Marketing — both email and social media. When I started Hocsocx, I was absolutely not a social media person (still am not the biggest!). However, my first employee was in charge of posting on our social media, which is where we found a HUGE portion of our target customers. Having social media, specifically Instagram and Facebook — as well as email campaigns, have been huge factors to keeping our customers intrigued and up to date on what’s happening with our brand. Prior to hiring my first employee, my social media marketing was very erratic. Once I had someone doing daily posts across social media, we had measurable increases in sales. Then we added social media advertising and promoting posts which increased our sales even further. We’re also able to track this through our analytics.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Lefkowitz, President and CEO at Hocsocx, Inc.
As the saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention,” and for solution-driven, mother of 5 Debbie Lefkowitz that’s exactly what drove her to create Hocsocx; the bestselling collection of performance and compression liner socks and sleeves that protect against blisters and rashes caused by shin guards and protective padding used in sports like soccer, ice hockey and field hockey. Debbie launched the company in 2012 after noticing her daughters and some of their field hockey teammates suffering from painful, itchy rashes that did not respond to traditional treatments of creams and ointments. With her background as a pharmacist, Debbie immediately knew that a barrier was needed to prevent the recurring skin conditions, and thus — Hocsocx was born. Today, the thriving, Pennsylvania-based small business is a true family affair with Debbie working alongside her daughters as they continue to grow the brand.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Absolutely! As a mother of 5, my children were always involved with sports. My last two of the group (#4 and #5 as we like to fondly refer them) are my daughters, who ended up being the two who became the most serious and involved long term in sports and ultimately were the inspiration behind the creation of Hocsocx. Prior to the evolution of Hocsocx however, I was a practicing pharmacist. I was often taking my daughters to field hockey tournaments and shopping with them for field hockey merchandise at the vendors that were at those events. In between games, I would often hear the young athletes and their parents complain about rashes and itchy skin issues in the areas under their shin guards.
As both a mother and pharmacist, the health of my children and the other student athletes while in sports was important to me. I soon found a small sock manufacturer who was willing to sell a few hundred pairs of their socks to me and allowed me to private label their product just to see if the idea would sell. My living room became my labeling area. I reserved a tent at the vendor’s village at a national tournament where my girls were playing and gave it a try. Fortunately, it resulted in a very successful weekend!
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Both of my daughters became extremely involved in the sport of field hockey. In field hockey, athletes have to wear shin guards that cover the entire shin. Those shin guards have a hard, fiber glass material on the outside, with a rubber foam material on the inside. Since my background is in pharmacy, parents of athletes on the team would often approach me about the itchy, flaky rashes and pus-filled, bloody blisters their children were suffering through on their shins. They consulted me on what ointments or creams I would suggest. Many told me of stories of spending hundreds of dollars on doctor visits and medications. I realized my daughters weren’t experiencing any of these issues and that the reason was they wore a barrier. Neither of my daughters likes the feeling of the shin guard against their skin so they would wear a thin nylon sock underneath their shin guard. Although the nylon sock underneath was helping to prevent my daughters from experiencing a rash, I knew the sock was just too thin and not durable enough to last multiple practices and a season’s worth of play! It was then I had my “Aha Moment”! I needed to create a sock that was thin yet durable, fun yet functional, and had all the protection to wick away sweat and reduce irritation, ultimately providing a barrier… thus — HOCSOCX was born!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I would say some of the hardest moments were just starting out and really getting people exposed to the product. For years, athletes either played with no under sock or purchased rash protectors from other companies that had no foot and ankle barrier, often causing it to just ride up in the shin guard and defeating the purpose of a protector. So, there were definitely moments of doubt — especially at tournaments when individuals would walk up to our booth and show no interest in our product. However, the drive for us to continue pushing through was the feedback we received from the athletes who would try our product. Those customers would rave to us and others about just how well Hocsocx worked and how good they felt wearing them.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going GREAT. During our first year in 2012, Hocsocx was approached by the USA Field Hockey organization to became the official rash protector of the USA National Field Hockey Team and since that moment, we’ve continued to grow. We still promote the line at numerous events, which has led to relationships with retailers who also now carry our brand. Our collection is now the liner sock of preference for athletes in sports like soccer, field hockey, ice hockey, ice skating, and even for skiers!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
We were about to have a big Fourth of July sale. We wanted to promote Hocsocx in a big way. All our products were ready to go live on our website, but then we had a serious issue. Our inventory was a few weeks late and we were waiting for them to be delivered. We knew the shipment had left the factory 10 days prior, and usually it only takes about 5 days to receive them. This particular time, we were using a new, less expensive shipper. We had been trying for a few days, but could not get any information from them as to the whereabouts of our product. Finally, we received word that our stock was in Allentown, an hour away, and would be delivered in 2 days. Needless to say, we didn’t have 2 days.
