By Ben Jacklet
Photos by Juan-Carlos Delgado
Carrie Atkinson was 26 and frustrated with the lack of job opportunities in Portland when she decided to start her own company selling fun, colorful socks. She found an importer by looking through the 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.
Now Atkinson is 32 and running a well-known business that grew by 90% in 2010. She’s got 6,000 Facebook fans, a far-flung team of creative designers, a solid group of wholesale customers, a growing portfolio of fashion photos in magazines and container after container of socks flowing from Korea to meet demand. She’s considering delving into a line of men’s socks in collaboration with Portland entrepreneur Nitin Khanna and making plans to delve into lingerie after making friends with a woman who runs a manufacturing plant in China.
Sock It to Me is known for its “cool girl” promotions and its fresh, bold styles that are “a little crazier than the other stuff out there,” in Atkinson’s words. But Atkinson’s approach has been far from crazy. She didn’t buy more socks until it was clear her first batch was selling at the Portland Saturday Market. She saved her pennies until she could afford a booth in the big Las Vegas apparel trade show, Magic. She got a $250,000 bank loan on her home and built up her credit for six years before taking out a second loan. She is not indebted to venture capitalists or angel investors. She owns 100% of the company.
“I felt like I was led by the customer, which is a little less risky in my eyes,” she says. “I never got too far ahead of the customers.”
Not only does Atkinson encourage her customers to lead the company, she also encourages them to design her socks. A few years ago she began running full-page ads in the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week that doubled as design-a-sock contest entries, to be colored in by local artists. Contest winners get $500 and the cachet of seeing their art turned into a commercial product. Non-winners with ideas good enough to go to design get $200.
“It was just an idea that made sense to me,” says Atkinson. Sock It to Me has found some of its top designers in this manner, and the local — and now international — contests bring in thousands of new design ideas while also building name recognition. Atkinson estimates that about 80% of the business’s design lines come from crowd sourcing. The most recent contest drew 2,500 submissions; winners come from Sweden, Britain and El Salvador.
The customer designs lead directly to new products. “We get those designs through the contests, we tweak them, we assign the colors and we email that image over to Korea,” says Atkinson. “I have a business partner there and he negotiates with the factory. He is our quality control and he gets all the shipping documents prepared, and he gets a commission per pair.”