Smart Answers

Startup Advice from the Sock King


Entrepreneur Samy Liechti, 41, took something mundane—men's socks—and turned it into an empire. The Swiss native's Internet-based "sockscription" company, Blacksocks.com, operates in 75 countries and boasts that it has sold more than 1 million pairs of socks. When Liechti started the Zurich-based company in 1999, the former marketing executive wasn't sure how to run a business, let alone an online retail company. He learned the hard way, and now he shares that knowledge in seminars for aspiring Web entrepreneurs. Here are his tips:

Take the plunge. "There's a German saying about people who want to go swimming without becoming wet. I've seen so many business plans and met so many people who want to become entrepreneurs, but they never do it," Liechti says. Overthinking the startup phase, or waiting until all your plans are finalized, can cause lethal delays. "Do the nicest graphic work you can, but all the back-end things don't have to be perfect. It's much better to go online with 80 percent of the solution and learn little by little how to improve," he says. "It's never finished anyway!"

Nurture your revenue stream. "At the beginning, a lot of money is going out. If you can get a little coming in, that's good," Liechti says. Early on, his company started getting two to five orders a day from friends and people he met. It was a tiny amount of sales, but it got the company into a revenue-generating mode from day one. With expenses, rather than plunge into costly processes, he outsourced various efforts and evaluated the results. "We paid a little more to test things, but when we realized that they really worked, we did bring it in-house and do it on our own," he says.

Marketing is key. Starting his career as a marketing manager helped immensely in his Internet startup, Liechti says: "There's no High Street on the Web. Nobody's passing by. So you need to have a clear vision about the promotion, what to do in the beginning, and then what you do afterward." Entrepreneurs who think they can outsource advertising and marketing to an agency and not think about it again are mistaken. "If you don't have a clue about marketing, you probably are not able to work with an agency, because it needs your leadership, your knowledge, and your input," he says.

Establish a rhythm. Liechti is a fan of Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, a book and leadership development program for growing companies. "I don't believe in everything [the program teaches], but this really helped my company and a couple of friends' companies," he says. Specifically, he has instituted firm schedules for company meetings and reviewing financials and marketing campaigns. In addition, every week he meets with each member of his team for half an hour. "We don't lose time by trying to find a date, or pushing it to next week, or the next," he says. Similarly, he looks at certain financials on a daily basis, others on a weekly basis, others monthly, quarterly, and so on. "We know exactly that on Mondays, this happens, and on Tuesdays, this. Things get done," he says.

Reinvent yourself. In a world where change is a constant, companies can get stale and old-fashioned quickly. "We're doing this now for more than 11 years. We know we need to have products which are contemporary, not from yesterday," Liechti says. "You need to have innovation, to look at things from a different perspective and ask if you're doing it the right way, or if there are other ways to do it. That's very important."

Karen_klein
Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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