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.
“Within the first month of me starting (the company), I wrote down what I want it to be in a year, five years, 10 years,” Starkman said. “Seeing my five-year goals already being beat within the first year is awesome. So I probably have to reassess that at some time. ... Every day something brand-new is blowing my mind.”
Raised in a basketball family — his father, Bob, is a coach at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., his sister played college basketball and his brother is a basketball student-manager at Florida — the socks have felt like a natural next step to his passion for hoops and custom sneakers.
He started selling socks after his first pair drew raves on UCF’s campus. He would spend 18 hours a day over the bathroom sink in his off-campus apartment creating the products then sell them to friends on the campus or through eBay.
As the orders started to pick up, Starkman realized he had a potential business opportunity on his hands. During spring break in 2011, he created a website to handle the increased interest. Soon, he decided to go on academic leave to run the business full time, a decision that did not thrill his parents.
“He called, and I was a little upset,” Bob Starkman said. “I told him, ‘We’re not paying your rent anymore.’ You know what his response was? ‘You don’t have to.’”
Starkman’s mother, Jill, said she knows her son can return to finish his degree — he was 3½ years in to his time at UCF — in the future. Bob Starkman, a former U.S. customs agent, joked that when he first saw his son’s operation in the off-campus apartment, he was not sure whether it was for illegal purposes. Now he uses his basketball connections to help promote his son’s company.
“I expect to see Broward College wearing Rock ‘Em socks next year,” he said with a chuckle.
The company has continued to grow.
Rob Starkman said he is now searching for a warehouse and storefront in the International Drive corridor. And the socks have continued to find their way onto the feet of college and pro players. In one case, it was a player’s face that ended up on a sock.
UCF senior basketball player Keith Clanton was honored during his final home game with socks that featured his face. Clanton bought and wore Rock ‘Em socks for much of his senior season and said opponents often approached him before and after games to inquire where he got the custom gear.
“Everybody has the newest shoes, the craziest shoes,” Clanton said. “Socks to go along with it, nobody has done it before. If I wore them on the basketball court, it’s like a new (trend).”
The surreal moments have racked up so quickly since starting Rock ‘Em that Starkman began keeping a daily diary on his phone to chronicle them. Each day gets one line in the journal. Perhaps no night was as big as sitting in the stands at UCF, his former school, and seeing Clanton’s mother talk about his socks on national television.
From the kitchen sink to living rooms everywhere.
“Very proud moment,” reads Starkman’s entry March 2. “Just the beginning.”