My now VP, Melissa, and I decided we had to pull a “Thelma and Louise” and go on a mission to track down our stock and hijack it. We locked up the office/warehouse, rented a U-Haul van, and headed down the road. Thankfully, it ended up being a successful mission. We were able to track down the truck, get to the shipment, bring back our inventory, and comically save the day!
The biggest lesson we learned was that we had to have better communications with everyone involved in the delivery of goods, especially our shipper. We did have to shop around for a much better solution and stay on top of it. It took several attempts, but eventually we found the right shipper. We did indeed have other shipping mishaps, but none like that one.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As I briefly mentioned earlier, Hocsocx are the only performance liner socks on the market to have a full foot. We do offer a sleeve option due to requests. However, we find the original fans of the brand tend to stay faithful to the full-footed version. Hocsocx are also made of a much thinner material without the bulk factor, yet still durable in its structure- unlike other options available on the market. We also have a great selection of styles, prints and colors. We truthfully believe Hocsocx has a design to suit every personality. They’re a practical sock, but so much fun to wear. When we’re at tournaments, we hear so many stories from our customers of how Hocsocx has helped them.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
If I had to make a recommendation to colleagues within my industry to help them not “burn out,” I would suggest “work smarter, not harder.” I think as entrepreneurs we’re always thinking we need to go a million miles per hour in order to receive the most success. However, if you’ve established a committed customer base, and a product that is benefiting them in all the ways they need it, then there’s no need to overdue things. I think it’s very important to allow others to help where they can. It takes a village. Also, take a bit of time to refresh — whether it’s reading a book or going for a run. With determination and focus, your company will continue its growth and success!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am definitely grateful for my friend David. He’s an entrepreneur, landlord, and also owns a clothing company. He’s been my go-to person every step of the way. He helped me find affordable office space so that I could move Hocsocx out of my living room after a year. He’s given me sound financial advice, product advice, personal advice, and the list goes on. The most significant advice he gave me was helping me with my search for a factory to manufacture my ideal sock. He showed up in my office one day and told me to “Run, not walk, to the Magic Manufacturing and Sourcing conference in Las Vegas. It will change your life and by the way it starts in 3 days.” I was able to make it to Vegas from the East Coast to this conference, which is where I found my current manufacturer. It was amazing, and it did change my life. I was finally going to have my ideal sock, and I was able to go full steam ahead with promoting MY Hocsocx.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
The pandemic definitely forced many businesses to take a good hard look at how they do business online, and to upgrade their eCommerce capabilities. In the beginning, a lot of companies weren’t quite sure what the future would hold in terms of being able to do in-person shopping. For us, exhibiting at tournaments was a big part of our business. Many companies needed to adjust their services and selling strategies, and even had to completely change their product offering to reflect new consumer demands. For some luxury companies I’ve noticed, the eCommerce approach just doesn’t work for them, but on the contrary I’ve seen other businesses continue to flourish when adjusting the right way. Some examples of this include embracing new sales channels such as adding an Amazon Store or eBay Store, updating websites to be more buyer-friendly, and most importantly, collecting data on new consumer behaviors during the pandemic to meet changing customer needs.
For us, we’ve continued to increase our marketing (especially through social media — according to our analytics and customer data), and we’ve continued to work on keeping our inventory up to date. We’ve held sales and had contests to keep people interested in the brand. We also added a product line, and donated over a thousand pairs of compression socks to frontline healthcare workers.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
I would suggest to other companies, both retail and eCommerce, to continue to create quality products. Although pricing may be less than some of the products created in the US or Europe, something that has always and will always remain crucial is the quality of your product. Adjusting to some of the factors at play around you are a must, but if your company has aligned with customers thus far, they will remain loyal to your product or service.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Learning from your mistakes is definitely key to growing. Being an entrepreneur in the eCommerce business, at the beginning I definitely experienced mistakes and had to adjust things to make up for it. I believe the most common mistakes I’ve seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business is over-spending on inventory. So often, the over-zealous entrepreneur makes the mistake of thinking their product will sell quickly, when in actuality the process is definitely a bit slower until your product is more known. Starting out, a larger and smarter marketing budget and plan have to be the main focus. Many new entrepreneurs, myself included, feel they cannot spend on frivolous marketing when indeed it’s where the money should be spent.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Inventory management may be the most underestimated and most arduous task in running an eCommerce business. One day you have 100 orders, the next day you have 30 orders, so it’s critical to know what you need. As you grow and increase your marketing, inventory management can be crucial to the future of your business. Increased sales with failure to keep good inventory control can trigger a sequence of events that can have a lasting negative effects on your business. Failing to adapt to changing needs in inventory can lead to longer shipping times to customers, inability to fulfill orders and dissatisfied customers.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
In order to run an eCommerce business smoothly, I recommend a great inventory software, shipping software, and bookkeeping software. If you can have them all integrated, that is a bonus.
