Ever wondered what those dots are peeking above the boots of Premier League footballers? They’re TruSox, a sock designed to eradicate slipping that has become the most significant breakthrough in sportswear technology in decades.
It’s a billion dollar idea, conceived and created by former American soccer player Jim Cherneski from a small garage in Baltimore, and it’s revolutionising the game as well as seriously irking some very powerful companies along the way. Here, for the first time, the man behind this extraordinary tale tells his story in full. “This is Watergate, man…”
How did you come up with the original idea for the sock?
I first had the idea around 2000. I was playing in the USSF pro league and I hated movement in my shoe. I even wore them two sizes too small. I’m a Christian guy and I think God put it in my mind that it was the socks.
Around 2007 I was coaching Crystal Palace Baltimore and played myself in the last game of the season. The movement in my shoe was driving me crazy and by now it was all I was thinking about.
So I did some research into yarns that were non-slip. I simply Googled ‘rubber yarns’ and ordered in this cone. I took it with me to a sock mill in Fort Payne, Alabama and asked ‘Can you put this fabric into a sock?’ They knit it up and it was tacky. I went out behind his facility to a grassy patch and I’m running back and forth and cutting and I stayed down there for multiple days doing that. The mill’s owner, meanwhile, is thinking I’m nuts.
Was the early prototype a success?
In the off-season training I gave it to the guys and they would say ‘You’re onto something here’ but this was hardly a Harvard business model. At this point I wanted to solve the problem for me.
After thirty minutes of play the sock was worse than the others. As they got wet with perspiration they got more slippery so I had to find something that worked in both wet and dry conditions. I continued my research with trial and error and it got a bit wacky. My son remembers me melting stuff on my front porch because I didn’t want the fumes in the house.
By the end I felt like I had a degree in material science or something. We got to the point where I was working with a scientist who’d been doing this stuff for thirty years and he said ‘You’re not going to find this. Gillette have paid us $3 billion to find what you’re looking for’. That was a low.
I still filed for a patent, for any non-slip yarn that you put on the inside or outside of the sock, because the one that I had did work I just needed the material that worked in wet conditions. I believed that everyone would want this product.
It sounds like one hell of a learning curve. How did you finance the idea in those early days?
In January 2010 Crystal Palace went into administration and I got a call saying they were cutting any extras out because they were like a day away from no longer existing. So they stopped funding the US project. We kept playing until October because the US soccer federation stepped in but only the players got paid. Management got nothing so by the end of the season I was in bad shape. We literally didn’t know where money was going to come from to pay for food.
Meanwhile our patent had been allowed and I needed $5000 for it but I couldn’t make our mortgage. I went to see two of the club’s accountants to do my taxes and they asked what I’d been living off. I said savings and credit cards but we were at the end of our rope. I had no assets, no equity in my home, and a car with 250,000 miles on it. But I did have this patent. They were amazed at how quickly it had been granted and called me two weeks later to say both were interested in investing.
So you now had the means to pursue your dream?
To an extent but it was tough. For the next year I worked on the product every day and regularly met the players from Crystal Palace who were trying to get a new club and stay fit. We’d go out and hold training sessions and test whatever I made in my house.
We even tried hospital socks until, in October 2011, we had a formula that worked and is close to the product we have now. We’d wear it every day in training and it worked. It was like a miracle breakthrough. So we created a company in Maryland.
This was around the same time we’d given a pair to Victor Moses (pictured below, wearing TruSox). Victor text back saying ‘I love these. Get me more’.
How did you get players to start wearing TruSox?
I knew I had to get them to more players so then I’d get them in the stores. In America if you want something on a soccer kid you get it on a Premier League player. It validates it. So Victor was wearing the socks and I’d go into stores and say ‘Look, you need to stock 12 of these’ but the rectangles were only visible just above the boot and they didn’t believe me. So I made sure they now went up the sock.
In January 2012 I made a trip to England because I had a lot of contacts in the game. The kit man at Newcastle recommended the kit man at Tottenham so I went down to meet him. I was just constantly driving up and down the M1.
That weekend Newcastle are playing Tottenham and I’m staying in a hotel in Croydon. Adebayor is wearing them and a number of other players. I’m this far (Jim walks to within an inch of a nearby television) from the screen.
(At this point Jim warns me to be careful about naming names.)
People lose their jobs over this. This is Watergate, man. Under Armour found this too when they were getting big. The tactics are unbelievable.
It must have felt surreal seeing your product worn by household names?
