3 reasons why Kansas City’s “Sockpreneurs” started off on the right foot
By Kathryn Jones
It’s been the general rule for centuries that a gentleman can’t go wrong with a well-cut suit. But for those who like to spice up the monotony of their 9-to-5 uniform, the options are fairly limited. Ties are the obvious choice (particularly the retro skinnies popularized by the characters on “Mad Men” and the beautiful bowties sported by Mayor Sly James), and you can add a little flare with a pocket square. But that’s pretty much it, right?
Wrong. According to Jason Grill, there is one accessory often overlooked: socks. As far as he and his fellow “sockpreneurs” at Sock 101 are concerned, a dresser drawer full of nothing but black GoldToes is better left to Grandpa. “Men who like to dress well and are looking for ways to step up their style can wear colorful socks—it’s OK,” Grill assures. “In fact, it’s very trendy right now.”
Sock 101 presented at 1 Million Cups during Kauffman Foundation’s 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Week and made a splash right out of the gate. In less than two years, the company has generated quite a bit of buzz both locally and nationally. In addition to making the rounds of the KC media circuit, it’s been featured in Forbes, Accessories, Modern Fellows and Killerstartups.com. The always fashionable Mayor James, UMB President and CEO Peter deSilva and former U.S. President and self-described “sock man” George H.W. Bush are alleged fans of the brand.
It should also be noted that Sock 101 is 100 percent self-funded. “We have investors come up to us after [1 Million Cups], but we have not taken on any outside equity investors,” Grill says. “We don’t feel the need to at this point.” So what’s the secret behind this local startup’s success? Well, there are a number of factors that come into play.
1. Sock 101 founders were already rock stars in the business community.
Grill, the visionary and “face” of the company, is an attorney, former member of the Missouri House of Representatives, owner of JGrill Media & Consulting, a political analyst for Fox 4 WDAF and host of the Entrepreneur KC radio show on KMBZ.
Dave Feyerabend is co-founder and managing member of startup incubator D&K Ventures and CEO of Renuva Back & Pain Centers. He handles company operations and logistics and co-presented the concept with Grill at 1 Million Cups.
Lea Bailes is an attorney and marketing specialist who’s worked in and/or owned businesses in the areas of law, construction real estate, consumer products, fitness, fashion healthcare and technology. He’s responsible for general marketing and legal work for Sock 101.
Kelly Yarborough built his career in wireless and is now business partners with Feyerabend for both D&K Ventures and Renuva Back & Pain Centers. He’s involved in day-to-day operations at Sock 101, including customer service and sales.
2. Sock 101’s concept, product and business model are solid.
As Grill mentioned, colorful (but not cartoonish) socks in high-quality fabrics are a growing trend among fashion-savvy professionals. They appeal to men and women of all ages but are especially popular with the Millennials currently making waves in the creative and tech realms. “If you want to buy a nice pair of colorful socks at places like J.Crew or Banana Republic, you’re going to spend $12 to $15,” Grill says. “We wanted to make socks more affordable for the 20 to 40-something young professional.” Sock 101’s maintain the same caliber of quality, he says, but are sold at a lower price point: $7.
For $9 a month or $108 annually (shipping included), customers can sign up for the Sock of the Month Club at sock101.com and have a pair delivered to their doors. “Of the Month” clubs are growing more popular by the day because consumers love receiving a “surprise” gift in the mail in the sense that they already know what it is but aren’t quite sure when it will come or what exactly it will look like. “It’s a good feeling having a sock shipped to your house every month. We want to make sure our Sock of the Month Club members feel special in that they get a new design each month before our other customers,” Grill remarks.
Sock 101 also has a corporate sock offering whereby it will custom-design 50+ socks with a company’s logo. The KC Convention Center & Visitors Association, for instance, ordered custom socks featuring its trademark blue logo. “It makes for a unique marketing gift or a giveaway for an event or a celebration item for their clients and employees,” Grill says. “We hope more businesses will make custom socks with us.”
3. The company knows how to market its brand.
Socks are a relatively simple and straightforward product to push because they’re a universal necessity. Everybody buys them. Customers want the best quality at the lowest price point, and successful companies deliver on that promise.
But quality and price aside, the companies most successful at marketing their brands are the ones that ultimately dominate the marketplace.
Lesson #1 at Sock 101 was to build a campaign on Kickstarter.com in order to raise funds and school the competition. “It really opened my eyes to how the whole crowdfunding process works; it takes a lot of dedication,” Grill says. “We included custom socks in our Kickstarter campaign, which helped us reach our fundraising goals.”
When it comes to spreading the word, “you really have to work your network hard,” he says, “whether it’s through your email list, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram. You have to continuously post content. With socks, it’s all about the photos. A lot of people share their photos, which makes marketing and social media easier for us.”
Sock 101 initially targeted male professionals in the Gen X and Y age range, playing up the idea that purchasing a pair in a particular color pattern would demonstrate pride for their alma mater or favorite sports team, and that the sock can be paired with a suit or a more casual outfit.
“Each sock tells its own story,” Grill says. But consumers decide what the story will be. The black-and-gold striped “Truman” sock, for instance, can be a tribute to Truman the Tiger if you’re a Mizzou fan. Or if you’re a KU fan, the same sock can be an homage to Harry Truman instead.
When photos of ladies wearing their boyfriends’ Sock 101s spread throughout the company’s social media network, it became apparent to the sockpreneurs that “women were stealing our socks from their boyfriends, so we might have to do a marketing campaign about that at some point,” Grill muses.