Legendary skateboarder Steve Caballero and Merge4 founder Cindi Busenhart
Cindi Busenhart of MERGE4, a Santa Cruz-based sock company that is pushing the envelope in the apparel industry in at least two ways, refers to her team of collaborators—which includes rock stars, legendary skateboarders and other bona-fide action sports heroes—as a “family.” While that is common in business circles, in this case it is truer: Busenhart has known many of these folks for decades.
As the former president and co-owner of the first-to-market snowboard brand Sessions, Busenhart has been immersed in boarder/skater culture for decades. The fact that Santa Cruz hosts a large cluster of companies serving the action-sports market—O’Neil, Santa Cruz Bicycles, NHS (Santa Cruz Skateboards, Independent Trucks), etc.—made it almost inevitable that a tribe would form around Merge4 and its product.
“We are definitely a community,” Busenhart says, “and after that it’s basically Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
One of MERGE4’s innovations is that it forms actual partnerships with the celebrities who affiliate with the company. “Each of our collaborators is involved on a royalty level,” Busenhart says. “So they’re more apt to help support their models.“
The collaborators include a bunch of locals who are world-famous in the scene, including champion surfer Sean “Barney“ Baron, surf photographer Dave “Nelly“ Nelson, skateboard artist Jimbo Phillips, and Santa Cruz Syndicate mountain biker Greg Minnaar. MERGE4 also gets help from over the hill, including from Steve Caballero, the charismatic San Jose-born skateboarder and punk rocker whom Thrasher magazine dubbed the “Skater of the Century” in 1999.
Busenhart did not have to go outside her circle of friends and family to get her project funded. After having an epiphany when her her son blew out a pair of sneakers and socks while skateboarding at Lake Tahoe, she put together a business plan and showed it to Richard Novak, founder of Santa Cruz Skateboards, and Rob Roskopp, founder of Santa Cruz Bicycles. It was all green lights from there.
Busenhart says all of her “family”-members are enthusiastic about the fact that MERGE4 is a B Corp— a designation indicating that it exists for the public good. “They like the fact that our focus is on doing business for good, and the fact that we like to give back to the community, and we make sure that we're as environmental friendly as possible.”
High-Tech Socks? Well…yes!
The other innovation that MERGE4 brings to market is technological. Busenhart, with her vast experience in the action sports industry, had an insight that the innovations that she witnessed evolving elsewhere in the industry could be applied to footwear.
“My interest in socks in particular was that it's an underdeveloped category. And if you took some of the technical features of advanced outerwear, and put those into socks, you can make socks more performance-based.
And so the toe of each sock is hand-linked, a slow and skill-demanding process that eliminates potential blister points; there's arch support, thanks to MERGE4's trademark "Cult-Weave" technology; there's a bit of compression, which many athletes now favor. "There's all kinds of little nuances, if you will, that make the sock what it is,” Busenhart says. “And—we've managed to figure out what the exact weave is that when take a beautiful sock, with a beautiful graphic, it doesn't blow out when it stretches.”
And the socks look spectacular. Thanks to the technology, Merge4 is able to weave actual photographs into their footwear. The Jay Moriarty sock depicts an iconic Bob Barbour shot of the beloved Santa Cruz surfer, now sadly deceased, dropping in on a 35-foot monster at Mavericks in 1994, when he was 14 years old. On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, a Jimbo Phillips pair depicts an exploding cartoon-head on the left sock and the head’s exploded eyeballs on the right. It’s really quite impressive!
Santa Cruz really does work
Recently, Cindi Busenhart’s family has grown a little bigger. A few months back, Santa Cruz Works director Doug Erickson invited her to give a little talk at a Santa Cruz Works New Tech event. There, she met world-champion evangelist Guy Kawasaki, who was delivering the keynote address, and they became friends.
“It’s been so awesome getting to know Guy, and it’s been so helpful having him as a mentor,“ Busenhart says. “And he sent my socks to Jane Goodall! and Richard Branson! They’re two of my heroes! This whole thing has just been awesome.”
MERGE4 socks are available at a number of fine retail establishments throughout Santa Cruz County. There is a Merge4 store at Valley Fair Mall on Stevens Creek Boulevard in San Jose. And you can find all of their socks, and some really good stories, at merge4.com