This is the first in an ongoing series highlighting the stories of Grand Rapids’ growing small business community. Bold Socks is a recent addition to the Avenue for the Arts retail sector.
The Bold Socks store at 17 Division Ave S in downtown Grand Rapids is set up to look and feel like art gallery; colorful socks line the black and white walls, hung three at a time so as not to crowd the displays. The space is small but open, with minimal floor displays to allow to customers to move freely and view the merchandise.
“I had a belief that if we opened the store, Grand Rapids would get behind it,” said Ryan Roff, co-owner of Bold Socks. “What I didn’t realize was to what effect they would get behind it.”
Bold Sock’s was founded in 2011. For those that frequent the companies website, the story is familiar; co-founder Adam Whitmore received a pair of flashy socks for Christmas and was showing them off to his co-workers at Gordon Food Services. He put his foot on the desk of co-founder Ryan Preisner and said, “Check out these socks!” The two started a competition, one trying to outdo the other with colorful, eye-popping socks. In their search for the boldest socks, they realized that there was not an online retailer that offered the types of socks they were in search of on a single platform. They set out to build a sophisticated website that catered to the business professional with cool, contemporary socks. They acquired their stock at clearance prices, set-up shop in Whitmore’s basement, photographed the products in a bathtub and listed them for sale on their website.
Bold Sock’s grossed $3,000 in their first year, enough tell them that they were tuning into a demand. After investing in AdWords, sales shot up to $180,00 and the team forged ahead. They spiffed up their website, focused on branding and continued to grow. They opened the retail space on Avenue for the Arts in November of 2015, with the intention that the storefront would help cover the cost of warehousing in the back of the building. On the morning of the grand opening, Roff found two news crews waiting outside the store to get the scoop on the company that specialized in selling socks. Over the holidays, customers continued to pour in.
“People were going out of their way from Grandville or Jenison, when they could have gone to the mall right there,” Roff said.
This past year, Bold Socks grossed over $1 million.
“It just continues to amaze us, how this thing that started as a little competition has turned into our livelihood,” Roff said.
Why was Roff so confident that Grand Rapids would support such a niche store? He recognized the collaborative nature of the city’s small business community and people’s desire for a multidimensional downtown.
“I think there are a lot of cool people who are willing to plug your store, knowing that you are giving everything you have to it,” Roff said.
Bold Socks’ success has allowed the owners what most entrepreneurs strive for–flexibility, control and the opportunity to give. The company uses a social enterprise revenue model; for every pair of Statement socks sold, Bold Socks provides 100 days of clean water in Africa through non-profit organization 20 Liters. They recently wrote their largest check ever to the charity.
“The rewarding part is seeing the fruits of your work changing a transaction model for people and ultimately be able to benefit an organization so that they aren’t spending all of their time and resources fundraising,” Roff said.
In an industry that is often under scrutiny for creating low-cost garments at the expense of environmental damage and less than desirable living conditions for workers, Roff and his partners want to ensure that their product is having a positive impact. The typical supply chain in the fashion industry makes it difficult for even the most conscientious consumer to trace where products are actually coming from. Last year, Roff and his partners traveled to Columbia to visit their manufacturer in order to determine if the factory standards and the supply chain were in line with their values.
“We went down there and asked the question, ‘How is our product blessing your community?’,” Roff said.
They were pleased to find that their manufacturer was vertically integrated, meaning that they had ownership of their entire supply chain. They also found the manufacturer to be employee focused, providing workers with such benefits as paid-for shift meals and 15 weeks maternity leave.
While Bold Socks’ growth has allowed them to develop and sell their own brand made by a manufacturer who shares their values, the store does carry brands that are made in China. Roff said that they are aiming to eliminate those brands in their stock come Artprize.
“We are continuing to move more towards the Colombian manufacturer because we know their practices,” Roff said.
The Bold Socks retail space is only open for limited hours during the week. As more customer requests for weekend hours come in, the Bold Socks team is considering opening for Saturday hours. But, in a world where entrepreneurs are praised for making personal sacrifices for their ventures, Roff and his partners want to maintain a healthy balance between their work lives and their personal lives. He advises entrepreneurs to bear this in mind when they are first starting out.
“If you are excited about something and it is your passion, it can be easy to send 60 or 80 hours a week on it,” Roff said. “But it is really important to make sure you are spending time making sure your body is healthy and that you are spending time with your family.”
To see Bold Socks for yourself, please visit https://www.boldsocks.com/ ,or drop by the store at 17 Division Ave S, Grand Rapids, MI 49503.