MARLO THOMAS
11/28/2012 10:23 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

How Old Socks Led One Woman To Start a Million-Dollar Business

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about one woman who was embarrassed by the old socks she wore with tights to keep her feet warm, and decided that there must be a better way. She developed an original concept for fashionably warm Bootights, which are now a staple at a host of national retailers. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Shelby Mason was a road warrior. As a sales rep, who specialized in syndicated television shows, she’d hopscotch around the country, often making her way through four cities in a week -- which also meant four airports and at least eight trips through security. She knew exactly how long it would take to navigate just about any line, and from the outside, she appeared to have life on the road all buttoned up.

“I was living in Chicago,” Shelby explained, “and traveling to cities like Fargo, North Dakota, so I layered a lot. I still had to wear boring business attire, but I tried to make it a little more fun by accessorizing with gloves and scarves, tights and boots. And when I was visiting my parents, I’d steal socks out of my Dad’s drawer, and wear them over my tights for extra warmth.”

The problem was, those socks, weren’t always in the best of shape. So when she’d pass through security and pull off her boots, the holes in her professional look became public knowledge.

“I remember one of those trips to Fargo,” Shelby laughed. “There was a really good-looking guy in line and we were chatting. And then I had to pull off my boots and I realized how stupid I must look. Suddenly that cute outfit didn’t seem so cute anymore. I just hoped he didn’t notice. I spent that entire flight thinking, there had to be a better way.”

And by the time Shelby’s plane touched down, she’d come up with one. She decided someone needed to create a pair of tights made specifically for women like her -- women who wanted a fashionable look that would also keep them warm. And she decided that someone was going to be her.

“I began paying attention to other women going through security and I started talking to them in line. I was doing my own version of market research. And time and time again, as women pulled their boots off, they’d be embarrassed about the old or mismatched socks they’d layered over their tights.”

The idea nagged at her for over a year -- a year which included a move to Los Angeles where she was no longer layering, but trying to be mindful of the frigid cities she was still traveling to. Shelby, like most of the world, had heard of Sara Blakely’s success with Spanx and thought, How hard could this be? So late one night, in her darkened corporate office, she began to Google. And what she got was a rude awakening.

“I started calling mills,” she remembered. “I could get them on the phone, but it quickly became clear that I didn’t speak their language. And I was so afraid that someone would steal my idea, I was talking in circles. So while they took my first call, they rarely took my second.”

As Shelby tried to educate herself on the hosiery industry, she came across a list of terms, and at the bottom of the page, she spotted the name of a man who appeared to be someone who could give her a little insight to the tight-knit community she was trying to squeeze her way into. She called him, admitted she was a complete novice, and confided her idea.

“I couldn’t believe the words I heard,” she said with a smile. “He said, ‘My God, Shelby. That is the best idea I’ve heard in years.'”

And with that, he began to guide her through the process: “There are mills in North Carolina,” Shelby explained, “that have been run by the same families for years. You have the sock guys and you have the hosiery guys. The man that I discovered, Dan St. Louis, runs the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Hickory, North Carolina, a non-profit organization that works with all of them. He knew exactly the right mills to send me to -- mills that weren’t so big that they’d steal my concept, but experienced enough to put my idea into production. So I brought them my prototype -- a fashionable sock, that wasn’t too thin and not too thick, sewn on to a great pair of tights.”

Then Shelby knocked on one more door. A friend knew a buyer at Dillards -- a retailer with more than 300 stores in 29 states -- but none in the cities Shelby had lived in. She had absolutely no idea what she was walking into.

“Sometimes it’s good to be so green, that you don’t know what you don’t know! I just walked in there with my Bootights, in the same way I would with a television show, and they placed an order on the spot. I was screaming all the way to the airport!”

What Shelby didn’t know was that getting in the door was going to be the easy part. Getting customers to walk out with her tights would prove to be more of a challenge.

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PHOTO GALLERIES
It Ain't Over: Shelby Mason

“I was still working as a TV sales rep,” she said, “so every time I was in a market where there was a Dillards, I’d go in and talk to the sales associates and help them put Bootights on display. They were familiar with the big name brands, but they didn’t necessarily know what made Bootights different. I didn’t have a staff or sales reps and I underestimated the need for sales materials, so there was only so much I could do.”

But what Shelby did understand, given her background in television, was the power of the press. So when Adam Glassman, O Magazine’s fashion editor called Bootights a must-have for 2011-- on the very same day that she was on her way to make an appearance on QVC, she was certain she was on her way.

“I thought for sure my whole life was going to change. Everyone kept telling me that I was about to become a millionaire. But the reality is, it’s not that easy. I overestimated the response and ordered too much product. And all this was happening in January, right at the time when stores were clearing out their winter merchandise.”

But the good news is, at least for Shelby, winter returns at least once a year. So with a little experience under her belt and a sales rep who began opening new doors, Shelby was ready to reboot for her second season. This year alone, she’s projecting 1.1 million dollars in sales and has landed a long list of national retailers including Zappos.com. And as she prepares for 2013, she’s working with boot manufacturers and active lifestyle retailers, to design exclusive styles.

“If I had tried this in my twenties, I would never have been successful. I wouldn’t have asked for help. People really do want to help you. But you need to ask. I’ve learned that now.

“And I’ve also learned,” she said humbly, “how important it is to pursue your dreams. I can’t tell you how many women have said, 'I had that idea ten years ago. I wish I had pursued it.' You don’t want to kick yourself afterwards when someone else does.”

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