Giving ordinary purchases extraordinary purposes
From being voted 'most likely to end up a millionaire or in prison' at school to achieving a Great British Social Entrepreneur of the Year award in November, Josh Turner is striving to change the world…with socks!
He is Founder of Stand4 Socks, a social enterprise that links everyday products, such as socks, with social causes and charities, giving ordinary purchases extraordinary purposes.
The organisation is partnered with charities and NGOs that work to tackle the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Each goal has a specially designed sock, meaning you can look snazzy and stylish while tacking environmental sustainability, child poverty or another of the world’s most important issues.
Just two years on from graduation, Your E-network caught up with Josh to find out more about his inspiration, approach to business and what’s next.
Where did the idea for Stand4socks come from?
While working at Virgin I was distracted in a meeting by some wacky bright graffiti style wall paper, which was communicating so much, however when I looked down and caught peoples socks they were very bland and saying very little about the wearer.
I have always been known for my bold sock collection and I think socks are great. I wanted people to see beyond their functional purpose to something that could be a vehicle of expression and change. It sounds bonkers, but you got to be a bit wacky to standout in this busy world!
I saw what (shoe brand) Toms was doing with buy one, give one shoes, but realised sending socks to Africa wasn't the best way to go. We decided to go with the idea of 'buy a pair of socks, have an impact’. This method means we can support lots of separate social issues, for example, buying just one pair of socks could help to plant 20 trees, vaccinate six kids or educate a child for a month!
Once you had the idea, how did you develop it and how long did that take?
A long time! I went to Hinkley in the UK, Paris, Hong Kong and Turkey trying to find manufactures who would work with us. We wanted lots of complicated designs that challenged the status quo, for a competitive price, and we wanted very small minimum orders. Safe to say I had a lot of doors shut on me.
Now we have an amazing relationship with the manufacturer we use – a large family run company. They can see the bigger vision of what I want to achieve and have taken a punt on me, but building that repour takes time, and a lot of persistence!
Getting charities on board was similar. A lot of the larger charities wouldn’t even meet with me, and wouldn’t consider this unless we were a multi million corporation. This was a shame at the time, but in fact it has worked in our favour as the charities we partner with all align with our vision and values, which makes for a much more productive relationship.
Overall you take a lot of set backs with doing any business. From a really simple concept it took over a year until we even remotely looked like launching. I didn’t rush to market, and hindsight I’m glad I didn’t, I have pivoted and adapted the idea as we went and got it right in the end….I hope!
Why did you choose to start a social enterprise?
As a part of Generation Y, research shows 51% of 18-33 year olds actively check packaging to see where products are made, and care more about our impact on the world. It wasn’t really an active thought of "we could do it this way over this way," it was more “why wouldn’t we set up as social business?”
I see the charity world and corporate world increasingly crashing together in the future. Social enterprise is no longer local community projects, it’s a huge trend that’s here to stay. CSR (corporate social responsibility) has gone from a nice thing to do to a must do.
Is this the first business you've started or have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?
I started at 7, maybe before! I was in trouble at school a lot and left being voted 'most likely to end up a millionaire or in prison’. From 12 was always sourcing products online from China to sell at school, uni or on eBay and then set up an events business at 17.
Although I was an entrepreneur from 7, I was only supported and encouraged truly once I left university and got on new entrepreneurs foundation (NEF).
I think entrepreneurial education needs to be improved which is what my other current social enterprise start up (Start up box) looks to address.
We are building an online platform to address the biggest issues in enterprise skills with 10-15 year olds.
Did you ever consider a more ‘typical’ graduate career path?
I ‘considered’ it, but I always knew I wanted to work for myself. I found NEF on the milk round when searching for jobs and knew instantly it was the perfect next step for me.
I did work for Virgin for a bit and I think it is good to get some experience in a big company, but I’m glad it wasn’t too long to get too comfortable.
Being focused on entrepreneurship I know I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with no idea what will happen in a year, month or even a week!
Are there useful skills that you learnt at Birmingham that you use day to day now?
There are a few things I've picked up that stick with me, for example on my course I recall learning about services marketing and the ways in which brands can over promise under deliver. I recall this strongly in how we do our packaging and communication and strive to under promise and over deliver. I want to make buying our socks -traditionally a mundane and dull product – a great experience. Put a lot of emphasis on the small things, and its great to see the number of returning customers.
Another big part of being at Birmingham for me was playing for the Lions American Football team! The ethos and attitude that coach Wayne Hills instilled in us to "do things better than ever done before" is an attitude I kept throughout developing Stand4. We are in a very competitive market but are always striving to do things better than have been done before, from product, concept, packaging, customer service. I am never concerned when people tell me what other brands are doing – I feel the way we are doing it is far better and the focus is on us,
How do you feel about your Great British Social Entrepreneur of the Year award?
Awkward! Although I have gone 'all in’ on such a wacky idea, we only just launched recently and it’s amazing to be recognised in such a way. I often get criticised for saying ‘we’ whenever I talk about Stand4, but I feel it very much isn’t just me involved, and thus it’s a credit to all the people who have been part of this process from our charity partners, manufacturer and even customers. This wacky idea of colourful socks changing the world might actually not be the joke a lot of people originally saw it as! We are very much only just getting starting and next year will be some very big developments – this is a great grounding!
What are the next steps for the business and for you?
Some extremely exciting product developments, from sport socks to sox-cription. We also have other product lines we are expanding into, putting attention into the B2B space, corporate gifting and organisations like universities to raise awareness, funds and change.
We also have three crowdfunding campaigns in 2016 and I am also hoping to also launch my second social enterprise Start up box – which has a purpose very close to my heart of encouraging entrepreneurship into young people.
The above article first published on birmingham.ac.uk in Dec, 2015.