Success That’ll Knock Your Socks Off

Katherine Malueg–  “Reserved for the Boss” reads an 8 ½ by 11 sign picturing Americana rocker and working-class hero Bruce Springsteen jammin’ on his guitar, posted outside above a parking spot at Sock It to Me headquarters in southeast Portland. It’s for none other than the super hip sock company’s founder and “El Presidente,” Carrie Atkinson.

Through the front glass door, this bustling office has 17 employees on site: a CEO, sales manager, accountant, graphic designers, warehousemen, and customer service team members, as well as several playful dogs milling about, lightening the mood. Upstairs is Atkinson’s office, small, but she has everything she needs: a desk, computer, and storage. There is an inventive wall of new upcoming designs, which are TOP SECRET. Downstairs is where customer service answers calls and greets guests and delivery drivers, and where a lot of the magic happens, in the warehouse. Happy, upbeat 80s doo-wop music like Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” plays throughout, warming the gigantic, cold, concrete-floored space. Shelves are piled high to the ceiling with a myriad of boxes each filled with 150 socks: 25 6-packs, all organized and neatly labeled. Four workers hit the aisles, pulling items for orders to be picked up and shipped out via FedEx’s daily pickup and delivery. Along another wall are bins filled with individual sample socks in containers organized by style and design. Lighting up one end of the room, a local artist created a large accent wall by airbrushing an eye-popping, psychedelic mural of a sock puppet with red-button eyes floating in the sea.

       Striking, yet unassuming in her simple blue jeans, green t-shirt, and black sweater, make no mistake: this petite, half-Korean cool girl with a wide smile and friendly dimples is a savvy businesswoman. Her entrepreneurial spirit began at a young age: “As a kid I always had little businesses — jelly bean stands, lemonade stands.” After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in marketing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the business graduate spent a year teaching English in Korea before moving in with some college girlfriends in Portland, Oregon. Atkinson was full of optimism to land a marketing job, but the reality of a tough job market set in when she could not find work in her field; she instead found herself working as a housecleaner for Domestica, a woman-owned, environmentally responsible cleaning company. Feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, Atkinson began brainstorming business ideas for starting her own company. Her aha moment came as she reflected upon a memorable experience while in Korea; she had fallen in love with the thick, stretchy, colorful, and affordable socks she bought: “It was just people outside; no tents, no anything, and women with a table or a cart, and socks stacked in every single spot. There were no tags, no labels, no packaging, just socks stacked, stacked, stacked up high, and you would just buy pairs like that. Really low-tech: cash only, no branding, no special deal sign — stacks of socks.”

       Over the centuries, socks have tremendously evolved from the earliest models. The first socks, from the Stone Age, were made of animal skins gathered and tied around the ankles to protect hunters’ feet from sharp stones. In the 8th century BC, the Ancient Greeks wore socks from matted animal hair for warmth. The earliest known surviving pair of socks, dating from 250 to 420 AD, were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Made using bright red three-ply wool and a technique called nålebinding, or single needle knitting, the divided toe socks were designed to be worn with sandals (Victoria and Albert Museum). One of the greatest inventions in sock history came from Nottingham, England in 1589 by clergyman William Lee — the first knitting frame. Socks could be knitted six times faster than by hand, making the production both cheaper and easier. Up until the introduction of nylon in 1938, socks were commonly made from silk, cotton, or wool. On May 15, 1940, the first nylon stockings hit the racks of New York City; “Over 72,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone…In the first year, 64 million pairs of stockings were sold and manufacturers could not keep up with demand” (Tomshinsky). During World War II, nylon’s strength and durability was needed and used solely for military purposes, for the manufacturing of parachutes, airplane tire cords, and glider tow ropes. Patriotically, women gave up their nylon stockings to aid the war effort, and drew lines up the backs of their legs with eyeliner to mimic the appearance of wearing stockings. When the war was over, full production was back: “Women began to demand nylons again [and] their demand greatly exceeded supply for two years. The shortage led to several riots by impatient women who had stood in line for hours for stockings. Newspapers ran stories with headlines such as ‘Women Risk Life and Limb in Bitter Battle over Nylons” (Hounshell). Today, nylon continues to be a standard fiber used in hosiery and is “the second most used fiber in the United States,” (Bellis) however most novelty socks are made by blending two or more natural and synthetic fibers together.

