Samy Liechti was a young advertising executive navigating his way through the business world, when an embarrassing moment at a Japanese tea house provided an unlikely wake-up call. He didn't know it at the time, but the incident would provide the inspiration a new career as a hosiery entrepreneur.
For most men, the process of buying socks is about as fun as getting a root canal. Couple this sock-hunting hatred with the schedule of a busy professional, and the result is a drawer full of hosiery in an array of faded colors, held together by ever-dwindling threads. But if time and low shopping drive are factors, what can men do, other than hide their sock shame by wearing longer pants or boots?
Liechti's solution was BlackSocks, a Zurich-based online "sockscription" service that has expanded from Europe to the United States and gives professional men an easy way to fulfill their sock needs on a specific schedule.
The BlackSocks concept is simple: Men choose which style of socks they want and how often they want them delivered, then log on and set up their sock delivery schedule with a few clicks. For example, a customer may decide to order three pairs of socks to be delivered three times a year. Once this frequency and quantity of socks is set, 10-14 days later, these three pairs arrive by mail, then four months later, three more pairs arrive, and so on, until the end of the year. BlackSocks e-mails its customers 11 months from the initial order placement and asks whether a renewal is requested, and the process starts all over again. As the site promises, each customer has the power to decide "whether to continue to live sock-worry-free."
BlackSocks may seem like a natural fit today's online shopping universe. But Liechti's first inspiration came well over 15 years ago, in a clothing catalog-centric time, before there was an obvious way to efficiently execute the concept of the "sockscription." It was an unforgettably awkward moment as a fresh-out-of-university ad exec in the mid-1990s that fueled his ambition to be an entrepreneur.
"My boss asked me to join him for a meeting with two important Japanese clients," says Liechti, now 41, who rushed home to change into appropriate business attire, randomly pulling two socks from his drawer. "We had a great meeting, and they invited us to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at a tea house, where we were asked to remove our shoes. I looked down, and the two socks I was wearing were definitely not in the same life stage, nor did they have the same family background."
Not only were the socks entirely different colors, but everyone at the meeting could see exposed skin through tears and holes. After he recovered from the humiliation of the evening, he started to think about his own "sock issue" and figured other men probably had similar problems.
Liechti started to experiment with solutions. "My next idea was to buy 50 pairs of socks. But since I was like most men, and men are lazy, I realized I'd probably just end up in the same situation, because they would eventually all wear out again at the same time." He finally decided that in an ideal world, the "easiest interface between men and socks" would be for new pairs to just magically appear whenever they were needed.
Once he came up with the seedling idea for BlackSocks, he initially couldn't figure out how to execute it. "The Internet wasn't big," he says. "I didn't know if it should be a toll-free number, or if we should send out catalogs." Because he wasn't keen on either option, and wasn't interested in a catalog-based business, he decided to let the idea sit for a while, and continued his life as a marketing consultant.
In 1998, the second phase of BlackSocks finally hit. "I had time to think about the idea, and I started to think it wasn't so stupid," Liechti says. He contacted an old friend in the fashion industry and with very little capital, and the site went live in 1999.
Liechti says his biggest focus in the beginning was on marketing strategies, because the business concept and the Internet were both so new to potential customers. "Our only challenges were marketing challenges," he says. "We didn't have much money, and we decided the big thing we needed to work on was word of mouth." A small group of people were already customers, and he started advertising directly to them in hopes they would refer friends and others in their networks. "We started with one or two orders, then little by little, we reached 100 to 600 orders per day."
Liechti attributes the success of BlackSocks -- which has six employees and sees 18 to 20 percent gross profit annually -- to diligent oversight of product quality, attention to customer needs and the ability to harness the concepts behind social media before social media even existed. "We did what people do through social media in the traditional way," he says. "We always invested a lot of time and energy in customer service and quality of the product, which made people talk about us. We relied on a lot of good PR and promotions. We still get about one-third of our customers through existing customers. This helps us grow and is a sign we keep our customers happy."
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/16/10.