When Taylor Shupe, a co-founder of Stance and the company’s Chief Product Officer, first heard Hov’s rhyme, it was a surreal experience. Although it may have been trumped by traveling to Europe and seeing his product on the feet of Bronies—which if you’re not familiar, are grown men who dress up like My Little Pony characters. What links both experiences in Shupe’s mind is that they show the wide cross-section of people that Stance products resonate with.
Shupe joined Stance shortly after his fellow co-founders Jeff Kearl, an angel investor in Uber, and Rick Alden, a founder of Skullcandy headphones, found themselves in a Target staring at a wall of boring, low-quality socks and realized there was an opportunity to build a business there. “I thought it was kind of dumb to be honest,” Shupe says. “I thought the market for premium legwear was going to be really small. It only took about two seasons to totally prove me wrong.”
Stance launched in 2009 and today it is a dominant player in a premium socks category that it largely created, putting out nearly 2,000 styles per year. The brand makes the official socks for the NBA and MLB, and has collaborated on projects with huge names in entertainment and fashion, from Rihanna to Ronnie Fieg to Beavis & Butthead. Stance began selling underwear in 2015 with hopes of giving big brands like Calvin Klein a run for their money. Last spring, Stance raised $50 million from top venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. According to the Wall Street Journal that influx of cash represented less than 20 percent of the company’s overall value, meaning Stance has turned cool socks into at least a quarter of a billion dollar business.
We spoke with Shupe to find out how the brand grew so fast so quickly and learn more about the culture of Stance—and where it’s headed.
What were you doing before you started working with Stance?
I started a brand in college called ISIS, which is coincidentally super famous these days. I’m glad that one didn’t work out. It was a consumer electronics brand and once we started Stance I got a CEO to run it and subsequently sold it a few years back.
Why did things take off so quickly for the brand?
There was a lot of white space. When we started the brand, we went into action sports first—snowboard, surfboard, skateboard stores. There’d be 80 pairs of shoes on a wall and then a little basket on a floor with four or five pairs of socks. It was a really easy value proposition for us. It was like, “Hey, we can bring in a rack and guarantee X amount of thousands of dollars of additional revenue every single month and it’s non-displacement revenue. We’re not kicking anybody out.” It was also the perfect time, coming out of the recession. Accessories were selling really well, especially low-priced ones. Socks started to become a thing pretty rapidly.
Do you think the rise of sneaker culture, which has a similar trajectory timing-wise, contributed to that?
Definitely. I think sneaker culture spread more awareness to the sock category. We’ve seen the sneaker community drive the needle for us. They want to pair their entire outfit to their shoes, including their socks. We didn’t know this was a thing back in 2009. But in 2010, 2011 we really grew to appreciate that culture. They were the trendsetters and it became a craze. It was like we were riding a wave of awareness of stuff that you could put on your feet that would make you look more sophisticated and more confident.
Aside from the design, which has always been bold, the construction of Stance socks has set them apart. How did you develop that?
I won’t bore you with all the technicalities. I would attribute some of our success to a bunch of guys who knew product but didn’t know the sock market and so we questioned the orthodoxies in the space. That helped us, but we got to a point where they looked great, and were really comfortable, but we needed to take a more scientific approach. At that point we hired the head of hosiery from the Nike Innovation Kitchen, we brought in the CTO of the world’s most progressive knitting mill out of Israel, we created our own fit system and laboratory and hired a McDonnell Douglas engineer to run it. We wanted people to feel that when they spent $10-$12 on a pair of socks they received much more in return. At that time there were very few players in that $10+ range. Nobody dared to go to that level. We knew to increase loyalty among consumers, we were going to have to advance the product from a tactile and fit experience.
When you started was there trepidation around making $10 socks?
Absolutely. If you were to look at any market data you would have had to be partially crazy to launch an entire company on the basis of hosiery that’s in the 95 percentile of price in that space. We didn’t know if consumers were going to buy this product. We had high hopes. Fortunately for us, the timing was right.
Why did Stance initially start with a focus on action sports?
We know the action sports market is very particular. If we didn’t launch there it would be hard to capture that market later on. They crave authenticity more than any other market. One thing that we did right is we brought in a bunch of investors from action sports, like skateboarders Nyjah Huston and Chris Cole. Those guys got excited because they had ownership in it. They were naturally waving the Stance flag. We did the same thing with individuals in the media and entertainment as well. We had 10 to 15 pretty big angel investors that came from pop culture and sports, like Rob Dyrdek, Will Smith and his family, Roc Nation, and Dwyane Wade.
What led to the transition into more mainstream sports like basketball and running?
MLB and NBA are two of our biggest performance platforms. We saw the socks in those spaces being pretty weak and lacking innovation. We felt like we had the best socks in the world and we wanted them on the world’s best athletes. We could also put more innovation in those products because people were willing to pay a higher price point because they were looking at socks as a piece of equipment versus just an accessory.
The old NBA socks were famous for their comfort. Was there any resistance from players?
I won’t name the athlete, but I had to do some damage control because a player had submitted a complaint. I sat down with this guy and the first comment was that he wanted to wear his socks out to the mailbox in the snow and not have cold feet or be uncomfortable. I started talking to him about the technical properties of our sock but he wasn’t interested at first. In the end, we worked with him and created a product especially for him and it turned out really well. Now I think he’s just as happy with the Stance relationship as he is with any of his main sponsors.
Are there any collaborations that are particularly memorable for you?
It’s hard to pick one in particular. I really love the skate legends. We brought back a bunch of old skateboard deck graphics, like Christian Hosoi and John Cardiel, that were so iconic. Then we did a surf legends collection as well, with Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo. We’ve also done some really cool stuff in the hip hop community. Those guys push the envelope more than anyone else we’ve worked with. There’s a huge amount of creativity.
The Stance headquarters is famous for being almost like a playground for grown-ups. What are some of the things that you have there?
We have a full kitchen and a chef providing breakfast and lunch. We have a gym with a full-time trainer that gets all the employees on their own workout plans. We have a basketball court and a skatepark. All that is in our headquarters and we are currently building out an additional headquarters that is twice the size of the existing one. Our other building that I’m exciting about, where I work, has rows of sock knitting machines, 15-20 different mechanical testing apparatuses, and a full customization lab. We’ve taken the environment really seriously. It’s one of the ways we safeguard our culture.
What is the culture of Stance?
It’s embodied in freedom and accountability. Early on we solidified five values: gratitude, personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, performance, and creativity. We talk about them nonstop. One of our founders interviews every prospective employee before they’re actually hired to make sure they’re a good cultural fit. With creativity you don’t want to put it in a box, you want to give it some autonomy. Culture is almost as important as the products that we sell.
What led to the creation of underwear?
Mostly it was our retailers coming to us and saying we want more products. They said they were getting get hit up all the time by various brands saying we’re the “Stance of X.” One of the ones that came up was underwear. We saw it as a big opportunity. Coincidentally we’d been working on a fabric that was a little too supple and soft for socks, but would work perfectly in underwear.
What does the future look like for Stance?
The vision is to become the masters of knit. We want consumers to see us as owning knitwear. But any knitwear that we bring out has to be substantially better than the competition. We leverage a lot of stuff we’ve learned in socks in underwear. I think you’ll see technology that we’ve created in underwear move into additional items. But before we even go into a new category, we identify the three most critical components of the product to the consumer and then we have to be at least 20 percent better [than competitors] in those particular fields before we bring a product to market.