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Realizing everyone needs good quality socks, Atkinson thought she could bring the socks she fell in love with in Korea to America. Not only did she want to introduce awesome socks to match one’s wardrobe, she wanted to offer fun and funky patterns with personality. Reigniting her entrepreneurial passion and ambition, she “found an importer by looking through the paper phone book (that’s right, the phone book), traveled to Korea with two big suitcases, and filled them with her first 2,000 pairs of socks” (Jacklet). Upon her return to Portland with a supply of product ready for sale, she created a company name and logo. She had a couple of catchy ideas: Suki Socki and Sock It to Me. She spent time massaging the Suki Socki concept complete with Chinese to-go container packaging. Then she remembered one of her college marketing professors saying company names should be easy to spell and “I did not think Suki Socki was very easy to spell. Even if I had, people still wouldn’t know how to spell it.”

In March 2004, Sock It to Me was born. Atkinson hired a graphic designer to create the company’s logo based on her ideas of a tough-looking woman wearing knee-high socks. The original female graphic was naked, except for her socks, and short-lived due to a complaint by a potential customer: “I’m not buying your product because of your label.” At that moment, Atkinson decided her gal needed some clothes and with a few more revisions, her current rock ’em sock ’em superheroine logo was the perfect depiction.

With her company name, logo, and 2,000 pairs of colorful stars, stripes, argyles, and skull-designed socks, she began selling from a booth at Portland Saturday Market on the weekends while cleaning houses on weekdays. She explains, “I was a one-person company, I packed it all up, sat there all day, brought it all home, and restocked each weekend.” Business grew steadily within the first year as she took on wholesale clients, so she secured a business partner in Korea, Brendan Choi, to work with the manufacturing and labeling, managing and coordinating the paperwork and shipping from Busan Port in South Korea to the Port of Portland. By her second year, she was able to set aside enough money to exhibit her socks business at Magic, a giant fashion trade show held bi-annually every February and August in Las Vegas, Nevada: “Magic’s POOLTRADESHOW is like a massive marketplace of cool…Each wholesaler has a cube where they showcase their stuff, and it’s all about who can pull out the stops and do something radically different with their space, or present their goods in a unique way…Trade shows are in fact the gas behind our engine. It’s where people find and discover us” (Arnold). Sock It to Me’s booth features a traveling display topped with an oversized logo cutout and interior walls lined with a hundred-plus pairs of socks neatly arranged, sure to catch one’s eye. A sales representative, with laptop on hand, answers questions and takes orders from the enthusiastic customers.

Although Atkinson has a trusted business partner in Korea, she travels regularly to visit, even touring the highly automated factory where her socks are made. In December 2010, she had the opportunity to witness the entire manufacturing process. On her blog she wrote: “I was surprised to see that the actual sock machines don’t need much manpower. In a room with approximately 30 machines, only one person is needed to keep everything running smoothly. Once the machines are threaded they automatically start pumping out sock tubes. While the socks are machine-made as tubes, a team of sweet women then seam the toe closed [by feeding the machine]. From there, the socks are put on a foot form and sent through a steamer to get the wrinkles out. Next they are labeled, packed into boxes and loaded into a container.” When ready, the socks are trucked from Seoul to Busan, and loaded on a container ship for an 11-day ocean journey to Portland. Finally, a truck transports the socks to Sock It to Me’s warehouse where the boxes are painstakingly unloaded one at a time. Currently, Sock It to Me places at least 12 orders per year from four different manufacturers … “essentially 60,000-120,000 pairs per order — we always try to fill the container — every 20-ft container holds 60,000 pairs of socks and each 40-ft container holds 120,000 pairs of socks.”

Socks have transformed from boring and purely functional, to fashionable and expressive. “‘People want a fun sock,’ says Rachel Tifverman, hosiery buyer for Nordstrom in King of Prussia. ‘It’s an inexpensive way to change an entire outfit’” (Cowie). Novelty socks gained vast universal popularity in 1996, partly due to more casual dressing at work. According to Lauren Pulver, co-owner of The Ultimate Sock: “With fashion today [1996] and so many women able to wear pants to work, you can make a fashion statement with socks. You can have plain black pants on and wear a pair of leopard socks with them, and it certainly makes a statement. And outside of work, anything goes” (Cowie). Nowadays, “men in particular are rushing to buy the colorful, patterned socks offered by specialty stores…Ties —once the only place in his wardrobe where a man could reveal his inner pink polka dots — have virtually disappeared from many offices. That is allowing the ankle to take over as the ultimate revealer…Socks are emerging as tiny knitted transmitters of individual taste…patterns that were once for eccentrics or fanciers are now merely creative” (Binkley). One example of this whimsy is Chris Cosentino, celebrity chef and owner of Incanto in San Francisco, who recently launched three socks called Meat Feet on These socks are printed to resemble charcuterie, like slices of Mortadella, Prosciutto, and Sopressata. Wacky, huh?

