In 2002, when Bulgarian Dimitar Apostolov went to college in the United States, his grandmother Yanka Dodnikova sent him off with several pairs of hand-knit wool socks to keep him warm during the cold Vermont winters. Throughout the year, many of his American friends complimented him on his socks and wanted to know where he had bought them.
In 2008, a friend joked that Apostolov’s socks were “the number-one export product from the Communist East Bloc,” a remark that later would inspire the name of Apostolov’s sock company, BlocSocks, and its slogan: “Tell your feet the Cold War is over.” The same friend suggested that Apostolov start selling the socks in the States. His friend even tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a big supermarket chain in Seattle to start selling the fashionably snug footwear.
Apostolov put this business idea on hold for a while. But in December 2011, when he went to visit his former college roommate Sam Harnett, he was wearing–you guessed it–another pair of his grandmother’s socks, and so the topic surfaced in a conversation between the two buddies. The Bulgarian told Harnett about his friend’s failed attempt to sell the socks in the States. Harnett pointed out that the idea was good but the approach–trying to sell the product through a supermarket chain–was wrong. Then and there the two men decided to give it another try–together.
The new partners wanted to create a knitting co-op in Dodnikova’s village, Patalenitsa, which is located around 70 miles away from Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. This would allow her and her friends to make some money out of their hobby and sell their hand-knit socks internationally.
Although the country has a long knitting tradition, with many unique styles and patterns passed down from mother to daughter, the market for knitwear is quite small. Bulgaria is the poorest European Union member state. As is the case with many elderly people in the nation, women in the village, whose pensions add up to between just $115 and $170 per month, often have to find ways to supplement their income.
As Harnett puts it, the idea behind their social business venture was simple: “Take Western dollars and put them in the hands of these women.”
“We didn’t start with the idea that we’d become millionaires by selling wool socks,” Apostolov said. “We always thought of this as a community-building initiative.”
In the summer of 2012, the duo launched a Kickstarter campaign and managed to raise $10,000 to fund the project. Harnett’s brother, Ben, joined the project as a third cofounder and designed BlocSocks’ website.
Initially, Dodnikova cautiously welcomed news about the startup. But when the first orders started pouring in, it was like a dream came true. “Everyone was very excited [about the knitting co-op],” she said. “Women from the village now come to me and ask me if they could join.”
Sam Harnett sees their role as a “sort of conduit”: “This is a passion project . . . to really help these women turn their hobbies into businesses,” he said. “We can sell socks and they can make double, triple, or quadruple of what they’re making in Bulgaria.”
Three years later, BlocSocks sells between 150 and 300 pairs of socks and slippers annually, with the majority of orders coming from the States.
The team spent the first two years setting up the business and resolving the different challenges they faced along the way. For example, the team not only had to find a reliable supplier of locally produced wool, but also experimented with several types of wool until they found one that was soft enough.
Apostolov still finds it stressful to fulfill urgent orders, and he often must drop everything else he’s doing and put out fires on the go. This is especially true when the co-op runs out of wool.
“I go to the store and they don’t have the type of wool I need,” he explains. “Then I have to find alternatives: What other types of wool are available? Is it good enough? Is it produced in Bulgaria?
The team also developed a fair production model where each order is equally distributed among the women so no one is overwhelmed by the workload.
Apostolov half-jokingly admits that he often has to play the role of referee, as the knitters engage in creative arguments about which pattern to use or which style of socks should be offered. But usually, he said, the most heated debates evolve around the question: “Who knits the best?”
With no PR or marketing budget, it was do-it-yourself entrepreneurial platforms like Kickstarter, Etsy, and Amazon, as well as social media, that helped BlocSocks develop its brand.
As with many other handmade products, Etsy has been their main source of business. In fact, a bunch of stores–several boutiques in California and a spa in Vancouver–have found BlocSocks through the platform and are now carrying their products. A wholesaler in France and another in Scandinavia have also expressed interested in BlocSocks.
Although the team admits that platforms like Etsy are crucial for the company’s growth, Harnett believes there is another reason why BlocSocks’ model works: The cost of living Bulgaria is lower than in the U.S.
“Because of this economic disparity, these kinds of do-it-yourself entrepreneurial models in the U.S. could work really well in a country like Bulgaria,” he said. “If you’re knitting socks [in the U.S.] and try to sell them on Etsy, it’d be really hard to make a living for an American.”
Although summer months are traditionally slow for the company, the team is already gearing up for the next winter season. Now that BlocSocks has already set up the backbone of its business, the next big challenge for the company is gaining more brand visibility and entering new markets. For example, after receiving positive feedback from their customers on the quality of the socks, the founders are planning to expand the line of knitwear they offer. This year they started selling handmade hats and scarves.
While none of the cofounders has made any money off BlocSocks so far, they hope that it can become a sustainable source of income for women in Patalenitsa.
“The goal is to expand this [initiative] in Bulgaria and get more women involved so they can sell the socks more consistently,” Harnett said. “There would always be more women who could benefit from the project”.
Back in Patalenitsa, Dodnikova also hopes to see more orders. But for now she’s extremely happy that the initiative is financially aiding the community in the village and that their handicrafts are gaining popularity and appreciation abroad.