Xavier Jackson was sitting in his living room in Cockeysville, Md., on a summer night in 2012, when he collaborated with his mother to develop the concept for what would later become known as I Got Game Brand socks.
Now, Jackson is one of many small business owners looking to take his company to the next level.
A native of Baltimore, Jackson, 25, said the idea for I Got Game Brand stemmed from watching his 6-foot-7 cousin’s basketball team play at a high school tournament in Virginia earlier that summer. He said he noticed that most of the players were sporting Nike Elite socks and decided to focus his attention on creating his own sports-apparel sock.
“I took time off from my job to go to school for business and told my mom, ‘You know what, I’m going to do these socks called Got Game socks or Game Changer socks,’” Jackson said. “She was like, ‘I Got Game,’ and she started laughing. Then, a little light bulb went off for me, and I said, ‘That’s it.’”
After Jackson got fired about a year and a half ago while working in the sales department of a Fortune 500 company, he said he knew it was a sign to continue marching forward with his project.
“I got laid off,” Jackson said, “so I had to wait for a while until I got unemployment to order my first pair of prototypes with the money I got from unemployment. I literally went from the unemployment line to starting my own business.”
Jackson said he expects I Got Game Brand to parlay its early success. He also said consumers who have started purchasing and wearing creative socks have done so with a purpose.
“People who are identifying themselves with these socks are wearing them with different outfits,” Jackson said. “Whether you are out a family event or playing basketball with your friends, we’re making the ultimate accessory staple piece for your outfit. We’ve gotten feedback from our customers, saying that they are wearing I Got Game socks because it’s something they can identify with.”
According to a report released from the National Diary Purchase Group’s Consumer Tracking Service in April 2013, sock sales increased 5.6 percent in 2012. The report showed that the average price for a pair of socks was $1.74.
Although Jackson acknowledged that the price for a pair of I Got Game socks costs almost 10 times more than the average pair of socks, he said his company’s socks provide something more than the typical black and white sock.
“We’re introducing something softer, with the new MoistTech technology,” Jackson said. “We’ve basically introduced a new product, something that’s just now being introduced to the sock industry.”
Gilbert Goetz, a men’s fashion consultant, wondered about the creative sock industry’s long-term sustainability.
“We’ll see in the upcoming years how creative socks will adapt as trends change,” said Goetz, who was president of Changes Inc., a chain of Baltimore-based urban-wear clothing stores, from 1986-2008. “One of the most important things with these socks will be for the sock makers and companies to come up with new, innovative ways of allowing consumers to express themselves and their sense of style through their footwear.”
Jackson echoed Goetz’s sentiments and said I Got Game brand is taking the steps to capitalize off its early success, having sold more than an estimated 30,000 pair of socks during the last two years through the company’s website, IGotGameBrand.com, and Shoe City locations in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and Richmond, Va., for $16 a pair.
Socks are having a major fashion moment, with creative styles spreading from online startups to mass-market retailers. Jackson hopes to spread his product to specialty stores in the near future.
“During the next six months, we’ve put a plan in to motion to be in Foot Locker, PacSun Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom and Macy’s,” Jackson said. “We also plan on being the setters of the creative sock industry, leading by example when it comes to style and creation.”
While Jackson continues his efforts to get I Got Game Brand socks into specialty stores across the U.S., he said he brokered a deal in February with Downtown Locker Room, a Baltimore-based urban-wear retailer, to carry I Got Game Brand’s spring line of socks starting in May.
Like Jackson, Ali Von Paris, founder of Route One Apparel, has also expanded her local company. Shipping to virtually every country in the world, she transitioned from a college student to a successful entrepreneur.
“I really improvised as it went along,” Von Paris said. “I didn’t have a game plan. We’ve never suffered a loss, which is unheard of in business, and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
Four years ago, as a junior at the University of Maryland, Von Paris worked as a beer tub girl at Thirsty Turtle. When the bar shut down, she wanted to show her support for the bar and its staff. Having a knack for design, she created a “support jersey,” which ended up going viral on Facebook.
After that success, she created a website to help sales, selling over 600 jerseys in under a month.
