This week we have another eCommerce interview out of the UK, this time with Bertrand’s Proper Socks.
I spoke with Founder Xixi Zhu over Skype about the origins of Bertrand’s Proper Socks, what they’ve been up to recently and their plans for the future.
Kirby: How did you first come up with the idea for Bertrand’s Proper Socks?
Xixi: When I finished university, I worked for a bit. I hadn’t found fulfilment in a job so I decided to do something on my own, in my own time.
When you become an entrepreneur, you are looking for the perfect product. It came to be socks because I always buy socks as presents for my friends, especially guys. I don’t know why, but it became a habit.
One day I had a discussion with my friend, and we were like: “Yeah it is a big problem” [not being able to find high quality socks for men]. We did our market research, and then we just came back and thought: “Okay why not do socks?”
Like everybody else, we asked our parents what they thought. My parents thought it was a really great idea. In Chinese culture, socks are very important. They resemble, not just an accessory, but something that actually protects your foot.
Kirby: Once you’d decided to do socks, how did you find manufacturers or suppliers?
Xixi: I decided to go to China, to look for a factory. Then I went to Japan, looking for a better manufacturer. And then I came back to Italy. So it was kind of a journey to find reliable manufacturing.
Kirby: So you ended up in Italy?
Xixi: We ended up in Italy and in Japan, because we found the two to have very nice and reliable manufacturing [options]. The cost was also good.
We promote ourselves as an affordable luxury brand, so we decided that even if the cost of goods is high, we wanted to go for the best product possible.
Kirby: How did you reach your first customers?
Xixi: The first customer I reached, to be honest, was very surprising. We started doing advertising online and somehow this person bought from us, out of the blue. It was very weird, because normally with a startup your first customers are your friends and your relatives.
At the time we were very new so it gave us a lot of confidence to say: “You know what? We’re doing the right thing.”
That customer wrote back to us and said: “Great product, really nice.” That gave us even more confidence to carry on our project and make it a business.
Kirby: And how are you getting new customers now?
Xixi: Because we have a very small budget, like every startup, we keep our spending very tight. We do a lot of advertising on Facebook, because that’s probably the cheapest option. Then we’re also selling in different markets.
We have a different marketing strategy to other brands. We’re less focused on social media, because before we start a social media campaign, we actually let customers know about us in more traditional ways. Selling socks is different to selling clothes. You really have to feel and touch the product, to be able to actually buy it. That’s our experience.
So we’re not going very big on social media, but we have very good word of mouth and people love our product.
Kirby: Can you tell me a bit about your sock design competitions and how important these are to the business?
Xixi: The reason why we want to hold [the sock design competitions] is because when we started out, none of us had business experience or it was very minor. We realised that in life, when you are trying to do something you don’t know, you should always give it an opportunity.
We wanted to do sock design as a platform that allowed people who had created socks and [who had] creative mindsets to be able to express themselves.
Kirby: Do a lot of people enter those competitions?
Xixi: Yes. Not so much that we can’t handle it, but there are people who are submitting to us. We received quite a lot of designs for Father’s Day, but unfortunately we weren’t able to produce them because of a miscommunication with our manufacturers. That was a bit of a shame.
But we do receive a lot of [designs], and we’re slowly going to publish them. One of our socks ranges is called Peter Pan, and there we’re actually using sketches and drawings from kids to design our socks. We name the socks after their first names.
Kirby: When you started out did you receive any investment, or did you just fund everything yourselves?
Xixi: No, we have not received any investment, but I think that’s probably because we’ve never sought any. The reason that we actually sell well doing socks, compared to others in the industry, is that ours are actually relatively cheap or have lower costs compared to others.
We’re managing ourselves well at the moment. So I’ll say perhaps in the future we are going to seek investment, but at this moment, we don’t really need any.
Kirby: How many people are in the team now?
Xixi: There are four of us in the team. Because Bertrand is still in the very early stages, the four of us are trying our best to commit to it, but in the meantime, we’ve all hung onto our day jobs.
