Rock 'em Sock 'em: Sock It To Me founder Carrie Atkinson
You'll never see a normal pair of white tube socks described as "awesometacular," "toe-titillating" or "awesome sauce." That’s because normal socks are boring. They’re like tighty-whities for your feet--you wear them, but you don’t brag. Back in the day, someone decided that underoos didn't have to only come in white BVDs--add a little frill, some color, or even a Superman pattern and suddenly even underwear became part of your personal style. Sock It To Me (SITM) brings that concept to socks.
Instead of being relegated to the back burner of a wardrobe, SITM socks hog the spotlight with patterns ranging from ninjas to baby blue manatees--inspiring made-up adjectives from stoked customers. With a business that's erupted from a few pairs sold per weekend at the Portland, Oregon Saturday Market to a million dollar operation with its own warehouse, SITM has proven that there’s a market for sassy socks.
Like any good idea, someone had to actually make it happen. That's where founder and "El Presidente" Carrie Atkinson steps in.
Half-Korean with chest-length, coffee no-creamer hair, and a lean athletic build, Carrie's a Midwesterner without the corn-fed white bread. This Lincoln, Nebraska native put in her college time getting a marketing degree in the business administration department. One problem: no one wanted to hire her after graduation.
Post bachelor's degree party, she bailed on Lincoln and headed to Korea to spend a year teaching English, then backflipped to Portland, Oregon to try out the North¬west and move in with some college girlfriends. There was no work. The economy--especially in Oregon--had cut the brakes and driven itself off a cliff. "I was applying all over the place... with my college degree I couldn’t find a real job," Carrie says with a shrug.
Bills don't volunteer to pay themselves though, so Carrie busted out the environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, spruced up her elbow-grease résumé and started working as a housekeeper for a company called Domestica. Things weren't exactly coming up roses. It was time to figure out an escape plan before her ideas flushed away.
During her Korean gap year, Carrie had fallen in love with some kick-donkey socks with bombin’ colors. No one back in Portland seemed to have picked up on the overseas fashion trend, and Carrie had a feeling she couldn’t be the only one that liked her piggies and calves to show a little class.
The basic idea was to go to Korea, get some socks, bring them back to the States and sell them at the Saturday Market in Portland. She ran some numbers--including a $1,000 round-trip ticket--and figured she needed to come up with about ten grand to launch the biz. "I got a $10,000 loan from my mom," Carrie says.
It's not quite as simple as just steppin' on a plane, flying to Korea, and coming back with a bag of socks, though. Carrie was greener than a dollar bill at the import business and the retail clothing market, but there’s nothing that can't be solved with research and a game of 20 questions. "I got into the market by just asking a lot of questions. I had no idea how to import products. So I found an import broker in the phone book," Carrie says. "I asked her, 'How do I import product?' And she said, 'Well when you go to Korea, go to our sister company and they’ll help you get all the paperwork together.' So when I went to Korea for that first time, I met with their sister company and they helped me get all the paperwork and labeling, etc."
Carrie jetstreamed back to Portland with sample product sporting generic stars, stripes, argyles, and skull patterns. "I came back to the States on a Thursday or Friday with the socks. And the next weekend at the Saturday market here in Portland, I was out selling."
You wish it happened overnight, but that's not how the real world works. You've got to pay to play. For Carrie, that meant two long years standing in a tent in downtown Portland every Saturday. For the first year she still spent her weekdays drop-kicking dirt in other people's homes.
After the first year, "I got a couple local wholesale clients 'cause they were really easy. All I had to do was drive down the street and ask them," Carrie says. "It was very bootstrap. I started by going to little boutiques here in Portland and just knocking on their doors. I would say, 'Hey I have this sock business, would you like to buy some socks wholesale?' My first customer, I was extremely nervous talking and asking her about it, but she agreed, and a couple weeks later she called me back and placed another order. That happened with several other boutiques in Portland. Then eventually I saved up enough money to go to a big fashion trade show called Magic."
Trade shows really pulled the rabbit out of the hat. "It just exponentially started [growing] once we went to trade shows and really started getting the word out and spreading the product around," Carrie says.
In 2010, SITM had its first million in sales and this year business is in the 50% to 70% growth range, according to Carrie. SITM socks can be bought from retailers in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, and at sockittome.com. As the business grew, the Internet stepped it up.
"One of our main ways of getting new designs in is from our design-a-sock contest," says Carrie. "We just advertise it as much as we can via Twitter, Facebook, and print ads. We have our fans and customers submit designs on a little sock template. They can be graphic designers or a four-year-old who just scribbles on the paper. We get submissions in from all over. We pick the top ones that we like, and we have our Facebook fans vote and they help us narrow it down. We get a lot of design ideas I would have never thought about, like the koi fish or the giraffe." Carrie’s top-drawer pick is the bunny striped socks, but there are now about 200 other patterns to choose from.
Socks are good business, but innovation and expansion keep things fresh. SITM now has five regular employees and 10–15 sales reps around the country. Employee expansion means product expansion, too. "It’s just going to expand into different types of products. We're going to try some over-the-knee socks with different embellishments this year, with some lace, some buttons. Then we'll go into perhaps women’s undergarments," Carrie says.
It's only a matter of time until loyal customers are making up new adjectives to describe their tighty-whities.