In his headquarters space in a Brentwood office park building, Mark Cleveland sees himself in a pivotal moment.
Since founding his performance sock manufacturer Swiftwick in 2008, Cleveland said the company has grown from "less than a cottage industry," making socks to order into a budding athletic equipment player of note, one that endurance athletes love for their socks with moisture wicking and blister-reducing properties.
Not surprisingly, Cleveland praises his product like an evangelist in the pulpit. A cyclist himself, he appreciates how important — and forgotten — feet can be to athletes. But by building what he calls the “world's best” athletic compression sock, the feet don't forget his company.
"Why would I leave the sock?" he asks rhetorically.
Now, a little more than five years since initial manufacturing, Swiftwick socks are on the feet of distance runners, a high-tech sock protects hockey players from skate cuts, Adam Scott is winning the Masters wearing Swiftwick and Tony Kanaan took the Indy 500 with Swiftwick pushing the pedals.
It's easy to draw a parallel between where Swiftwick is in 2013 and where Nike was in, say, 1983, or Under Armour was in 2006. It is, in short, a niche athletic gear company that can stay focused or, instead, opt for a major marketing push and a much higher profile.
Cleveland knows the path well. He grew up in Eugene, Ore., home to Nike, attended the University of Oregon and once got business advice from Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman while installing a satellite system at his house.
Like Nike did in the 1970s, handing out free shoes and spreading the gospel by word of mouth, Cleveland started by giving away socks. It took Nike six years to record a $1 million year in revenue. Swiftwick needed two.
Eventually, Nike spread its provenance from shoes to … well, nearly all sports gear. Its iconic swoosh seemingly adorns every wearable item and playable implement known to man.
Nike's latter-day competitor — compression-wear giant Under Armour — did the same thing, growing its core business to saturation and then spreading its logo to all kinds of gear.
"You can get intoxicated with the idea to put your logo on everything," Cleveland said. "We're really focused on making the world's best sock.”
And while Cleveland admits he doesn't know what the future holds, he knows that he won't be slapping the Swiftwick logo onto everything. And he won't be expanding to include non-sock clothing items.
He may not have to as guerilla marketing — Swiftwick sends reps to legion endurance sporting events still and relies heavily on social media to get the word out — can take a product far. And the sports that make-up Swiftwick's bailiwick are filled with "gearheads." Cycling is "the most challenging environment," Cleveland says, for a sock. And runners, who rely very little on equipment, are always looking for any small advantage they can get from the gear, he adds.
So instead of entering the consciousness through aggressive use of the logo, Cleveland is content to let the users tell the story of the sock.
"We're most successful when we let the employees and the customers define our brand," he says.
And here's another key way Swiftwick 2013 isn't like Nike 1983: The golfers, drivers, runners and hockey players who don the socks truly are customers in the traditional sense of the word.
Swiftwick socks are neither gratis nor part of a sponsorship deal. Athletes wear the socks, Cleveland says, because they genuinely like them. And they tell people they like the socks not because they are getting paid to do so, but because they truly mean it.
That sounds great for generating additional sales. But there is a limitation: Socks are hard to see on television. A swoosh on a shoe shows up on camera, and Under Armour's interlocking wordmark stands out on a shirt. But a Swiftwick sock...?
To garner media attention, Swiftwick has to have some good fortune. For example, when Adam Scott won the Masters wearing Swiftwick, he lifted his leg in a celebratory kick, the cuff of his pants sneaking up just enough to make the logo visible on the Sports Illustrated cover shot. Instant free press.
And then there was the attention generated, unwittingly perhaps, courtesy of NHL performer Erik Karlsson.
In a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 13, the Ottawa Senators defenseman took a skate blade to his Achilles, resulting in a 70 percent laceration and sidelining the star for two months.
Karlsson wasn't wearing protective socks, understandable given Kevlar socks — though having existed for years — are unpopular because they are "a thermal trap," Cleveland says.
However, Swiftwick offered a protective hockey sock when Karlsson was injured. In fact, the company had been working on the sock for two years and had planned to roll them out at the beginning of the 2012-13 NHL season. But the effort was delayed by a lockout, so the company waited.
Karlsson's subsequent injury gave Swiftwick an opportunity — and notoriety. Suddenly word got out that Swiftwick offered a rocket-science-like sock and teams were basically waiting, arms outstretched, pulling them off the line as soon as they were finished being manufactured at Swiftwick's facility in Chattanooga.
Word was out — someone had taken an athletic sock far beyond what anybody had expected was possible.
"The next day [after Karlsson's injury], every player on these [NHL] teams wanted our sock," Cleveland says. "We were hand-delivering socks to teams playing the Predators [in Nashville]."
Cleveland will assess the hockey sock for anyone who asks. It's triple wrapped, with a thread that protects against cuts and a thread that protects against strikes. There's ionization that pulls moisture into the skate. It's even antibacterial.
In short, the sock can minimize a hockey skate laceration without being uncomfortable to wear.
Having interest from NHL players was Swiftwick's entry into the realm of the so-called Big Four team sports. And while the result was not the equivalent of Michael Jordan wearing Nikes, it was a big deal and presented a moment of temptation, a time when Swiftwick had to decide where its soul was.
Despite the attention from the hockey sock, Cleveland is proudest of the sock for paralympians. Normally, athletes with amputations have to stop during their events, remove their prosthesis and literally empty them of sweat to maintain the connection with the remnant limb. Swiftwick has a sock that wraps around the remnant limb, keeping it dry enough that a paralympic endurance athlete can complete an entire event without stopping to remove a prosthesis.
Cleveland is also pleased all of his socks are made in the U.S. — as noted, in Chattanooga — with a supply chain committed to environmental responsibility (the company has just rolled out a sock made of post-industrial recycled material).
Interestingly, Swiftwick has rejected “designed obsolescence,” the notion that has driven American industry for 150 years. The company’s socks don't wear out quickly. In fact, they last "three or four years" even under tough conditions.
Cleveland is quick to note his company’s socks are increasingly popular with members of the military, whose feet face very challenging environments.
Indeed, Cleveland is humbled that his company has created arguably the world's most unusual and helpful sock. He knows that Swiftwick has, in fact, decided where its soul is: Its soul is in the sole.