Right now, I am running our inventory and shipping though a software program called Shipping Easy and using Quickbooks Online as my bookkeeping software. These are all relatively inexpensive compared to others out there, and I have tried several. Shipping Easy is super user-friendly and integrates with my eCommerce platform and my Amazon store. All my orders come into one place and inventory is taken right out. I can also use the software to create purchase orders for my manufacturers.
Secondly, I would definitely recommend that eCommerce brands be active on social media and with that, finding the right audience through social media! Utilizing many of the tools social media has set up for business and advertising is very helpful. Especially in the situation the world is in right now. It’s key to connect with your audience on a regular basis. Social media can do that in so many different ways. Whether you offer funny content, informational content, unveil your new arrivals, post previews of sales, etc., engaging with your audience will keep your brand on their radar. In addition to social media, I would also recommend email marketing.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Consumers always love a discount or free shipping offer that will help lower the overall cost of their order. Immediately when a customer lands on our website, they will see a 10% off pop-up offer in exchange for subscribing to our email list that day. This is how we grow our customer database. Many of our sales come from email marketing. We also know that if a visitor subscribes to our email list, the next time we have a sale or send out an email for Hocsocx, they are likely to purchase again.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
My mantra is “Customer Service is Key”.
We take pride in our timely customer service responses offered through our eCommerce site. We often receive compliments on our speediness to respond and help resolve issues or questions. Often times, the people who are actually ordering Hocsocx through our site are parents of student athletes. Not only do we want the athletes to love their socks, but we want their parents or guardians to be happy with the clear, accessible communication they receive from our customer service; in addition to being satisfied with the benefits the product offers their child.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Poor reviews can be hard to receive. However, it’s definitely the way you respond that can either continue a poor relationship or allow the remainder of the conversation to be civil, and can even bring back the customer! It’s key to respond to a review with an open mind, and not with a knee jerk reaction. Also, remember to not take it TOO personally. It’s easier for people to speak their mind online simply because they’re behind a screen. Try to remember they most likely wouldn’t say something like that in person. Fortunately, we have had very few poor reviews.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Marketing — both email and social media. When I started Hocsocx, I was absolutely not a social media person (still am not the biggest!). However, my first employee was in charge of posting on our social media, which is where we found a HUGE portion of our target customers. Having social media, specifically Instagram and Facebook — as well as email campaigns, have been huge factors to keeping our customers intrigued and up to date on what’s happening with our brand. Prior to hiring my first employee, my social media marketing was very erratic. Once I had someone doing daily posts across social media, we had measurable increases in sales. Then we added social media advertising and promoting posts which increased our sales even further. We’re also able to track this through our analytics.
- Inventory Management– as we continued growing and developing throughout the years, it became crucial to have a solid supply of inventory. I believe when first starting out, you shouldn’t have an overflow of inventory, but rather have the ability to produce more product when you need it and buy in small bulks until your business starts making bigger, more consistent strides.
- Be prepared for ups & downs — as an eCommerce business, you have to remember you’re literally serving people that are ordering from you online! There are many different reasons why individuals may not be shopping, but being prepared to have slow times is definitely crucial. For example, for 10 out of 12 months of the year our business is crazy business, and then right around March and April we have a slow patch. This is typically a time where the sports we cater to are getting ready to get back into spring training, or just wrapped up their season. This is when we start transitioning to the summer months where we usually see sales start to rebound after that slump.
- Your ability to communicate timely and consistently with your customers will equate to their overall customer satisfaction — this is a HUGE factor in the success behind eCommerce. Nothing is more frustrating than shopping online, having a question or concern and not hearing back from the company for a week or never! Understanding the balance of where people are coming from with shopping online and not having the easy access of talking to someone face to face is definitely something eCommerce businesses need to understand. We’ve had many positive reviews that mentioned how quickly they received a response from us.
- Creating a solid customer base (repeat customers, etc.) — within eCommerce, as well as a strong following on social media and other online platforms is definitely important. Having the support from individuals who have not only purchased from you once or twice, but multiple times throughout the year not only helps with sales, but also with word-of-mouth marketing which brings referral traffic to your site/product. When Hocsocx first started, I luckily had my daughters to help encourage their teammates to try out our socks. As more of the team tried Hocsocx, our sales continued to grow thanks to their positive word-of-mouth endorsements of the product.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!