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boldSOCKS: Finding a foothold in custom products

Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, boldSOCKS aims to be a one-stop shop for socks — and a model for social impact...

Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, boldSOCKS aims to be a one-stop shop for socks — and a model for social impact. Founded in 2011, the company began selling branded socks online and later added a brick-and-mortar store. The firm introduced its own brand, Statement Sockwear, in 2014 and partnered with 20 Liters so each pair purchased by consumers enables boldSOCKS to help provide clean drinking water in Rwanda, Africa. Fast forward to 2018, boldSOCKS was named a Michigan 50 Companies to Watch honoree. “The award was like an admission ticket to unexpected opportunities,” says CEO Ryan Roff, referring to Edward Lowe Foundation programs that have been instrumental in his company’s evolution. Below, Roff discusses the impact of some of those programs:

System for Integrated Growth®— In 2019 boldSOCKS entered the System for Integrated Growth (SIG), a virtual program that enables second-stage companies to access business experts on a variety of issues. BoldSOCKS had been offering personalization services on a small scale to consumers for a couple years, and it was beginning to eye B2B customization. “Yet we wanted to clarify that the market existed and what was the best way to approach it,” Roff explains.

One of Roff’s biggest takeaways was learning that demand for custom socks is huge, especially as marketing materials. Indeed, according to information provided by SIG research specialists, custom socks outrank all other standard forms of advertising in terms of effectiveness, including online, print and broadcasting. “For us to get that affirmation was really important, as well as being confident about the product mix we were taking to market,” Roff says.

Another aspect of the SIG engagement that Roff appreciated was being connected with two second-stage companies to explore distributor partnerships and other custom products.

Next Steps retreat — Along with boldSOCKS founder Ryan Preisner, Roff attended a retreat at Big Rock Valley, the foundation’s headquarters in southwest Michigan, where they were able to evaluate boldSOCKS’ internal infrastructure and develop an action plan for research deliverables. In addition to this technical assistance, the duo tackled some pressing issues. “Big Rock Valley is such a wonderful place, and the retreat gave us a chance to really step away from the business,” Roff says. “We ended up having some unexpected, yet extremely fruitful discussions. Among these, Ryan [Preisner] admitted that he was getting burned out, and we agreed it might be a good time for him to step back and for us to reorganize roles. By the end of the retreat, we had figured it all out.”

COVID-19 roundtables — In spring 2020 Roff participated in a new roundtable format that focused specifically on challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic. “We were all experiencing the pandemic differently, and it was really helpful to hear that range of emotions,” he says. “You didn’t feel so isolated trying to figure out what you needed to do to reopen your retail store or get the PPP loan.” What’s more, Roff says the depth of discussions were of a higher caliber because the roundtables were professionally facilitated with thoughtful questions. “It was easier to go off script and learn from each other.”

The American Academy of Entrepreneurs (AAE) — In August 2020 Roff joined the AAE, a mentoring program that matches seasoned second-stage entrepreneurs with less experienced ones. Roff has been involved in other mentor programs but deems AAE as “brilliant…It doesn’t just recruit mentors and mentees and pair them up randomly. Instead, the matches seemed extremely intentional.”

As a result, Roff was able to immediately trust his AAE mentor and confidently discuss personal and philosophical issues as well as business challenges. “Having someone who also sees the world as a place they want to make better and not just profit from is important for me, and I can tell my AAE mentor shares that perspective,” he explains. “There are plenty of people who can help you create something cheaper, more efficient or profitable. Certainly, you need some of that, however, boldSOCKS is a social impact enterprise, which means thinking differently.”

2020 has been an interesting time for boldSOCKS, Roff observes: “Although sales are down significantly, we’re debt-free and in a good spot to weather the pandemic. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, a good entrepreneur tills the soil during a slow season… you figure out what’s necessary to innovate and prepare yourself for new markets.”

 “I’m grateful for everything the Edward Lowe Foundation has done and the people it has put in my path,” Roff adds. “The foundation understands the dynamics of a growing business and how to support entrepreneurs — whether that’s about immediate growth or how to pivot and change course.”