Interviews: Bootstrapper: Nic Harry - A business built on colorful socks

Bootstrapper: Nic Harry - A business built on colorful socks

By Anne Gonschorek on May 26, 2017

Nic Haralambous talks about his bootstrapped project Nic Harry. Tapping into the gap of creative accessories for men, his bamboo socks lead to a entire range of lifestyle products that are now going global.

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What is Nic Harry and how did you come up with the idea?

Nic Harry is a style and design company. We started out in 2012 with a core product of socks made from bamboo which are designed and knitted in Cape Town. By now, we have a full range of products to match your socks, things like ties, scarves and umbrellas. In addition, we’ve just launched our second core product, underwear.

The idea of boldly designed accessories is of course not new at all. I did, however, notice that there was a lot of choice for the ladies whereas the men were left with boring grey, black and brown. That’s a gap I chose to exploit.

What is your background? What did you do before you started Nic Harry?

I am a journalist by trade. I studied journalism, politics and philosophy at Rhodes University and later worked at 702, Financial Mail and Mail & Guardian. However, that didn’t last long and I shifted to the technology world when I joined Vodacom.

During my time there I started a mobile technology platform called Motribe which focused on building social networks that were optimised for feature phones (this was before the smartphone revolution). I eventually left Vodacom to raise money for Motribe and moved to Cape Town, which was closer to our VC.

How did you launch Nic Harry? What went into preparing for the launch?

I started by trying to find out if there was demand for the product I had in mind. That meant the first thing we needed was the actual product. So I did some basic googling and discovered a factory that was extremely helpful - we are still working with them to this day.

Once we had the samples ready, I decided to use as many free platforms as possible to get the project off the ground. WooCommerce was my first port of call for building the e-commerce store because I’m very familiar with Wordpress. I actually launched my first blog in the same year Wordpress was founded and have been blogging there ever since. We used social media to do our marketing, the Payfast plugin to receive payments, Google Analytics for web traffic and Campaign Monitor for newsletters and database management.

If you are not specifically setting out to build a technology company where your code is your IP, I don’t believe it’s necessary to build systems from the ground up at the start. Software is completely commoditized and competitive enough that you have valid choices. I decided that we would be an e-commerce retailer that specialises in product and design, not technology.

I initially used only R5 000 to fund the business. That mostly went towards product development and some basic coding help I needed with WooCommerce. Once that was all done with, we launched. We had three or four designs that you could purchase individually as well as a monthly sock subscription.

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I personally shared the launch of the site through all of my social media accounts and via emails to my network. I asked them to buy and share the webpage with their own networks. However, the key move to get the word out was the partnership with CityMob (now Superbalist) because they already had a large database of customers.

At launch we didn't have any stock ready. We literally made a few samples, listed them, sold stock we didn't have and went back to the factory to order stock and courier the orders to the buyers.

Most of the initial responses came from my immediate network, their friends and friends of friends. I don’t recall exact numbers but within a couple of weeks we’d sold hundreds of pairs of socks.

Can you tell us about the details of figuring out the logistics of manufacturing and deliveries?

That was purely a trial and error process.

We are using Dear Inventory as our central warehouse software. Our warehouse sits in Cape Town and we physically pick, pack and ship each order that leaves the warehouse ourselves.

In terms of our delivery, we talked to a lot of different courier companies to get the best pricing and the best fit. In the end, we were most impressed by Dawn Wing couriers. They turned out to be the best provider of technology and customer service and also offered the best price. We’ve sincedeveloped a great relationship with Dawn Wing and can ship anywhere in the country at a great rate in under two working days.

International delivery has proven to be a nightmare! We’re in the process of launching our US entity using Stripe Atlas and registering our import/export license so we can ship abroad with greater ease. The plan is to make use of Shipwire and/or Amazon FBA to manage our logistics abroad.

How big is the Nic Harry team at the moment? What are you doing to ensure everyone takes ownership of the brand you’re building?

At present, we have just over 20 people. Our onboarding process is quite in depth. Each team member spends 4 full days with me: We go through the different documents and delve into the brand identity as well as our approach to life. Since we have five physical stores, each team member - regardless of their position in the company - must spend time in the store to learn how to sell the product and how to engage with customers. The stores are our number one focus, so that is really important.