       There is no doubt that Atkinson has been a leader in the novelty sock craze. Sock It to Me has over 200 different sock designs offering something fun for a wide range of personalities — tacos, ninjas, gnomes, bikes, dragons, cupcakes, unicorns, beer, monkeys, mushrooms, corgis, jellyfish. Atkinson wears her company’s socks every day and when asked about her favorite designs, she says, “I’m boring. I like stripes and argyles. Classic stuff.” While classics are a staple of everyone’s wardrobe and of her sock line, trends have a definite impact on her business: “I keep up with trends by being aware of current culture, reading fashion blogs and funny blogs. Some days it seems like I’m on the Internet all day, just looking at what is trending everywhere. [Archie McPhee, out of Seattle] is a company that we buy from…they make completely different products, but it’s just quirky. We get to see what’s popular with them, and can we put it on a sock?” They have a “Mustache Shop” online, with mustache candy, mustache bandages, mood mustaches, mustache ornaments, mustache baking molds, mustache gift wrap and bags, mustache magnets, mustache ice cube trays, rose and bacon scented mustaches, you name it. As a matter of fact, Atkinson’s mustache socks have become a huge hit; Sock It to Me’s best sellers now for women are the Pink Mustache knee sock (pink sock with black mustaches) and for men: the Mustache Gold crew sock (gold socks with black mustaches).

In addition to following trends for design development ideas, Atkinson puts a lot of stock in listening to her customers and giving them what they want. She holds two Design-A-Sock contests each year resulting in adding the winning-most Facebook “Like” designs to her sock line. This year, Sock It to Me received a record-breaking number of 5,500 design submissions for its 5th annual international spring contest and 7th annual fall Portland area contest. Both contests help build name recognition and spark creativity and enthusiasm by inviting and encouraging participation by anyone with an idea for a design they’d like to have on their socks. Atkinson got the contest idea from childhood coloring contests: “I remember as a kid, and I think they still do it at New Seasons Markets, where supermarkets offer children a copy of a holiday drawing to take home and color and label with their name and age, and then return it to be posted and considered for a small prize, also there were kids menu we colored at restaurants while waiting for food to be delivered, and I thought… I can do that with socks, why not?”

Entrants for both contests range from children who just scribble to professional graphic designers. Their unique designs are submitted on a little sock template electronically or by mail. A panel of Sock It to Me judges, including Atkinson herself, go through every design and handpick the top 30 semi-finalists: “Winning designs will be chosen based on: (1) simplicity of design; (2) use of a maximum of six colors (3) use of colors that are flat and solid, no shading, blending or half tones; and (4) use of imagery, themes, patterns, or designs that are different from [the] current line (Krysten).” These top designs are then posted on Sock It to Me’s Facebook page to be narrowed down by fans, and ultimately awarded a sock design and sliding scale of cash and sock prizes. This year’s top three local designs were inspired by Portland’s bike culture, St. Johns Bridge, and ninjas; the top three international designs hailed from Washington, California, and New York with fox, ostrich, and solar system designs respectively.

Besides the Design-A-Sock contest, Atkinson knows how to share her business with the community and shine a bright light on other women doing cool stuff. For the first time this year, Sock It to Me successfully partnered with Portland Public Schools to raise funds for the school district’s art programs. Atkinson said, “We just called [PPS] up and said we want to give you money, like will you promote our contest? We will donate $1 (up to $15,000) for every submission we receive this year. They were like yeah, sure!” Another proud accomplishment for Sock It to Me is its Cool Girl features, naming an extraordinary woman each month to be celebrated and honored for the “cool” things she is doing. When asked about her inspiration for this spotlight, Atkinson passionately answered: “I always thought that there needed to be a place to highlight women in male dominated areas…Women can be valued for their brains and what they can achieve; it’s getting better, but it seemed like women were just highlighted for their physical appearance. They are on magazine covers because they are beautiful; they are on TV because they are beautiful. But women can also do some really cool stuff — scientists, math wizards, work in technology for Google. It shows other women they can be more than just what they look like.”

