BuiltOregon

Forming a darned good business

Carrie Atkinson picks up a framed photo from her desk and gives a slight grimace before handing it over.

“Day one,” says the founder of Sock It To Me while passing along a picture of herself from a decade before, taken on her first morning of business at Portland’s venerable Saturday Market; Carrie looks a bit chilly standing under a canopy she bought from Craigslist and next to a table she lined with paper lanterns and grass skirts.

She shakes her head at the décor.

“I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea,” she says. “It was cheap.”

It didn’t matter.

That first day was on the cold side, but Carrie’s soft, stretchy socks were priced right, and she sold 27 pairs. Sales held relatively strong, and months later, the Nebraska native’s kitschy booth had moved to the wholesale market. Within a year, Carrie was plotting to quit her day job, and a decade later, she stood in front of a 25-person Sock It To Me team and celebrated the company’s 10th birthday like any 10-year-old would.

OK, maybe not any 10-year-old—but definitely the coolest one you know.

… and a llama“We had a jumpy castle and a llama,” Carrie says, sitting up straight in her desk as dance music bops along in low volume from the desktop computer speakers in her Southeast Portland office.

“And circus games,” adds Sock It To Me CEO Michelle Walker, unable to contain her smile. “Those were great.”

Indeed, they sound awesome, but Carrie’s mind is still with the llama.

“Rojo, the therapy llama,” she says with a slight look of whimsy, “wearing our socks and a top hat.”

OK, right about now you’re thinking, “I wish I had that much fun at work.”

You’d be correct. Sock It To Me’s socks are fun (tacos, ninjas, mustaches, monkeys, beer, and other magical items are common subjects). But don’t be fooled: The imaginatively designed creations are no joke to Carrie and Michelle—they’re serious business. Not that they take themselves too seriously.

Imaginatively stitched

Just ask Sock It To Me’s design team, which is within earshot of Carrie’s open office door, unpacking a box of socks sent as proofs by the company’s manufacturer to ensure artist vision has been fully brought to fruition. The group huddles, laughs, and cheers as they check out their latest creations for the first time—next fall’s line, in prototype form.

“Treats are trending—donuts with eyes, or cupcakes.” says Alicia, a senior designer. “Cats and dogs do really well for us—animals wearing sweaters, you gotta have that. And anything mythical—unicorns and narwhals.”

Alicia holds up a sock with the latter locked in an epically cartoonish battle, adorably stitched in stretchable, shin-sized glory for all to see. Her voice deepens to that of a movie trailer narrator: “Two horns, one battle.”

It’s a funky take on a fairy tale, and the type of thing Carrie in no way expected when she started Sock it to Me in 2004 with 40 pairs of Korean socks, some cheap party favors, and a secondhand table.

Big dreams afoot

After graduating college and teaching English in South Korea for a year, Carrie had moved to Portland to be close to friends. With her degree, effort, and an enterprising spirit (she’d sold lemonade and jelly beans as a kid, had a homemade-clay-necklace empire in junior high, and hawked T-shirts she printed at the 2002 World Cup), Carrie figured she’d be handed a “real job” soon after arriving.

“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” the Nebraska native says sarcastically. “You go to college and you’re automatically granted this job, right? But that’s not how it happened, especially in Portland, where there’s so many educated young people.”

Carrie spent two years applying for jobs left and right amid a tough economy. She was able to get a foothold on her finances with steady, part-time employment at a house-cleaning company for $9 an hour, but nothing close to a career came calling.

Carrie brainstormed ways to go into business for herself. Two ideas bubbled to the top, the first involving a mobile auto-cleaning service that would specialize in detailing cars while they sat in parking garages. The other was socks.

Red, green, striped, and skull

“When I was in Korea, there were all these outdoor sock vendors in the streets of Seoul, just a person standing behind a table with socks stacked on top of it,” Carrie remembers. “No packaging, no labeling; you’d just buy them, like a fruit stand—get a couple and take ‘em home.”

