This section of the Idea Hub is called The World. And every once in a while I’m reminded how the world works in some strange ways. Allow me to explain.
My oldest daughter, who waits tables while she finishes her last bit of college curriculum, came over during her evening break the other night to give her feet a rest. She works at a restaurant that requires all servers to wear black pants, black shoes, and black socks. As she kicked off her shoes to prop her feet up join us in watching some television, the rest of us burst out laughing. The entire part of her sock covering the ball of her right foot was gone. In its place was a gaping hole.
If you’re waiting tables and on your feet alot, this is a problem. A recurring one. She goes through A LOT of socks. And she doesn’t have the time or inclination to go shopping for socks. Actually, it’s a problem for me, as well. I hate shopping for socks. And because my socks seem to have the uncanny ability to somehow liberate themselves with alarming frequency from the laundry process, I end up with a menagerie of mismatched socks.
To be fair, this isn’t a big problem, but enough to be an annoyance. And that’s just the kind of thing that has resulted in some world-changing innovations.
Lo and behold, there is a solution to the sock problem. And what reminded me that the world works in strange ways is that fact that earlier that same day I received in the mail a pair of extremely nice black socks, elegantly wrapped and shipped in a slim cardboard box. Just one pair, as a sample to try. My daughter’s feet were saved just in the nick of time, and she returned to work fully socked.
The socks came from Blacksocks.com, which is an online sock subscription service headquartered in Switzerland. Yes, you read that right. An executive of the company read one of my columns here on OPEN Forum, looked up my profile, and sent me a pair. (You can connect with OPEN Forum member Blacksocks here on the Connectodex.)
The story behind Blacksocks is every bit as quirky, but real, as the one about my daughter. But more importantly, it’s a story of how to start and run a successful small business.
Samuel “Samy” Liechti took his first job out of college with an ad agency. He’s asked to attend an unexpected business dinner with Japanese partners. After dinner, the group moves to a Japanese tea house where, following tradition, everyone removes their shoes. Samy looks down, and not only does he realize he has two different socks on, but they are frayed and faded, with the left one having a hole just the right size for his big toe to shine through. He sits in the lotus position for the rest of the evening, trying to hide his feet. His thought: “Darn these socks!”
It was then that the idea behind Blacksocks—a “sockscription”—was born. In 2008, less than ten years after its founding in 1999, Blacksocks sold its one millionth pair of black calf socks. Here’s what Samy has to say about his burgeoning business.
Question: How does the sockscription work?
Answer: "It’s very simple. You choose which kind of socks you want and how often you want them delivered. Let’s say you want three pairs of black calf socks three times a year. You place the sockscription in your shopping basket and submit your order. You receive three pairs of socks in the mail. Four months later, you receive another three pairs of socks. Four months after that, you receive another three. One month before your subscription expires, you decide whether you would like us to renew your sockscription."
Question: How has your online business evolved since your started it?
Answer: "We’ve become more savvy in online retailing. Our first Web site was a single shot of a washing machine. Customers entered their orders into a slot in the machine, which sent an e-mail directly to me. Over time, the site has become increasingly sophisticated, and we’ve learned how to position content more intuitively using enhanced visual communication to make for a smoother and more enjoyable shopping experience."
Question: If you had to pinpoint one thing as the secret to your success, what would it be?
Answer: "Our attention to detail. Each one of our products is thoroughly tested. Three pairs of test socks are produced from every shipment of yarn that arrives at our factory in Northern Italy. The rest of the yarn shipment is stored until the test socks are extensively examined and put through twenty wash cycles. Finally, the test socks are compared to socks from previous series for wear and color fading. When you pay attention to the small things, good things, and big things, happen."
Question: What advice do you have for someone wanting to start their own business?
Answer: "Find a simple idea, and run with it. My thought was, wouldn’t it be wonderful if men never had to worry about misplacing or matching socks again? Who really wants to shop for socks? Could we receive new pairs of socks in regular intervals, all in the same style and color, so our sock drawers could replenish themselves? It’s often the simplest business ideas—the ones so obvious that no one thinks of them—that are the most successful."
Question: Any famous sockscribers we should know about?
Answer: "Well, off the top of my head, I know that former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz is a subscriber!"
Blacksocks is an elegant solution to an everyday problem. The company has over 50,000 subscribers in over 75 countries. It’s safe to say that not only do they know how to sell socks, they know how to grow a business.
Full disclosure: I am now a Blocksocks customer!
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.