Suddenly the shops wanted to buy them off the back of that game. For the first time ever we started making sales.
In 2012 we did 70,000 sales off the back of me hustling with the players and hustling with the sales calls. Maybe we had under 5% of the (Premier League) players wearing them. In 2013, we were getting up to 10% of the league wearing Trusox but the sportswear giants were still not really aware of us because this was all happening in the inner sanctum of the dressing rooms. That year we did 500,000 sales.
But we were still losing money – $250,000 in the hole – and the initial investors had now put in half a million dollars. From their $40,000 it had now grown to that and they were understandably ‘out’. Our patents meanwhile were racking up. Remember that $5000? Now times that by 52.
So we needed another investor and Bill Plank came to the table. Bill is the brother of Kevin Plank, who founded Under Armour, and he came in and said ‘I want in. How much?’ I pulled the figure of $1.5m out of the air. The original investors got all their money back and retained 15% of the business.
That summer in 2014 we had roughly a hundred players at the World Cup wearing the products and did $1.8m in sales. We believed in the product so much all we thought was ‘Why isn’t everyone wearing them?’
By now I’m guessing those sportswear giants had become aware of you?
After the World Cup we’re flying. (I go to a Premier League match) and the kit man arranges to meet me for more socks. I walk in and get introduced to the kit guys. The younger guy says ‘They fined me a week’s wages because of you’. For letting their players wear TruSox they were fined a week’s wages. We were then told by them that a sportswear giant was buying us out. Well that was news to me!
Elsewhere other kit men were suddenly not returning our calls.
Was the pressure solely on the backroom staff or were players advised not to wear TruSox?
I met Gareth Bale because he loved the socks but he wasn’t wearing them. I asked him why not and he said it was awkward because of his sponsorship deal. I said ‘For me it’s more important to play well than anything else’. I mean (Luis) Suarez (the only paid ambassador for TruSox) has become the greatest striker in the world while wearing these. And look at Jamie Vardy.
It was literally 30 seconds of conversation. Fast forward to the next pre-season and Tottenham are in America and he scores in every game. He then goes on to have his breakout year. Every game he’s on fire and now he’s wearing them really visibly. Then the Daily Mail printed an article about his ‘secret weapon’. That was massive for us.
Later we meet up with Gareth in Wales and he says like a happy kid ‘Hey, have you seen my foot on the pause button on FIFA?’ And sure enough TruSox is there on FIFA because they want everything to be authentic. You will not find them there anymore though.
I then discover the lengths (a rival company) had gone to try and ensure he didn’t wear the socks. They had (told people) ‘If you wash these things you will lose your job’, so Gareth Bale had to take the socks home each night and wash them himself.
We later noticed that seemingly overnight three Bayern Munich players had stopped wearing them. I visited Arjen Robben’s house and he said ‘Jim, what they’re going to do now is cut the top off your sock and sew it to the (other) sock’.
Their strategy is to (issue) the players with warnings and a final warning, then fine the players and finally to teach them how to wear the sock so it’s not showing. They are basically creating a new product. Yet if you ask them they say ‘No, the players are doing this by themselves’. Can you imagine Arjen Robben in his house sewing these socks?
Are there safety benefits to wearing TruSox?
These socks benefit the players and we’ve had orthopaedic doctors saying the players are safer. They prevent injuries. If you’re an amateur player you’re allowed to wear them and be safer but not if you’re a professional. That’s like the NFL saying no to a helmet that’s been proven to stop concussions because they’re not being paid millions of dollars.
What other tactics have rival companies employed?
Another sportswear giant has brought out their own sock that boasts technology similar to our own. It is supposed to grip on the inside and out so I got in touch with my patent attorney and he said ‘On the face of it they owe you millions right now’. We have got a patent infringement document drawn up and from that we can serve a cease and desist letter. Then we file a case in federal court and depose the CEO to determine that he approved this.
The media has to expose this. Because they basically say to you ‘Go ahead and sue us because we’ll outlast you in court all day’.
You’re now expanding into other areas of sports apparel including boots – tell us about TruAthletic…
We have a patent for an insole that locks into the shoe and the sock that has our technology – the external and internal non-slip material. From April of this year the best baseball player in the world – Miguel Cabrera – was wearing TruAthletic shoes in major league baseball and we’re going to have multiple players in the Premier League next year wearing TruAthletic boots.
I’m just so thankful and believe it’s a God story which is what I told (one sportswear giant). They offered $40m this summer for the company but they just wanted to acquire the intellectual property. I said I was thinking of a number closer to $500m.