Carrie Atkinson is the CEO and founder of Sock It to Me, a company that makes adorable socks. Also, a lot of money. Not bad for someone who was scrubbing toilets for a living eight years ago. We caught up with Atkinson to talk about the secret to her success, and what’s ahead for the company.
FAST COMPANY: You started out selling in a flea market.
CARRIE ATKINSON: I first found the product as an English teacher in Korea. These little ladies had a cart, and I bought from them. I never thought of it as a business idea. Then I came back to Portland, Oregon to a tough job market in 2002. I took any job I could get. My last job was house cleaning. I was carrying the vacuum up and down stairs, scrubbing toilets, and with my college degree I was like, "Whoa, what did I go to college for?" I thought, the world is not offering me this real job, so what could I do? I had numerous ideas, but the socks one kept rising to the top. I contemplated it for a long time, then bought a ticket for Korea, found a wholesale market, and bought $2,000 worth of socks—two big suitcases. I took them to the market and sold them out of this tent.
When did you realize you’d made the right decision?
With my first wholesale customer, I walked in very nervously. I said, "Do you want to buy some socks?" She was like, "Yeah, I’ll give them a try." Two weeks later she placed a re-order. That first wholesale reorder was when I thought, "Keep doing this, there’s demand." In the last years, we’ve been growing 60-80% each year, and we have a staff of seven, soon to be nine. I reached $3 million in sales this year. It still amazes me that we’ve gotten so big. I’m still amazed every day, walking into the warehouse and seeing the socks stacked to the ceiling, with however many boxes out in the loading dock every day, ready to ship out. It’s a trip. I’m just letting the customers lead. To fulfill the demand, we need this many socks.
How many did you sell last year?
Half a million pairs.
Are you ever like, "People! It’s just socks! Chill out!"
A little bit! They are fun, and great quality, but it’s like, really? I joke that our socks are lined with crack or something. I don’t know why people go so crazy. Partially it’s the price point; they retail around $9.00. It’s easy, fun, colorful, and it’s one size—a really easy purchase for a friend, a birthday, a graduation. It’s thoughtful, nice, usable, and inexpensive.
You also run a design-your-own contest, making you something of an open-source sock company.
It’s been hugely successful, it was a super great idea, and I’ll pat myself on the back for that one. It’s so many wins. It makes my job easier, since people from all over the world are emailing us designs for a chance to win the grand prize, $1,000 plus the sock going into production. Our last contest, 2,000 designs were submitted, and we put the top 30 or 40 on our Facebook fan page. The fans love it, because they feel like they’re choosing the products, and it increases our fan numbers—we just reached 10,000 fans. So it’s just a win-win all around.
You started out selling more plain socks. Did you always want kooky designs to be a part of the company?
I did want kooky designs. I feel like socks are a safe space for that. It’s kind of an undergarment, and it’s a great place to have some color and fun.
What’s ahead for you?
I want to expand and do other things. I’m bringing out solid-color over-the-knee socks, which are a little more fashion-y rather than novelty. We had a lot of requests for kids and baby socks, so we launched a month or so ago our baby/infants line, which are just miniaturized best sellers of our adult lines. I’d really like to get into women’s underwear.
So would I!
Yeah, I bet you would.
No one’s made that joke before?
You’re the first.
Well, they will.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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