It is clear Atkinson is passionate about her work and philanthropy. Despite the fact that building the business feels like “one huge obstacle” at times, Atkinson admits it is “what keeps me going.” Typical days are busy, filled with meetings: discussing trade shows, sock designs, competitors, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, sales reports, research and development, and reaching out via social media. She takes time to warmly chat with her employees, asking questions and showing interest in their lives as well as getting a pulse on how their day is going in the warehouse and around the office. Atkinson travels a lot for business, flying to Korea for manufacturing and New York and Las Vegas for trade shows. Although “it sounds glamorous,” she adds, “I am really tired of going to Las Vegas. We go twice a year and it’s just not my favorite spot.”

With no brick and mortar stores, trade shows are where the company secures the bulk of its sales, approximately 90% wholesale, while only 10% online. Socks for women, men, and kids made of a special blend of 75% cotton, 20% polyester, and 5% spandex can be purchased globally from retailers in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Germany. Locally, one can find a good selection at New Seasons Market, Powell’s Books, Naked City Clothing (her first wholesale customer), Presents of Mind, Socks Dreams, and Buy Olympia, or on Using social media to help drive sales and learn about customers, Atkinson reveals “I’ve met a couple of semi-famous people on Twitter, like former mayor Sam Adams and Project Runway Season 8 second place runner up/All-Stars winner Mondo Guerra. [Mondo] wore a pair of our socks on the show. I contacted him and said Mondo, we love you, how can we collaborate to do a sock together?” Shortly thereafter, Atkinson and Guerra designed and created the striped Mondo Guerra Houndstooth sock and followed it up with the Mondo Guerra Abstract sock.

The sock craze continues to boom, with sales rising “5.6% to $4.22 billion for the 12-month period ended April 2013, according to NPD Group…Creative socks have become a growth industry, with new brands trying to top each other with bolder designs” (Binkley). Companies globally and worldwide are experiencing extraordinary success and growth, and making big bucks on fun and fashionable socks. In 2008, Happy Socks was established by the creative Swedish duo Viktor Tell and Mikael Söderlindh, who had a vision “to spread happiness by turning an everyday essential into a colorful design piece with a rigid standard of ultimate quality, craftsmanship and creativity” (Happy Socks). Their high-quality, fun sock patterns include leopard and zebra prints, sailor stripes, roses, polka dots, zigzags, and sprinkles. Happy Socks are designed in Sweden, made in Turkey, and sold in more than 70 countries and on every continent. The company has boomed; in just a few short years Happy Socks has sold more than 10 million pairs in over 3,000 stores worldwide.

Like Tell and Söderlindh, and Atkinson, Parisienne fashion designer and founder of Ozone Socks, Laurie Mallet, had a similar goal in mind: to bring “spirit and passion to one of the most intimate and neglected parts of our wardrobe. For too long the sock has been ignored by the world of fashion and we’re going to change that” (Ozone Socks). Ozone Socks is based in New York City, but their socks are manufactured in Colombia, France, and Japan, and sold around the world and through a network of 2,000 stores in America. The company even introduced an innovative concept, the Ozone Sock of the Month, in which members, for $150, receive a new pair of socks at the beginning of each month by mail. These founders, like Atkinson, simply love what they do.

Atkinson’s enthusiasm and resoluteness for growing her business has propelled her company into prosperity. After six years in business, Sock It to Me reached its first million in sales in 2010, and $3 million in 2012 (Odegaard). In 2013, Atkinson says, the company is projected to sell over a million pairs of socks, totaling nearly $5 million in revenues. As of October, they’re right on target with an estimated 840,000 pairs already sold and the holiday season is approaching.

Atkinson’s advice to young people aspiring to start a business: “I think it’s just executing. It’s talking about it, but then actually taking steps forward. When you are young, you have nothing to lose. If you mess up, you are still young and will be young next year. Now I’m 35, and if I make a mistake, it will be harder to rebound. When you are young, you don’t have many expenses and you might as well be pretty aggressive. Start. Do it.” Atkinson’s success that’ll knock your socks off is a product of her own advice; she pursued her idea with determination, hard work, and passion. Her journey, from an unsatisfying job to a multimillion dollar funky sock business, inspires and empowers me to take risks and be open to the possibilities of life’s twists and turns.


Works Cited

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