In a dorm room in Orlando, Florida, a college student was doing something most other college students weren’t doing: creating socks. Rob Starkman started Rock ‘Em Apparel (formerly Rock ‘Em Socks) while studying for his degree in communications and working as a manager for the UCF basketball team. From his time as a manager, he saw a gap in the retail industry: custom socks. His brand has taken off in directions he only dreamed of, and most recently he introduced the CustEMizer where you can create your own socks. Custom socks for your custom Nikes?
Rob let’s us in on the daily life of a true entrepreneur.
When was the moment you decided to start this sock company?
When Adidas dropped us (UCF) because Marcus Jordan refused to wear anything but Jordans, Nike swooped in with pretty bland gear. I started to customize the gear, especially the socks, in our black and gold colorways. People liked them so I started selling them on eBay. Sales started to grow, so I built a website, and that’s when I really took it from an operation to a brand. It’s when I decided to leave school and my job as a student manager that I took Rock ‘Em from a brand to a full time passion (rather than career).
Once you had the idea to start Rock Em Apparel, what was your next step?
Getting it on eBay was really the first idea. I was still selling under my personal name for about a month. When sales started to pick up, I realized I could build a brand. The next steps were to really sit down and teach myself coding, design and b.s. stuff like that to get off eBay and onto my own site. From there it was just continuing to grow my business by bringing on some workers, refine the website and digital experience, and expanding the network through the use of social media (which at the time was relatively new for branding purposes).
In what ways have you seen the company grow?
We’ve seen the most growth when we decided to start leveraging social media. Again, it was kinda like the wild west for brands at the time: Twitter was a place for news, Facebook was a place for friends, and Instagram wasn’t even around yet. So I’m setting up these pages and talking as if we’re this huge company which really legitimized our operation. We were responding to Tweets that our “customer service staff will email them back shortly.” Meanwhile, it’s just me on one computer switching from Twitter to email. Hiring staff was a huge mountain to climb because you kinda never want to give up any control. But when you can give up responsibility, you can tackle a mountain twice as high. There were times when the spaces we were working out of (dorm, apartment, house, warehouse, bigger warehouse, currently in our latest 4,000 square foot warehouse), were bursting at the seams. We’ve finally landed in a place we can grow into rather than grow out of.
How did you finance the business?
I wish I could say I had some billionaire investors come in and bless me with a couple milli, but I had started the company on a literal shoestring budget. It was the cost of socks and dye, which comes out to about $14. Sold those for $30, bought two more sets, and continued to slowly bankroll the company through the day one profits.
What was your first sale like?
I remember it so vividly because it was from Australia. Like not only do I have a sale, but it’s from the other side of the freaking world. That was on eBay. When I built my website, I was trying to convince eBay customers to purchase on the website. It took about a week, but when I got it, I remember calling my mother on the phone and mind-blown that I could sell something on my own, not on eBay or any other platform. I still feel that sense every time we get a sale – that it’s crazy how many lives we’ve entered over the past 4 years.
What is as typical day for you like?
There’s always a ton to be done, so we all wear a ton of hats at the HQ. I’d say most of my day is spent planning future releases, campaigns, talking with some of our customers (not even about socks, just about life…real relationships build companies), researching designs, researching the sneaker community, creating plans to make the company more efficient and lean, among other things. Personally I like to get up around 8:30 am, check the social media pages for any catastrophic comments that could have occurred during the night and then do damage control (give a 5th grader a phone and they think they can rule the world with a sentence). After work I come home, go for a run, do short meditation exercises, then get right back to building my company from home. Nine times out of 10 I’ll make dinner from myself, throw on the TV and get to crackin’ on some emails.
Do you have a board of mentors? How have they influenced you?
Not necessarily a board of mentors, but I do have a few people that I call mentors that I can essentially ask any sort of advice from. It’s great because we use each other as sounding boards, bridging the gap between what’s worked for them in their lives, and what is working for me currently and could help them. It’s a real “one hand washes the other” type relationship. They’ve influenced me to be selfless most importantly, and that help shouldn’t be something that is finalized with an invoice. True help is when you can do something for someone and not expect anything in return. I’ve received it plenty of times from not only my mentors but other people, and I try to pay it forward as much as possible.
What are some major setbacks the brand has experienced and how did you move through them?
Most of the setbacks are from the people we encounter in life disguised as friends. I’ve learned a lot about people over the past few years…often loyalty is replaced with royalty. We’ve continued to plow ahead and really focus on where we’re going as a brand, rather than trying to chase competition.
What is your proudest moment so far?
In all honesty, it has nothing to do with my business. I’m most proud to see my younger brother flourish in his own career path with the University of Florida Basketball team. There have been some great moments in Rock ‘Em that we celebrate with amnesia as to not get caught up.
Where do you see yourself and the brand in 5 years? 10 years?
Celebrating the 5th year anniversary of me filling out this interview. But really, I’d like to see us become a household name, not for sales sake, but for the idea that we could reach so many people is interesting to me. We try to have a humorous approach in the company voice, something that gets lost in a lot of brands trying to appear tough/sophisticated, and I think the more people we can reach with that voice, the more positive of an impact we could leave. I’d like to continue to build relationships with great people over the next decade and grow a sustainable business that continues to bring fresh and innovative products to a global audience.
What advice would you have given yourself before you decided to pursue this brave endeavor?
To begin to get a better feel for people right off the bat. It would’ve helped me weed out a lot of time and resources wasted…of which we’ll never get back.