Socks with Soul

Mitscoots is a sock company with a funny name and a serious goal.

Mitscoots in Zilker

In a quiet West Austin office park lies a room filled with socks. Lime green and gray size large cotton argyle socks, to be precise. More than 200 pairs sit heaped high on a card table where four people are working amid the controlled clutter of laptops and coffee cups. It’s a typical morning at Mitscoots, a year-old startup with a very specific mission: to give homeless people clean socks and employ them in the process.

Tim Scott, BA, BS ’09, MS ’11, who started Mitscoots last August with his wife, Agata Scott, BS ’08, uses an X-acto knife to flick apart a chain of several hundred clear plastic staples, the kind that tether price tags to clothing. Scott passes the tags to his employee, a homeless man named Ellis. Ellis grabs a pair of socks, folds a cardboard label over them, and uses a tag gun to fasten the whole package together. Then he moves on to the next pair. In two hours, he’ll finish all 200. Meanwhile, Tim is answering emails, Agata is getting ready to leave for her job as a physical therapist, and Alex Grunstein, MA ’12, is manning the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Overall, the mood in the room is casual, almost jovial—with everyone sharing breakfast tacos and jokes.

“We have a lot of fun,” Tim says, “and we’re really good at giving away socks. We’re not quite as good at making a profit.”

Working with MichaelUtaIt all started when Tim and Agata were UT students volunteering with Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit that aids Austin’s homeless. “After food and water, the number-one request was for new socks,” Tim says. “TOMS Shoes was starting to get really big at the time, and we thought, ‘I bet you could do that with socks.’”

TOMS is the best-known example of the rapidly growing buy-one, give-one business model: buy a product, like a pair of shoes or socks, and an identical item will be donated to someone in need. By choosing this model, Mitscoots joined the growing social entrepreneurship trend—for-profit businesses with non-profit philanthropic goals.

Former UT LBJ School of Public Affairs professor Suzi Sosa says we’re only in the early stages of what could be a major cultural shift. “I think this is still in the taking-off phase,” Sosa says. “Consumers, especially Millenials, are increasingly demanding that businesses be accountable. People are more willing to spend a dollar or two more if they know they’re choosing a company that shares their values.”

Tim and Agata put their idea on hold while they finished their UT coursework and started full-time jobs, Tim in advertising and Agata as a pediatric physical therapist. In their spare time, they kept volunteering, often buying socks on their own and handing them out them to the homeless from their car windows. And last summer, Tim decided to take the leap and start Mitscoots.

“I had a good job in advertising, but it didn’t feed the soul,” he says. “My one regret is that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did. I felt like I wasn’t ready, but no one is ever really ready to start their own business.”

An IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign last August raised just under $6,000 in one month. That’s pennies in the world of seed funding, but it was enough for an initial order of 3,000 socks—once Tim and Agata put in a significant chunk of their own savings. Tim named the company after his dyslexic childhood misspelling of his own name—Tim Scott became Mitscoots. “I like the idea of turning a weakness into a strength,” he says. “So that’s what the name is about.”

A textiles manufacturer in North Carolina signed on to produce the socks and ship them to Austin. Word spread quickly on Facebook, Mitscoots’ biggest source of sales. And when the holiday buying season hit in December, business took off. Now Mitscoots has given away more than 2,000 pairs of socks to homeless people in Austin, with plans in the works for other cities. They haven’t made a profit yet—the Scotts are living off Agata’s salary while Tim works on the company full-time—but Tim is just fine with that.

Working with Robert“Every business decision that I make is with the best interest of the people we serve in mind,” he says. “We could get the socks made in China for much, much cheaper. We could have them packaged in a factory for much less, much faster than our employees do it by hand. But then we wouldn’t be creating jobs. We wouldn’t be true to our values.”

TOMS and other one-for-one businesses have been criticized for not fundamentally resolving the social ills they address. After all, merely giving shoes or socks to the needy—while admirable—doesn’t lift anyone out of poverty. That’s why Mitscoots hires homeless employees and pays them a living wage to package socks. “To get a job, you need an address, you need a reference from a past employer, you need experience,” Tim says. “Hopefully our employees can work toward those things. It’s also about not having an us-and-them mentality. We’re all people and we all wear socks. It’s not ‘us’ helping ‘them.’ It’s everybody working together.”

At UT, Tim studied sociology, public relations, and advertising. He says the most important lesson from his classes was to focus on finding the right idea and sticking with it. “Everyone thinks it’s about getting people to like your business idea,” he says. “Well, it’s not. It’s about coming up with a likeable idea in the first place, and then telling your story in an honest way. Everything I’ve done has stemmed from that, and so far, so good.”

From top, Agata Scott, center, and friends Jess Decelle, left, MA ’11, and Emily Sander, ’08, right, model Mitscoots signature argyle socks; From left, Agata and Tim Scott with two employees at a Mitscoots workday; Agata, left and Tim Scott, right, with a former employee, Robert.

Photos courtesy Miscoots.


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