Why Your Company Should Give Back, and How One Company is Saving the Gorillas Through Socks: With Gianluca De Stefano

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“When we first started thinking of creating a business, we both had one thing in common: we loved colorful socks. That’s when we asked ourselves how we could create cool, comfortable, and colorful socks for a good cause.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Gianluca De Stefano, co-founder of Gorilla Socks, a business that has been selling socks that help save endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

I grew up in a town south of Italy called Roccarainola, close to Napoli. It is a small town with about 8,000 people. I grew up wanting to be a football player (or soccer, as it’s known in the USA). That obviously didn’t go as planned. I left Roccarainola when I was 18. I was admitted at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. That is where I met the other co-founder of Gorilla Socks, Gavin Kamara. We were flatmates. I spent the first 10 years of my life climbing the corporate career ladder with some discreet success, but I have always been fascinated about the opportunity to be an entrepreneur.

After marring Marilynn, my Spanglish wife, I relocated to New York. Three things were material in the creation of Gorilla Socks. First, the Netflix documentary Virunga, which brought the precarious situation of gorillas as a result of human activity to Gavin’s and my attention. Second, the book from Blake Mycoskie called Start Something That Matters really resonated with us. Third was a bike ride with Gavin along the Hudson River. He was in New York City visiting. That is the day we decided to embark on this journey and it’s just snowballed from there.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

A couple of weeks ago I was in Atlanta visiting our partners at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, who are located at the Atlanta Zoo. My first-born Alessandro, and my wife joined me. We took the opportunity to take Alessandro—who is one-year-old—to see the gorillas, and he was struck by the loving gorillas who he calls monkeys (he obviously cannot see the difference at this stage).

Since that day, Alessandro keeps calling me monkey. He must see the similarity between gorillas and humans — plus I do have a beard!

So what does your company do?

We make bamboo socks that help save gorillas. When we first started thinking of creating a business, we both had one thing in common: we loved colorful socks. That’s when we asked ourselves how we could create cool, comfortable, and colorful socks for a good cause. This led us to use bamboo fiber, which in many ways is a superior fabric to cotton — for a start, it’s the fastest growing plant in the world and it’s a lot softer than cotton (trust me, you can feel it on
your feet). As we grow, our objective is to diversify and use other eco-friendly fabrics to increase our reach. We are committed to developing as a sustainable brand. Supporting gorillas seemed a natural choice. The work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Virunga documentary have made a lasting impact on us and we are committed to supporting these amazing animals. Moreover, gorillas love to eat bamboo!

What makes your business stand out? Can you share a story?

We feel that our business stands out not only for the quality of our underlying product, but for our commitment to help the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund with their pledge to save endangered gorillas. When their founder Dian Fossey arrived in Rwanda in 1967, there were only 240 gorillas left. In the last 50 years they have helped the population grow to around 880. That is a conservation success indeed, yet the mountain gorillas are still critically endangered. We are strongly committed to support their efforts in any way we can. Today at least 10 percent of all our profit from every single pair of socks goes to the fund.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We started Gorilla Socks back in October 2016 and have already donated to the fund on four occasions. We are aiming to donate substantially more as we expand our business. We believe that we have a sound business model that can be scaled. Our immediate objective is to help raise awareness and money for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, but in the long term we would like to be a business supporting numerous endangered species.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my business,” and why?

This was our first entrepreneurial experience. We had little or no know-how when it came to building and growing an e-commerce business. These are the five things I wish someone had told us beforehand:

  1. Understand the world of SEO. We knew little about the whole world behind SEO. We believed that we could build traffic simply through Instagram and ads. While that may be true to a certain extent, we have noticed that the majority of our traffic is organic, which increases as our ranking on Google improves.
  2. A fulfillment center may not be your best option. From the outset we started collaborating with a fulfillment centre. That was wrong for many reasons. Fulfillment centers work on volumes, and we were a small fish in a big pond on day one. Our products were being sent with delays, which affected our customer satisfaction and reputation. On our website we pledge to send socks out within 2–3 business days. Also as a startup you want to be as lean as possible while you test the viability of your product. Having a fulfillment center meant we had fixed costs even if we had no sales.
  3. Be careful where you spend advertising dollars. We paid for advertising in a renowned print magazine who contacted us. That was probably one of our worst mistakes. We got no traffic from the ad and it served no purpose from a SEO perspective. It was money down the drain.
  4. Know the importance of your shipping costs. Nail these down. Being able to provide a fast, reliable, and cost-effective way to deliver your product to the end customer is one of the building blocks for a successful e-commerce business.
  5. Know your audience! Customer targeting is something we learned later down the line. At the start we just went out and pitched our product to anyone, with little success. Today we know who our customers are, and we have been more successful in reaching them. Of course, this is a moving feast and we are continually refining the process.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

As I mentioned earlier, I have a great respect and admiration for Blake Mycoskie. Toms is the company we look up to. He was an innovator within entrepreneurship. When he started Toms, very few believed that the social enterprise model could work. Since then he has proved everyone wrong by building a strong brand and a successful business that is able to support
those in need. He is the one person I would love to have breakfast with.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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