, saw the grupetto [the large group of cyclists behind the leading peloton], and fell in love,” he said.

Third, the sock-making business was in his blood. “My father, Alan Cooper, emigrated from England to the U.S.,” he explained. “My dad was a sock knitting machine technician. I grew working on sock knitting machines. He came over when he was 28 for the American dream and ended up becoming a distributor for his company–Bentley, who were the makers of the greatest knitting machines in the world at the time.”

But Shane didn’t jump right into the business. “I became a musician,” he shared. “I was a bass player, and I marketed the band. It all came together, because I knew how to market and how to sell what the band had to offer. I got on the machines and made logos for cycling teams. That made me money for racing.”

It was his own personal experience with the absolute crappiness of the cycling socks of the time that led him to designing his first product. “Socks used to fall down because they had no stretch–you’d throw them away after a single use.” At the time they were made with a thin layer of wool or cotton on the outside and a waterproof rebar layer of nylon on the inside. In 1992, Cooper decided to completely rethink the design and knit the socks inside out, and came up with a concept of using nylon on the outside, soft fibers on the inside, and Coolmax mesh on the instep for moisture wicking. His father supporting him by providing a new sock machine, challenging him to pay him for it in three months. It all came together as the Aireator sock, which launched DeFeet International.

It was immediately off to the races, appropriately enough. “Within two years, we were in the Tour de France, in the yellow jersey,” said Cooper. “Then we got a call from Greg LeMond.” The legendary American winner of the World Championship and three-time Tour de France winner wanted a custom longer sock for the cold, wet, dirty Spring Classic races. DeFeet provided exactly what he wanted, including his logo knitted into the cuff.

That made DeFeet socks all the rage in the cycling world. All the cycling companies wanted their own logo versions, and led to major business growth by the mid-1990s.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a story about uninterrupted growth and good times. “After all that came together, I got really cocky,” Cooper said. “I thought, ‘This is easy!’ But right after 9/11, that October of 2001, I got a call from the fire department. A light ballast in my factory had exploded, and it had burned to the ground. We lost everything. I had two young kids at the time, including my daughter who had just been born.”

It would have been easy to call it quits at that point, but Cooper saw things differently. “I was able to take a sport I love and build a business around it,” he said. “I think the fire actually hardened us. We got through to the other side. We finally got profitable right before the 2008 crash.”

Once again the company weathered the storm, but there was more trouble brewing. “Those experiences gave us a scar,” said Cooper. “It readied us for 2020, and the start to the pandemic.” The company rebuilt yet again.

Now the focus is on looking to the future. Socks remain the main product, but over the years DeFeet has added a variety of other cycling clothing, including base layer tops and bottoms, and cold weather gear like arm and leg warmers, gloves, shoe covers and hats.

“One of our biggest opportunities is product innovation,” Cooper said. “We’ll continue to push the envelope. We recently challenged a local company to recycle plastic bottles, and now all our yarn comes from recycled bottles. Innovation in yarn is very important to our future, and so is innovation in technology–things like allowing our customers to create their own sock online.”

The supply chain is another area of opportunity. “Innovation for us also goes to our distribution model,” explained Cooper. “We’re dealing with war, five-dollar-a-gallon gas, and our biggest distributor in England getting hit by Brexit. We’re talking about a D2C model–we have warehouses in Europe and in England. That’s what we go to next to compete with Amazon.”

Another area of focus for Cooper is setting the business up to continue after he’s gone. “I’m 58 now, and my son just started working with me,” he said. “I’m looking at my exit strategy–do I hand it off to my son? We have to be ready for that.”

But Cooper’s not quite ready to be done just yet. “This business has taken me to some interesting places,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve been to the White House. We’re resilient–we have to be ready for obstacles. Cycling taught me not to give up.”

In the meantime, DeFeet International remains focused on its American-made heritage and its commitment to making the best products around. “What we offer is quality and customer satisfaction,” said Cooper. “The ‘why’ for us is to make your ride more comfortable. We’re underwear for your feet. And guess where all the power transfer happens!”