We are working hard as a startup, but we are just starting off. We’re not making enough to facilitate everyone.
But we have a great team, everyone is very committed and they are very enthusiastic and we are lucky to have all of them.
Kirby: I notice that you did a popup in June, how was that experience?
Xixi: The popup experience, that was really new for us, it was our first popup.
To be honest, we liked it, but not as much as we expected, because that day the weather was horrible. At the marketplaces, especially in London, [the amount of traffic] is very weather oriented. So if the weather is nice, people like to go out. If the weather is rubbish, everyone wants to stay at home.
But we managed to sell some socks and chat to customers. I would say that it was a good day for us. We really got to know our customers, know who will like our socks.
Kirby: Why did you choose WooCommerce to run the online store?
Xixi: When we decided to build our eCommerce site, the person who handles our website recommended WooCommerce as the most efficient and simple provider or service for operating simple eCommerce sites. At the time, we had a very small budget, so we went with it. We’re very happy with WooCommerce, everything is going well.
Kirby: I notice you use Subscriptions in your business. How important are the subscriptions to your business model?
Xixi: I would say that the business started on a subscription basis. However the market decided—you know the market decides everything—that the subscriptions would kind of fade away from our retail stream.
But subscriptions are still very popular, people still sign up.
And it’s very simple and very useful [software], especially when half of the people in our team are actually computer illiterate. We manage to use it, which is really good.
Kirby: So now your business is kind of a combination of subscription customers and one-time customers?
Xixi: Yeah, our business is combined with subscription customers and customers that are able to purchase online, and we also supply to other shops around London. That’s how our business is making income.
Kirby: What has eCommerce allowed you to do that you couldn’t have done if you were running a bricks-and-mortar socks shop?
Xixi: I’d say eCommerce is actually great. It really is a lifesaving invention.
First of all, it gives you a platform that allows you to attract different people to the site. It gives a better view of who you are [as a company].
ECommerce has definitely been essential to our business, and without it we couldn’t really attract more customers or potential buyers to us.
Kirby: We’re you inspired by any individuals or other companies when you decided to start Bertrand’s Proper Socks?
Xixi: Apple… I was kind of inspired by Steve Jobs’ personal experience. Although I never met him, but anyway.
When we started Bertrand’s and none of us had experience in how to run a business. We are from different backgrounds and are in the UK in a culture that… I don’t know.
Maybe in America it’s something like: “Yeah, it’s fine, we’re all going to do it.” But in the UK it’s a culture that if you don’t have experience, people don’t have so much confidence in you.
But when I read about the American entrepreneurship industry, it kind of gave me a hint that you should always be chasing what you really like. That you should also be open minded and learn more within the team. Even if you don’t have experience, you can always acquire that experience through learning. So that’s kind of the biggest motivation driving me.
That’s also driven Bertrand. There are four of us in the team now, we’re from very different backgrounds, but we have a great culture as a company and we help each other grow, we help each other learn. And when a member of us leaves we wish them the best and then we help them as much as we can.
Kirby: Do you have any advice for other people who might be thinking about starting their own business?
Xixi: Yes, I do. I’m very lucky, first of all that I have had the luxury and the time to really invest in myself and in the business. But I think my advice is, if I could start again, I would say do a lot of research. It’s so important for starting a business. It will really help you out a lot.
My other advice is to find a co-founder that understands you and who has the same dream as you. Because it gets very difficult and intense and you really need somebody to be there with you.
Kirby: What are your plans for the future at Bertrand’s Proper Socks?
Xixi: First of all, we want to increase sales and revenue. And we want to expand into women’s and children’s socks and underwear. That’s kind of our aim.
At Bertrand’s we always said to each other as partners that we want to expand, but we don’t want to lose our quality compared to existing competitors. We want to make sure that while we are expanding, our quality and our socks will always be exactly the same as when we started.
It’s interesting to hear another perspective on starting and growing an eCommerce business within the United Kingdom startup culture.
We wish Xixi and her team every success as they grow Bertrand’s Proper Socks and expand into women’s and children’s socks.