St Johns BridgeCarrie liked the softness of the knee-highs especially—quality she’d never seen in the States. She wasn’t an obsessive sock person by any means,(“Those exist,” Carrie assures), but whenever she saw them in the markets, she’d likely buy a pair or two. Fast-forward three years, and Carrie wondered if those same-style socks would appeal to Portlanders. After much deliberation, she bought an $800 plane ticket to Korea on a mission to find a wholesale market.

“I had nothing to lose, so it was a pretty easy decision for me,” Carrie says. “If I had the real, salaried job like I’d been looking for, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

She ran down a wholesaler and bought 10 pairs of red, green, striped and “skull,” then stayed up until 2 a.m. with her Korean family labeling each set with country of origin and fiber content so the socks could be legally sold stateside. She stuffed two suitcases full, declared the loot, paid her duties, and headed back to Portland.

“And the first weekend back,” she says, “I went to Saturday Market.”

After an encouraging first day, Carrie’s sales slowly but surely ticked up amid months of cleaning houses weekdays and tending the table weekends—where despite some slow summer months, it was clear Carrie’s socks had legs. She replenished supply through a Korean import broker who’d helped her legally tote the goods on her first trip and continued to be busy at Saturday Market, especially in comparison to her neighbors.

The wholesale enchilada

Hoping to kick her day job once and for all, Carrie walked into Naked City, a boutique on SE Portland’s proudly weird Hawthorne Blvd., hoping they’d be interested in buying Sock It To Me socks wholesale.

“I remember being really nervous,” Carrie said.

Not that she gave such a feeling enough time to show. Carrie happened to catch Naked City’s owner, Julian Recanzone, in the shop that day and asked, flat out: “Do you want to buy some socks wholesale?”

Before Carrie could give any sort of pitch, Julian answered.

“She’s like, ‘Yeah, OK,’” Carrie says with a laugh. “It was totally normal for her to buy wholesale, but not for me.”

The first few six-packs sold out in a couple weeks, and Naked City asked for more. Carrie visited other boutiques to peddle her wares, and eager to get in front of more store owners and buyers, learned from Julian that many store owners stocked their shelves through the bi-yearly MAGIC fashion marketplace and trade show in Las Vegas. With insight into where store owners wandered—and what they were looking for—Carrie visited MAGIC the first time solely to walk the show, scope the vibe, and see what kind of practical items she’d need (order forms, business cards, and the like) to make a splash. She brought along 20 designs to exhibit on her next visit, and began placing orders. Suddenly, Carrie’s Saturday Market success story had international customers.

Even the best socks need to be pulled up

Michelle knew she was in for a tough conversation before she even sat down.

She’d recently relocated to Portland from Texas to be closer to family, moving west and taking some time off after 12 years of business strategy and brand marketing with PepsiCo. Friends of friends introduced her to friends of theirs, and soon, between setting up her new home and helping her family get settled in, Michelle found her calendar dotted with lunches—networking with a side of business consultation.

“I sort of fell into this advisory role, which was natural for me,” she says. “I found it really rewarding and fun.”

One of her favorite mentees was Carrie. After being introduced and finally connecting through various entrepreneurial circles, things clicked, and Michelle and Carrie started meeting regularly for coffee, brainstorming, and idea bouncing. That is until one day, when Michelle arrived at the café with some bittersweet news: She’d been mulling a job offer, and was all set to accept. Ready to get back to full-time work, she preferred something steady over the consulting work she’d essentially picked up by accident since setting foot in Portland.

“It was corporate, a little more in line with my background,” Walker says. “I have bills and a family, and it was stable—a known entity and compensation package. I knew what I was getting into.”

One minute later, that all changed.

“She was trying to break up with me,” Carrie laughs. “I had to snatch her up.”

So Carrie asked Michelle, flat out: What if Sock It To Me could afford you?

“My mind was blown,” Michelle remembers with a laugh. “That kind of changes a lot.”

Call in special ops

A rapid-fire negotiation (Michelle was about due to accept her other offer), quick risk assessment (“I didn’t totally know where the business was going,” Michelle admitted) and lots of soul searching (“I had a heart-to-heart with my husband, and he said I clearly wanted [to work for Sock It To Me] by the way I was talking about it,” she said) later, Michelle was on board. Her acceptance was for many of the same reasons she’d been meeting with Carrie in the first place.

