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Happy Socks Builds A Business–And Happiness–Two Feet At A Time

Creative Cultures is an ongoing series on how smart companies have built a culture of creativity. From business philosophy to talent acquisition and management, customer service and product development, we’ll examine the inner workings of successful companies and the ways they build cultures that promote and harness creativity. In this edition: Founded in Sweden in 2008, Happy Socks has tiptoed into 50 countries with a focus on design, collaborations across fashion and culture, and happiness.

Happy Socks Builds A Business–And Happiness–Two Feet At A Time

How many pairs of socks do you think the average person buys in a year? The founders of Happy Socks considered that question and saw an opportunity for a new company and a chance to generate some happiness from the ground up.

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Socks that make you smile is the philosophy behind Swedish socks and hosiery company Happy Socks. Though simple, it’s a proposition that’s won the brand high-profile collaborations with top fashion names, including photographer Terry Richardson and designer Giles Deacon, and distribution in 50 countries–not bad for a company in business just three years. Though still small, the company is a testament to the value of a collaborate approach, focus on design, and doing one thing well.

It all began on a dull Sunday afternoon in Stockholm in April 2008. Spring was late that year and Happy Socks cofounders Mikael Söderlindh, a former ad agency boss, and Viktor Tell, an illustrator and graphic designer, were feeling jaded.

“I guess we were bored,” says Söderlindh, Happy Socks’ CEO. “Viktor told me about an idea he had for a sock brand called Happy Socks. I Googled how many pairs of socks people buy each year and came up with 12 to 14. Think about the potential market–every Western country: let’s just say around 1 billion people–even 0.01% of this is still a hell of a lot of socks.”

Within three weeks the pair had established the company, found a factory in Turkey, and designed the first products. The business launched selling Happy Socks, priced from $10 U.S. a pair, via its own website in August that same year. Since then it has rolled out market by market selling direct online and via third parties–both big department stores and global online retailers.

Happy Socks isn’t about slapping any old design on a sock, Creative Director Tell is quick to stress: “I didn’t want to do novelty socks–socks with Bart Simpson’s face–but socks featuring strong graphics inspired by anything from culture to architecture.” From the outset, the philosophy was about being fun. “People smile when they see our products and hear our name. Feet are funny,” Söderlindh adds. “With Happy Socks you get a smile, great design, and good quality at a democratic price.”

The same philosophy has shaped Happy Socks’ company culture. The business, based in central Stockholm, is located in a campus-style cluster of 400-year-old cabins grouped around a small garden in one of the city’s parks. Now with a staff of 18 (average age 27), Söderlindh likens the setup to “a small collective: very collaborative”. “We’re not corporate in our way of doing things, though we do have structures–because you can’t play at work without structures,” he says. “The key is trying to be happy, ensuring everyone has a say and also a chance to be as creative as they are.”

While Tell oversees all aspects of design, what goes out into the marketplace is openly discussed. Final decisions, however, are made by the cofounders and Happy Socks’ management board, which meets every six weeks. “It’s a structure we have because we set ourselves up with the intention of being a global brand from the beginning,” Söderlindh continues. “The strategy was to be global and grow fast because we expected to be copied. In 2008 there were of course other sock companies but none in the segment we created with an image/lifestyle positioning. Today, however, everyone’s trying to get into our segment.”

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Growth has been rapid. In its first trading year, Happy Socks generated turnover of 1m Euros–a figure which grew to 2.1m in year two then a predicted 4.4m for the year ending Dec 2011. And this despite only a limited marketing budget. For while Happy Socks has run one paid for advertising campaign, developed in 2010 by New York agency Mother, third-party collaborations are the central pillar of the business’ marketing.

Happy Socks has developed special product lines with an eclectic array of collaborators including the makers of online social building game Minecraft, which resulted in a collection of pixelated designs, and Japanese toymaker MediCom, which led to limited edition socks inspired by the firm’s iconic Be@rbrick figurines accompanied by Happy Sock-wearing collectibles.

Terry Richardson, meanwhile, styled and shot photographs for Happy Socks’ November 2011 campaign. For this collaboration, called “Terry’s Take,” Richardson gathered some of New York’s coolest up-and-coming talent to create a series of “looks” featuring Happy Socks worn as pants, sweaters–even bunny ears. The photos are viewable on Happy Socks’ Facebook page, where fans can also upload their own images which, if they attract 50 “Likes,” earn four pairs of free socks. “Name” collaborators, meanwhile, receive a year’s-worth of free Happy Socks for their efforts.

“With anyone we bring in to work for the company it has to be about recognizing they are good at what they do and letting them do what they are best at. And it’s the same approach when we work with collaborators from outside–we give them responsibility for their interpretation of our brand then let them do what they are best at and it works, 99% of the time,” says Tell. “You have to dare to do –to let your baby grow–because if you don’t you will be single-minded, locked-up and, in my view, potentially boring and less fun.”

Moving forward, Söderlindh and Tell are determined to continue to grow Happy Socks through great designs–two new collections are now planned each year, with best-selling lines always available –and further unique creative collaborations worldwide. “This isn’t about becoming a fashion label, however,” Söderlindh insists. And nor is it about extending the Happy Socks brand into other products.

“Making socks that have a high level of design with a great quality is a simple idea and a good business,” he continues. “It’s better, in my view, to be a niche company that knows what it’s doing than risk credibility by stretching yourself to thin.”

About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.

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