“Wear a pair, share a pair” is the slogan for the incredible sock brand Jollie’s that works with local shelters in the community to support homeless people and provide them with socks. The Jollie’s journey began with Ed Vickers when he was just a student, and they are now stocked in some of the biggest stores such as Fortnum and Masons and John Lewis!
We had the chance to chat to Ed to find out more about his inspiring story.
Homelessness is something we all see quite regularly which can often make us a bit numb to the issue, so what was it that made you decide to do something about it?
I’ve moved around a lot because my dad’s in the army so I’ve lived in small villages and big cities! In bigger cities people sleeping rough is just part of the scenery, sadly. It’s something we’ve all got a bit too used to, and it’s not as shocking.
You don’t know whether to give money or buy food – or if it’s helpful or empowering but it’s something you want to do nonetheless. It’s something I always found confusing and I didn’t know what my role was. I bought the big issue and stuff but the question still remained what my role was when walking past these people but when I was at uni in Exeter my route through town was the same every day so I’d see the same person every day, have the same conversation and then walk on.
I thought well, maybe this is just what I do then for 3 years and nothing changes. But that was the moment I got more interested in the area [of homelessness] and wanted to learn some more.
So how did socks become your way of making a difference?
I went to a homeless shelter in Exeter just because I wanted to learn more about this area and had no idea what the needs were that people had. There were a few chaps every Saturday at the shelter who were asking for socks. I was kind of baffled as to why. But they just didn’t have access to fresh pairs of clean socks. They’d be on their feet all day and get through socks like nothing else and so they kept asking and asking for socks.
So I started buying and giving socks. But my student loan was only so much, so I was trying to think of a sustainable way to be able to get socks on feet.
It was more than just these guys though. I did a load of ringing around and apparently socks are one of the most needed but under-donated items of clothing to homeless shelters, which kinda makes sense because you and I would feel comfortable giving our big woolly jumpers away but possibly don’t think about sending over our old smelly socks.
That’s very true, I don’t think I have ever donated socks in my life! How did you go from buying and giving socks to creating the Jollie’s brand?
I wanted to try and create a solution for 2 needs in an easy bite-size way. The first need being socks, and the other need was that there are a small amount of fun practical opportunities for people to do something to help this issue. There are many 1 for 1 models out there – you probably know Tom’s. They’ve done it with shoes. But I wanted to take that concept one step further and localise the giving. So you buy a pair of socks from us in Exeter and we give to a charity in Exeter and then use that experience as a way to introduce people to local projects.
Right at the beginning I had some time at uni, some risk free space where I could test out the idea. It really started as a fun project and to see if there was any concept in this, could I create a product that I could sell and make a margin on and with that margin buy another pair and distribute those to a charity? I had no business plan, and no real understanding of how it works I just thought let me take the first step and quickly learn if it works or not.
Wow, I bet you had no idea back then how big Jollie’s would be now! What were you actually studying at uni?
Good question – sometimes I forget! I studied bio-sciences, can you believe it!?
Haha, a bit of a different avenue you chose then! What was your original plan?
Oh gosh I didn’t have one!! I think at that stage of life I thought my A-Levels defined my life. I did biology at A-Level, I thought I’d like to go to university so surely I have to study biology. I think I had my blinkers on at that point, but going to uni was an incredible time of realising I can actually do anything I want! What am I passionate about? What do I actually want to spend my time doing after this for work? So that was a really eye-opening experience.
Although this wasn’t always the plan, Jollie’s is doing so well and is now stocked in some of the biggest stores including Fortnum and Masons and John Lewis! Was it difficult to get the product in to these types of stores?
Do you know what, it’s been such a weird game! I entered a national competition and managed to get right down to the pitching stage. John Lewis then chose one person to stock, and they chose me and some socks! We actually signed at John Lewis in my second year at uni – and we were in 25 of their stores by the time I left uni.
But still no business plan written, just a gulp and yep sure we’ll fulfil those orders! My mum dad and I were there trying to pack up socks over Christmas time at the dinner table.
It was difficult to get in to some stores but for John Lewis there have been crazy little opportunities that came along and I think really it was our story and the giving nature of our product that set us apart from other sock brands.
It all seems to have been pretty smooth sailing! What has your biggest challenge been?
The business model! There’s a distinct difference between a fun project and something that is still really worth your time and worth doing, it’s just there’s no business model in it. I think 4 years on I’m still working it out – where is this business going to flourish and grow? How are we going to develop as a brand and product? And the financial plan behind it as well. They are all things I’ve had to learn from the ground up and make mistakes and all the rest. So my greatest challenge has been working that out!
Going back to some of the work you’ve done in homeless shelters, were you ever surprised at the kind of people you met there?
Yeah! I think the one thing that’s been beaten out of me over this time and the more I learn about it – is the throwing away of the word ‘homeless people’. It doesn’t mean anything. They are just people, in particular circumstances that you and I could easily be in next week if certain things happened!
I met people in the army, people that were doctors, people who had been to uni, all sorts of ages, people who had travelled the world. Everyone’s story is different. I find it really encouraging to meet all of these people who have had far more life experience than me, and are more capable than I am in many areas of life! So yeah it’s very humbling and educational.
And as well as providing socks, Jollie’s is now providing work opportunities for people transitioning out of homelessness. How does this work?
This is something that we have just launched, which is exciting! All of Jollie’s packaging, storage and warehousing was done at the start with me in my room in Exeter, and then it got to the scale of needing to out-source it so it was down in this warehouse in Cornwall. But we want to bring that process back in house and try to create apprenticeships and work opportunities for people on that journey or vulnerable to homelessness or if there’s some barrier to employment that means they need to come and join us for 3 months, get a confidence boost, and be a part of our packaging and fulfilment process.
So we’ve got our first person who has just joined us from one of our local shelters and she’s doing a great job packing sock order and being a part of our team. The concept is going to be called Jollie’s Fulfilment House, and the idea is fulfilling our orders, and fulfilling potential as well.
It’s really exciting and could be a really meaningful step forward in terms of our business model and how we do things.
That sounds like such an exciting step, and it’s great to see how impactful the Jollie’s journey has been so far. Finally, do you have any advice for anyone interested in starting their own not-for-profit organisation?
Yeah I think just learn more, get reading, get understanding, and then you’ll be able to know more abut specific problems that you may be able to think of a solution to. Don’t try and create a solution and then look for a problem. Learn lots about the area that you’re interested in and then go for it! Give it a try!
Thank you Ed for inspiring us with the Jollie’s story so far! We are so excited to share that this week Jollie’s have launched their brand new Sockscription, check it out here. And be sure to keep up with all the latest from Jollie’s over on Instagram!