“I think you have something super fun going on here,” she remembers telling Carrie during what was supposed to be their last regular meeting. “And you’re going to continue to be successful.”

“Super fun” was a certainty, but success requires more. Carrie thought Michelle could help get the nine-person company aligned, polished, and more professional.

“I’ve always described her as a Navy SEAL trained in business,” Carrie says. “Special ops.”

Michelle met with each member of the team and immediately recognized Carrie’s personal story resonated with them, and that Sock It To Me’s brand values were cohesive, no matter what words folks used individually. She excitedly wrote up a short comic strip about what she thought the brand story was and what it meant, then rolled it out slowly to her new teammates.

“Everyone touched it, massaged it, blessed it,” Michelle says. “And everyone gravitated toward it pretty quickly because people were so close to what it could be.”

People first

Beyond the foundational branding work, Sock It To Me has also taken pains (however pleasurable) to make daily life around the office more fun. Like observing pie day (on 3/16—otherwise known as Pi Day), holding a competitive Halloween sock-design contest, embarking on laser tag treks, and offering Hawaiian trips for hitting sales goals (they’re footing the bill for 41 people to go this spring). Or having their customer service reps officially change their titles to “special agents” striving to bring “super-mega-awesomeness” to every phone call, email, and conversation. Or having warehouse workers fulfilling orders hand-draw doodles on every invoice. (“It’s so easy and people love tweeting and Instagramming about it,” Michelle says).

Sock It To Me HalloweenOr, perhaps most importantly, always leading off managers meetings with people-focused topics before getting to business matters.

“Hiring, team issues, birthdays, trips, weddings, baby showers—we always talk people first,” Michelle says. “Because people make the business.”

The numbers follow, and lately, they’ve been good; Sock It To Me has grown to 25+ employees, with 90% of their business wholesale and the rest direct-to-consumer via their web site or kiosks in malls during the holidays. They’ve found what they need to stay a leg up on the competition in Oregon, where, in addition to a deep pool of contract designers, Portland’s reputation as an apparel hub means there’s plenty of talent nearby to help with everything from inventory and printing to building trade show booths to modeling, fitting, and sizing.

“The whole toolkit is right here,” Carrie says. “Our socks come right in through the Port of Portland, which is handy, and there are lots of creative people here who can wear our funky socks.”

Growing beyond Oregon

Three years ago, the business took what Michelle called “a hockey stick turn” that saw high double-digit growth spurred by a focus on distribution and new markets for socks, like kid’s and men’s. Bigger accounts like New Seasons followed, and now, with an eye on the underwear market, Sock It To Me has employees set up on folding tables in conference rooms, packed into a now-cozy office adjacent to a large warehouse they’ve also outgrown.

This is probably part of the reason why, for Sock It To Me’s big birthday bash, Carrie dug into an old folder and chose to read a handful of letters to the revelers. It wasn’t fan mail she was sharing—it was rejection letters from jobs applied for 10 years before.

How else would you keep your feet on the ground? (Socked, of course.)

“It doesn’t fully absorb,” Carrie says. “It’s too big to absorb it all—you just keep working.”

For more information, visit http://www.sockittome.com/, follow Sock It To Me on Twitter, like Sock It To Me on Facebook, or follow Sock It To Me on Instagram.

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Brian Gjurgevich

Brian Gjurgevich is a writer, editor, and enthusiast from Portland. His journalism career has seen him chased by bucking broncos, getting up to speed with millionaire auto racers, and for the past four seasons, kicking it with the Portland Timbers as a footy correspondent for the Portland Mercury. He’s written for The Oregonian and Associated Press and has picked up bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Salt Lake Tribune, and many more. When he’s not in the middle of the action, Brian works as a Creative Lead for AHA!, a strategic communications agency in Vancouver, Wash., and is a founder of Intro, a brand marketing agency in Portland.