Bold Socks filled a niche for colorful footwear while also filling a need for water for people in Africa. Courtesy Bold Endeavors
A company focused on making a difference was started by a friendly contest of who could wear the craziest socks.
The competition started between three then-employees of Gordon Food Service — Ryan Preisner, Dan Manshaem and Adam Whitmore —and before long, it spurred a new company: Bold Socks.
“I haven’t always been a socks guy; I used to wear some pretty boring socks,”Preisner said. “It was something different for us (to do).”
The contest didn’t last too long because they discovered not many stores or websites carried statement-making socks. So the group, who had tried entrepreneurial endeavors in the past, decided to start a website selling bold-colored socks. They put about 15 different styles of socks, bought from a wholesaler, on a “not all that great”website as a test.
The first year, they sold about $3,000 worth of socks.
“Year one was pretty pathetic,”Preisner said, adding that Manshaem was the one who pushed the group to do better. “Year two, we decided we wanted to push it and decided to improve the site and increase the inventory and advertising.”
The next year, Bold Socks did more than $180,000 in sales and then $540,000 last year. This year, the company is on pace for $750,000, but a recently added wholesale branch has the partners hoping to break $1 million. The parent company is now called Bold Endeavors.
“It went from a silly idea to, ‘Wow, we have a legitimate business here,’”Preisner said.
Bold Socks started by distributing other companies’ socks, which was the business model the founders knew through GFS. But they also saw that private labels can do very well, so this year, Bold Socks launched two labels of its own.
It took the three owners some time to find the right manufacturer for their private-label socks. They spent some time working with a broker who did business with a South Korean manufacturer. But tests revealed that with the South Korean socks, threads were popping regularly. They were putting their name on the product, so they wanted a sock that could stand up to wear and tear.
“We wasted some time and money,”he said. “But we learned some things. You’re under the gun as a small business to turn things out as fast as possible. If you sit on a capital investment for a long time, you’re in a situation where your credit is building up and you have to get it paid for.”
Preisner said he had always appreciated Turkish socks, which he believed to be of the best quality. They tried Turkish socks next and the difference in quality was readily apparent.
The basic Bold Socks label is comprised of solid color socks. They’re the company’s No. 1 seller, making a statement without drawing too much attention, Preisner said. He spent a lot of time figuring out the right colors, he said. A big portion of the men’s colored-sock market is for weddings, so Preisner went to David’s Bridal to match the sock colors to color swatches of wedding attire.
The second private label, Statement Sockwear, accomplishes two goals, Preisner said.
First, it allows young professionals to wear socks that help them stand out in a world of suits and ties. Preisner said the company has three main markets: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but he said the socks have also shipped to the plains of Iowa — and to Google, Twitter and Facebook headquarters.
“Our niche is the young professional who wants to make a statement,”said Ryan Roff, who recently came on board to help his friends with creative tasks. “He has to wear the same thing every day but wants to have something that is flashier than the suit he wears.”
The second goal for Statement Sockwear is to help a clean water organization the three business partners were involved with through attending Mars Hill Church. They spent time volunteering on a water-filter assembly line, making filters to send to Africa, but money was needed to ship the filters.
“That’s the area we thought socks could help,”Roff said. “We can build (filters) all day, but they need money, so we wanted to be a part of that effort.”
Now, through the charitable nonprofit 20 Liters, for each pair of socks sold, the company contributes enough money to supply one person in Africa with 100 days of clean water.
Preisner said contributing to a source for clean water is more helpful than just sending money across the ocean.
“It’s a sustainable model,”he said. “There’s a lot of talk about money just getting dumped into Africa and that does more harm than good. But when you have people dying because they don’t have access to clean water, providing a solution like this helps build their economy.”
The Statement socks are priced competitively — about $12 a pair — when compared to other fancy socks on the market. Preisner said he’s seen companies price themselves out of the market while trying to do good in the world, but Statement Sockwear takes the money right out of the profit margins.
“We feel (our) mission is to do something more with the opportunity we have, and we found ourselves lucky enough to be able to do that in business at an exciting time for socks.”
Roff said using retail purchases to make a difference — a model used by the shoe company Toms, which matches a pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair sold — is a generational mindset.
“I look at our generation as all of a sudden saying, ‘We can make a difference with our purchases as much as we can with our time,’”Roff said. “We have resources: our time and money. How do you spend your time and spend your money in a way that actually has meaning in life? That’s how we’re trying to influence the market.”
The socks also provide an easy, word-of-mouth marketing opportunity for both the company and the nonprofit.
“At work, as soon as someone makes a comment after seeing the socks under the cube, you can say there’s a story behind these,”Roff said. “Now they’re talking about how their socks make a difference.”