Meet the Cambridge grads who left Barclays to sell socks

They’re rebelling against corporate bullshit


The corporate grad dream: sacrificing the best years of your youth to make as much money as you possibly can. 

But why? You don’t have to pay off a mortgage, you don’t have a family – you don’t even have a dog to look after. What could be worse than being £40,000 a year as a spreadsheet drone with nothing to spend your money on?

Alex Miles found himself bored and frustrated after two years working at Barclays. The absurdity of corporate work was grinding him down: “The idea that you have to wear a suit and do whatever someone says if they’re above you in a hierarchy, without questioning it at all.

“I mean, it’s slightly ridiculous. Does wearing a more expensive suit make you better at your job?”

Alex linked up with his friend and fellow Cambridge grad Ini Weston, together they decided to change course. Out with the spreadsheets, in with an unlikely passion project: socks.

Alex and Ini on the Money Pit

Alex and Ini on the Money Pit

The pair have been running Quiet Rebellion for four months. In that time they’ve won funding on Money Pit (Dave’s answer to Dragon’s Den) and created a line of socks that sum up their anti-bullshit philosophy.

I spoke to Alex after he returned from a holiday across the southern states of the US, where everything was deep fried (“even the oysters”). We discussed the soul-destroying world of grad jobs in finance and the philosophy behind QR.

Why socks?

We choose socks because they epitomise the boringness of working in an office. Everyone has to wear a suit and a shirt and a tie. Everyone gets to wear a slightly different colour or cut of suit, or a different pattern on their shirt.

With socks – everyone is the same: plain black socks. Socks sum up the mindset we want to challenge – they represent the whole corporate mentality, the caricature we wanted to attack.

To make the socks interesting, we decided to personalise each pair. They’re all named after different rebels like Picasso or Garibaldi and each pair comes with a little blurb about them.

QR socks

QR socks

They’re not necessarily celebrated for their actions but more for their mentality. They’re all people who didn’t just conform to normal standards – they decided to do something different. All the patterns on the socks link back to the name of each rebel.

I was told a story about a guy who’s boss used to bollock him, really, really badly. This guy used to keep a rubber duck in his pocket and think “You can bollock me however much you want, but you have no idea that I have this rubber duck in my pocket.” And that little thing, that feeling of “I don’t care, say whatever you’re going to say” is the sort of ethos we want with our socks.

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When you’re dealing with miles of spreadsheets or getting an earful from a boss, we want people to wear our socks and feel that somehow, you can retain, in a quiet way, a fragment of your personality. You still have some control over what you’re doing, even if no one else knows it.

From Cambridge to Barclays to Quiet Rebellion

I grew up in the countryside, in the West Country. My Mum was a teacher, my Dad worked in agriculture. I studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge and graduated four years ago.

Ini also did History at Cambridge, at a different college. You go to the same lectures, have the same exams, so you all get to know each other. This was 2009, in our first year of uni. We played a lot of squash together. We both moved to London after Cambridge and kept in touch.

I worked at Barclays in wealth management, your standard graduate role, analytical stuff. After two years I left because I was frustrated with it – I was asking myself  “why am I sat here looking at spreadsheets”.  I don’t think that kind of frustration is uncommon.

Ini and I had the idea for Quiet Rebellion about a year back and we’ve been trading for four months. One day we were having a grumble about how our jobs were all about conforming and being told what to do and so on, it was all a bit tongue and cheek. What came out of it was our vision for socks.

Alex and Ini with Jason Manford

Alex and Ini with Jason Manford

Socks that have a pattern on the sole while conforming above the ankle. We came up with the name Quiet Rebellion. Once we had the germ of this idea we began to talk about it all the time. It became more real when we started putting money behind it.

Now once you’ve put a £100 behind it, albeit not a huge amount of money, you’ve still put £100 quid into it – you start taking it a little more seriously. Then you build a website and place orders and talk to manufacturers and make prototypes and each step takes you further in. I knew it was properly happening when we placed an order for 10,000 socks. It’s an incremental process.

When you’re dealing with miles of spreadsheets or getting an earful from a boss, we want people to wear our socks and feel that somehow, you can retain, in a quiet way, a fragment of your personality. You still have some control over what you’re doing, even if no one else knows it.

What to do if you’re a miserable grad

I think that if you have an idea it’s worth chasing it. I wouldn’t hold us up as a success story or anything, we’re still at a risky stage. The amount I’ve learnt just through setting up a company, about things like manufacturers and customers, accounts – it’s all been an enormously useful experience.

If you find something you enjoy more than your job, it makes sense to pursue it – it can become your job.

A lot of people find initiating, builiding an growing their own thing rewarding. You have complete control. If you fail its all on you, unlike being bossed around by an idiot and therefore doing idiotic things at a company you have no real stake in.

It might sound cliched, but you learn from your own mistakes much faster than if you’re taking the fall for someone else.

There are a lot of driven people in the city, lots of them have plans to write books, set up their own companies. There are people who are predisposed to do this stuff even if they find the corporate environment disagreeable.

That being said, people who enjoy their work don’t quit – they keep doing it. None of the people who quit finance to set up their own businesses do it because the money is better. Taking a pay cut to do something stimulating isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Follow Quiet Rebellion on Twitter: @QRsocks