“I took advantage of an extremely unique situation,” Von Paris said. “The bar had a huge following. Being young with no real world experience, my biggest challenge has been management. When you hit a certain level of growth, you have to give up some equity to bring people onboard to handle some of the duties.”
To focus on growing her brand, Von Paris said not controlling every aspect of the company has been a step in the right direction.
She also cherishes the connections her products have helped make around the world.
“People become friends over products if they see each other at places outside of Maryland,” she said.
This kind of excitement over Route One Apparel is what Von Paris would like to see preserved. She still considers her company a start-up, because it has a distinct personality.
Still, it’s not to say it was all fun and games. There are plenty of challenges Von Paris faced along the way, but she said she is doing fairly well for herself.
“I’ve always been profitable, successfully paid off student loans,” Von Paris said, “but I’m not wealthy by any means. I live a comfortable lifestyle and don’t plan on being a millionaire.”
Three out of 10 new employer firms fail within two years, according to a Sept. 9, 2013, article, “16 Surprising Statistics About Small Businesses,” on Forbes.com. Making an idea last and constructing a business from the ground up is the toughest part of being an entrepreneur.
Consequently, the Forbes.com article also notes that 52 percent of all small businesses are home-based. For example, Under Armour started in Baltimore and has spread west to California, as well as global to major cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.
As an experienced small business owner, Von Paris can share useful advice. In addition, she said small businesses continue to face the challenge of competition
“After start-up, there were a lot of copy cats,” she said.
However, Von Paris said she knows competition is healthy. She acknowledged that a huge part of competition today is getting your name out there, especially by attracting followers through social media. Von Paris said she has over 100,000 social media followers in the state of Maryland alone, while her email list tops 30,000 people who receive updates, promos and product releases.
Von Paris said she encourages people to post about their personal experiences with the products. She said she also encourages people to share photos.
“Twenty-three percent of what we hear is stories involving where people are wearing their Route One,” Von Paris said. “It’s cool because it collaborates everyone and helps grow our brand.”
When it comes to growth, Von Paris said it’s what every small business owner hopes to achieve.
“The biggest motivation is wanting to prove people wrong, with that mindset you can go far,” she said.
Von Paris said she advises young entrepreneurs to surround themselves with other people who have creative ideas.
“You have to be the type of person to learn things on your own,” she said. “No one wants to help you, nor do they want to take you seriously, but that’s not a bad thing.”
Von Paris said she spent many nights learning how to make her business better, sacrificing personal time for the good of the company.
“I get a lot more respect from customers and the community,” she said. “I’m not someone just trying to prove people wrong anymore.”
Kevin Stecko, founder of 80sTees.com, said technology is another challenge faced by small business owners. He understands the importance of using technology effectively.
“I would say having someone with equity who is good in technology is key for a small business person if they themselves aren’t technically capable,” Stecko said. “We subscribe to services for our back end operations and even our website. For the few things these subscriptions don’t do, I have done some app development using outside developers and open source technology.”
Since selling the first pair of I Got Game socks out of the trunk of his car nearly two years ago, Jackson has expanded his operation, moving into an office building located in downtown Baltimore.
As Jackson continues growing I Got Game Brand, he remained adamant about staying humble. Moreover, he said he still cracks a smile every time he sees someone wearing a pair of I Got Game Socks.
“To this day, I could be at Burger King or McDonald’s and a kid might have on I Got Game Socks,” Jackson said, “but they no idea who I am. For me, it’s the smaller things like that, which make me appreciate what I do so much.”
To continue developing his vision for I Got Game Brand, Jackson said he wakes up each day with the same three things in mind.
“Every day I wake up, my goal is to grow as a business person, grow as a man and grow as a father,” Jackson said. “Whether it be picking up something and reading it or just interacting with people, that can be used to help me grow, become a better person and to help my business become better.”
Jackson said he hopes to distinguish himself and his company by becoming well versed in the tricks of both the fashion and business trades.
“I want to chase history,” Jackson said. “I want to not only leave my mark in fashion or in sports apparel, but also in business. I want to be remembered as this one kid who grew up in this city and have people say, ‘If he can do it, I can do.’”