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Interview: Ed Vickers, entrepreneur, founder of Jollie Socks

15 December 2017

‘People are keen to be more than just consumers’

The idea for Jollie Socks started when I was a student in Exeter, walking past people sleeping rough, selling The Big Issue, begging on the streets, and having that moment of feeling awkward and guilty and not knowing what to do.


That moment built up, until I thought there must be something more that I could do than feeling awkward and doing nothing; so I got involved in a local project for homeless people. While I was there and getting to know people, this theme of needing socks emerged in the conversations. It seemed they were the most needed and under-donated things. Quite a few other charities were desperate for socks, too.


I’d been reading quite a lot about social enterprise, sustainable giving, and incorporating social enterprise into business. Maybe also it was a distraction from the bio-science that I was supposed to be reading, and that turned out not really to be my thing.


Jollie Socks are made in Leicester in cotton, and we’re in the middle of converting the whole production to organic. Out of the profit, we can afford to purchase a pair of hiking socks and give them to our customers’ local homeless charity. We give to lots of different projects, which you can see on our website.


Yes, it pays the bills, because the idea was to create a sustainable business to deliver social impact. It’s my full-time focus. Making the numbers work — that’s the tricky part.


Jollie Socks come in various weights of yarn. There’s a pair for everyone, whatever their taste, but we try to make them bright, because that’s the tone we want to talk about homelessness in.


We’re trying to celebrate the good things that are going on in this area rather than centre on guilt and hopelessness. We think we’ll have better luck seeing issue-change through that tone.


We’re absolutely not alone in this. There’s some really cool work going on. There are so many other businesses, like Old Spike Roastery Coffee; The Giving Keys, who sell jewellery; and Toms Shoes, who really pioneered the buy-one-give-one model, and were a real inspiration to me. But, of course, there’s never enough of this kind of business to meet the needs.


I think people, whether celebrities or not, are keen to be more than just consumers, and are attracted to the idea of giving back and having something fun to show for it. That’s why we’ve had such success.


Charity work in general isn’t dull or guilt-inducing, but I think there’s a really exciting opportunity to engage with issues around homelessness with a slightly different tone. There’s much to celebrate, and many incredible charities doing great things. Jollie’s believes people are more likely to be motivated to do something by positivity and hope.


I’m really blessed not to have been personally affected by homelessness, but I’m close to some who have. I don’t feel I can tell their stories to you, but in the homelessness shelters I got to know a lot of people who were there for very many different reasons.


There are certainly a few other social enterprise ideas I’d love to run with, but I’ve got my hands full at the moment, and feel like I’m doing what I should be just now.


I do pray, and most I pray for focus: praying to stay accountable, having good people around me, talking with my wife a lot about work- and life-balance. I have to make hard calls around priorities. Start-up business is all about choosing how to spend your energy and efforts to get the best chance of success. Everyone’s always asking what the next product is, but I’m trying to do this niche marketing of socks really well.


I was raised in an amazing Christian home. We moved a lot, as Dad was in the army. So I suppose my first experience of God and faith came from looking at my folks, and being involved in numerous local churches of varying flavours and learning from the people there. I’d say I really encountered God in my late teens, and started getting a grasp of the cross.


I have a strong sense of God’s grace being a little too good to be true — which, I now know, is a good place to start experiencing the Christian faith. My faith has had its ups and downs, like any relationship, but I like to think I have a good friendship with God now.


I went to Monkton Combe School, a boarding school in Bath, because my family moved about so much, and now I’m married to Abby, who I met at school when I was nine. We live in Battersea in London, and we go to Holy Trinity, Brompton, and we’re involved in the Alpha course.


My family are big on Christmas. Seeing family is the best part of it all for me, and having a deserved rest, because, like a lot of businesses, we’re absolutely crazy getting socks out to everyone by Christmas.


We’ve got this great coffee machine in the office. I love the sound it makes when the fresh coffee is ready.


My parents and friends and Abby have had the greatest influence on my life and my faith.


When I’m not working, I love running. I run in Battersea Park all the time. I’ve even signed myself up for the Brighton marathon next year. I’m doing it just for the fun of it. Yes, I’m already training: I try to do three 10K runs a week. Yes, I often pray while I’m running.


What makes me angry? Injustice, and the England rugby team being beaten by the Welsh. The two are linked.


I’m happiest when I’m spending time with loved ones.


The social-enterprise movement gives me a lot of hope. This is a model of business that works off the principle of having two bottom lines: they aim to make a profit, but also aim to have social impact or contribute to social value. The idea is to use business as a tool to bring about change and social restoration. I’ve seen this really take off in the past five or ten years, going way beyond the old box-ticking corporate-social-responsibility exercise. There are loads of really cool examples: clearly, there’s lots going wrong in society, but social enterprise is a really good solution to it.


If I was locked in a church with any companion of my choice, it would be with Roger Federer. There’s so many reasons why he could retire from tennis now, but he just plays for the love of the game, and I find that very inspiring.


Ed Vickers was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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