Having spent 12 fulfilling years as a special education teacher, Rachel Smith had never intended to start her own small business—let alone an operation complete with a brand mission, small business insurance, and a marketing strategy. But when she needed supplemental income, that’s exactly what she did.
Smith is the founder of Pride Socks, a company that not only sells socks but also empowers individuals to take pride in who they are. “I realized that if I started this company, it wouldn’t be something I just did as a hobby. It’d become a career, and I’d give up teaching—a job that made a difference—so I needed to brand it to make a difference. I didn’t want that void in my life,” she explains.
More than eight years into running her business, Smith has learned some valuable lessons that she hopes will help other small business owners. We’re happy to be able to share them with you here.
Thanks for speaking with us, Rachel! So, why socks?
I guess I’ve always been obsessed with socks. My parents are deaf, so I was raised in the deaf culture. There are five of us siblings and our family was incredibly poor, so we all shared socks. Most of them had holes and were mismatched, so we’d hide them from one another if we found a good pair.
I understand. There were four kids in my family, and we always hid the good snacks in the back of the pantry. I’m wondering, where does the pride part fit in to Pride Socks?
When I was 14, I started running cross country and, while boarding the bus before one of our races, my coach gave me a card that said, “I am proud of you.” I read those words over and over again. This was the first time I saw that word and that someone told me they were proud of me. She believed in me when I didn’t know how to or what that meant.
Fast-forward to my first year teaching special education, and I realized that my students were just like I had been, only academically. They had always been told they can’t, they won’t, they never will. So, I created lessons that would naturally lead them to success. Once they completed such a task and felt success, I walked them through what that proud feeling was, what it meant, and why they could—and will—succeed. I wanted to do for my students what my coach did for me, and now I want to continue that message through my business.
As a business owner who didn’t expect to be an entrepreneur, what have been the most important lessons you’ve learned so far?
I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. Looking back, however, I was raised to be one. Still, I went into business very naive. My initial goal was to make a difference. That’s still the goal, and I’ve learned how to support it with a business model that allows us to grow while helping others. I’ve also learned how important it is to surround yourself with others who want to maximize what life has to offer.
I’ve also had to learn how to delegate and how to plan.
Was delegating difficult for you?
It was! Most small business owners can do everything and can do it best, and no one can do it as well as they can [insert sarcasm here]. The reality is that, in order to grow, you have to delegate, which did not come easy for me. But once I realized what my strengths were, it allowed to me focus my energy there and delegate what I wasn’t the greatest at.
For me, that started with hiring individuals to handle Pride Socks’ presence for me at events. They started with small events and then gradually took on larger ones. To help myself become a more effective and trusting delegator, we created guides and tool kits for my hires to set them up for success on all levels. I’ve also delegated design, social media, and website tasks, so that I am freed up for other work. This was all thanks to a push from my mentor—someone telling me I had to delegate to grow.
How did you connect with a mentor?
I found my mentor through SCORE, a nonprofit that helps small businesses. I’ve worked with two mentors there, and I really clicked with my second one, Carol. Having a mentor makes a huge difference for me. She has a nice way of putting me in my place and pushing me beyond my comfort level!
I’m so glad! Having a mentor makes a huge difference. Have you worked with any others to get outside help along the way?
When it came to developing our brand, the idea and the mission came from my experience, but I still needed help when it came to design. Our logo was designed, and our website is a template. In the next year or two, I’d like to do a custom website and will need outside help.
Also, about four years in, as Pride Socks continued to grow, I realized that this was becoming more than I thought it would. I was getting to a point where we needed backup and support, so I knew I needed to protect the business and myself with insurance. After shopping around, The Hartford had the friendliest people and was very customer service-oriented.
I noticed you share “Proudest Moment Stories” on your blog. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you?
It aligns with our brand mission. Pride Socks empowers individuals to take pride in who they are, so they chase and accomplish their dreams.
When someone shares their proudest moment, it becomes an inspiration for another person’s journey. It also allows the person sharing their story permission to celebrate personal accomplishments and empower others.
Beyond furthering your mission, how do you focus on getting new customers?
Our biggest asset is offering a service or product that people can connect to and that serves a purpose in their lives. Our brand empowers individuals to take pride in who they are, and we focus on gaining new customers by connecting through social media, newsletters, attending events, and seeing our customers one-on-one.
We believe when we share how the everyday person overcomes and deals with adversity and takes pride in who they are, we are building a community that builds everyone up.
Do you used paid social media advertising?
No. When it comes to social, we only go with organic reach. The strategy behind it is that we want to create a sense of community that people genuinely feel.
So it’s about cultivating a positive customer experience?
Yes, which includes strong customer service. If any of our customers ever gets a sock with a defect, we offer them several solutions and allow them to choose which works best for them. Everyone likes to feel like they have some control, and our customers are happier when they have a choice.
One of our favorite experiences is delivering in-person to our Austin-based customers the Friday before Christmas. It is our way of thanking our customers and making real connections with them.
I’m sure that your customer service helps you earn and keep customers. Do you have any other ways to turn your customers into repeat buyers?
For us, it’s helped to keep moving forward with new, meaningful products and then notifying our customers about them. For instance, a little over a year ago, we started Custom for a Cause. We collaborate with an individual to design a unique sock, and they choose a nonprofit that will receive the proceeds.
It’s an amazing way for us to help our collaborators make a positive impact with their design and empower our customers to make a difference with their purchase. This process also builds greater awareness for the nonprofit. We end up sharing audiences.
That’s a great way to inspire repeat buyers and reach new audiences. How do you ensure your past customers know about the new products?
We notify them through email newsletters and post about new products on social media.
How else have you found success in reaching a new target audience?
I feel like this is the biggest challenge for everyone! We are constantly trying new things to reach new demographics and targets. Everything we do is intentional, but many times our biggest successes come from the lessons we’ve learned from failures.
For instance, one of our biggest demographics now is moms. I was actually about to phase out our toddler sock sizes because they weren’t selling as well, but then a mom shared her child’s Pride Socks on Instagram, and now they’re our biggest sellers.
Having gone through that, have you tried to work with more niche influencers?
Only if it’s a genuine match, both for us and the influencer. I want all endorsements to come from the heart, so I avoid paid influencer situations. Of course, that may not make sense for all businesses, but I feel it stays true to us.
I love that you feel so passionately about maintaining your brand mission. Do you have any final advice to share with other small business owners?
My ultimate word of advice is: Be patient. Overnight success rarely happens. Reach out to other small business owners for support and morale boosts. Many of us experience the same things and can support one another.
Also, failure will happen. Instead of beating yourself up, try to look at it as a stepping stone. Ask yourself what you’ve learned and appreciate those learning moments. There’s always something positive that comes out of everything. It’s just how you choose to look at it: Find out what you’re supposed to learn from it.
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