Passion for custom socks helps young inventor launch million-dollar business

BY PAUL TENORIO
McClatchy Tribune News Service
Modified: April 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm •  Published: April 17, 2013
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ORLANDO, Fla. — Rob Starkman just wanted a cool pair of socks.

As a University of Central Florida student basketball manager with a growing shoe collection in 2011, Starkman was looking for something he could wear to work: gold-and-black gear to match the Knights’ colors. He saw his black-and-white Nike socks as a canvas.

Working with his mother over her kitchen sink in Coral Springs, Fla., Starkman fashioned his first pair of custom socks. Now, two years later, Starkman, 23, is CEO of Rock ‘Em Apparel, a fast-growing Orlando, Fla.-based company that he said is projected to do $1.5 million in sales this year, mostly in custom socks.

Starkman, who at 6-foot-10 looks like a basketball player more than a basketball manager, has jetted off to the NBA Draft and NCAA Tournament games to represent his company. Rock ‘Em has more than 115,700 “likes” on Facebook and more than 14,700 followers on Twitter. The University of Central Florida, Iowa State and Army are among the college programs that have worn the company’s gear during games.

“Never would I imagine it being this big,” Starkman said.

Today, demand for the company’s socks has far exceeded his expectations when he was crafting socks over the sink in his off-campus apartment and selling them on eBay. Yet, in some ways, it’s not too far off. Rock ‘Em is operated in the garage of a house Starkman rents just a few minutes from UCF’s campus. It is run almost exclusively by UCF students and alumni, two full-time employees and seven part-time employees.

The designs, Starkman said, are inspired by a variety of things. Many of the socks match popular shoes, complementing the inner linings of the newest Nikes. Some are inspired by players or movies or comic-book characters such as Captain America or Batman. Starkman draws them on his computer then translates them to the socks through a process that is now more streamlined than dyes and kitchen sinks, instead using a screening process. New designs are introduced nearly every week, and the company often also makes custom socks to match purchaser’s specific requests.

Starkman purchases Nike socks in bulk at full price then alters them. He said Nike’s legal team contacted him about the process as his company began to increase in popularity, but it found no fault as long as the company was paying retail price for Nike socks it altered and not creating knockoffs.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon last week, Starkman’s employees, who also happen to be his friends, worked shirtless in the garage. Four of them are fellow former UCF basketball managers.

Music blared over speakers set up on a wall that featured posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bane, a character from the most recent Batman movie.

Inside, the house is a blend of college-life-meets-startup-business. A paper cutter sits on the otherwise bare kitchen counter. The living room has been fashioned into a shipping center, with a basketball court taped off on the floor and a mini-hoop on the wall. Starkman’s Apple computer, filled with designs for past and future sock orders, rests on a makeshift dining-room table/desk.

“This is a Steve Jobs’ garage type of thing,” said Starkman, who has a framed copy of the Time magazine cover memorializing Jobs hanging on his bedroom wall.

On an average day, Rock ‘Em sells 60 pairs of socks at $40 a pair. On good days last month, those numbers swelled to 150 orders. Long gone is the eBay account, since replaced by a professionally designed website. In addition to the Orlando and UCF-based orders, Starkman began fielding requests from as far as New Zealand and Macau. The international sales are tallied with a dry-erase marker on a living room wall.

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