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In general, we have a very flat structure at Nic Harry. I try to make sure to talk to each team member every day and see how they're doing. We also practice radical candour in the team. That means honesty is our number one communication methodology. I don’t lie, I don’t sugar coat things and I don’t hold a grudge. If you make a mistake, I tell you. If I make you unhappy, you tell me. Then we all move on and do the best work we can do.

In addition, we use Slack as a communication tool because we have a distributed retail team that works on varying days and shifts. This way, we are able to send out updates, sales reports and any other important information with ease.

How does your business model work?

We started out as a pure-play e-commerce platform in 2012. I quickly realised that, in South Africa, this is hugely problematic as there is absolutely no scale for a niche player. South Africans are terrified of spending money online, never mind giving up their credit card details to a new sock company. Unless you are one of the big guns in the industry, you’re fighting for scraps.

That’s why we began to emphasise the general e-commerce store and roll out a wider range of products. Our model is centred around incredible products and fantastic customer service. We see ourselves as a company that places amazing designs on interesting products. This, in turn, informs our growth strategy.

We ended up learning a valuable lesson: If there aren’t enough people shopping online, get offline and sell your product there.

We took the business into physical retail in 2015. This really seemed to work: Within a single day of opening our first physical store, the turnover had tipped in favour of physical retail. Now we have 5 physical stores (three in the Western Cape and two in Gauteng), and online only brings in a tiny amount of the revenue, compared to the rest.

What are you doing to grow Nic Harry?

Because we are both online and offline, our marketing takes on a very different strategy than a pure play business.

We use Facebook ads to drive traffic to our website and our stores. Facebook has an immense amount of data about users. We make use of this to get the right people to see our ads and visit our stores.

In terms of conversions, email is still without a doubt our most profitable marketing tool though. That’s why we mainly focus on growing our database right now. We do this through in-store promotions as well as running competitions online.

The physical side of our business means we also do a fair amount of traditional marketing and PR. In South Africa, word of mouth is still a key platform. I have a PR agency that works with me to generate as much exposure for the brand as possible.

How do you think about competition?

We have local competitors but more importantly, there are quite a few globally. I see them as a confirmation that there is a market for me to address. I generally try to ignore what competitors are doing though because If I spent too much time focusing in on the competition, then I’d end up doing the exact same things they do. That’s the last thing I want.

What are your goals for the future of Nic Harry?

We’re growing the design aspect of our business. We want to become the go-to store for any and all thinkable men’s accessory around the globe. If you’re looking for a unique matching sock and umbrella, we’ve got you covered.

Our plans are to grow our offering and push into markets abroad quite aggressively over the next 5 years.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced thus far?

Every week we think the company is going to die, legitimately. There are any number of reasons on any given day that may make us feel that way. Slow sales, great sales but stock losses, bad stock takes, competitors doing something, the useless president of our country saying something stupid that puts our economy in jeopardy. I think every business owner feels this way at some point on the path to success. This is a high risk, high reward situation and you don’t build something great by not risking failure frequently.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Starting over would involve pushing immediately into foreign markets. Fortunately for me, this is exactly what our strategy is for the next while, so it’s kind of like I am starting over but with a full team behind me.

South Africa is not ready for niche e-commerce players to scale to huge businesses. There are cities overseas that have the same GDP as our entire country.

What has helped and inspired you on the way?

First and foremost I learn from the friends I choose to keep around. I’m surrounded by people that are entrepreneurs, investors and professional sports people. They all have their ups and downs and we learn from one another.

Generally, reading helps me. I read as much as I can, right now as close to two books a month. I’m currently reading The Art of War and The Doritos Effect and have just finished American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road. I like to read about how people built things.

I also journal as often as possible. I try to make it once a day but that sometimes beats me.

Where can we go to learn more?

Find us at www.nicharry.com. We’re @NicHarryStyle on all social platforms and most active on Instagram and Facebook.

You can see my personal blog at www.nicharalambous.com

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