Andrea Barton Reeves, former President/CEO at Harc, Inc., spoke to MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about the organization’s for-profit startup initiative.
[Photo Andrea Barton Reeves (center, holding scissors) at the SockStarz ribbon-cutting event]
NAN PRICE: How did Harc develop the concept for SockStarz?
ANDREA BARTON REEVES: As a nonprofit, Harc was thinking about ways to be more financially independent by investing in something with long-term financial sustainability. In 2019, Harc participated in the Social Enterprise Accelerator Program hosted by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Throughout the program, we did an enormous amount of work to figure out what kind of business we wanted to create. We had some criteria: Our venture needed a fairly low entry point with respect to capital. We wanted something that was portable to easily bring from place to place to sell. We needed something that would be interesting and fun for our participants, whether they were selling it, packaging it, or making it. We also wanted something that, if it didn’t quite work, we would be able to sell online or at pop-up stores.
We looked at all kinds of different businesses. I have to give an enormous amount of credit to Harc Board Member Patricia Kinney, who put so much heart into this process. I don’t think it would have happened without her.
In the end, we ended up selecting novelty socks because we knew how popular they were, and they met all our criteria. Harc provided a viable business model to the Foundation and we were selected as one of the 10 organizations they funded. Through the program, we also received free consulting services for 36 months to help launch our business.
NAN: Did the business plan include opening a brick-and-mortar location?
ANDREA: It did, and it was planned for some time in 2020. We had a phase-in plan where we were going to sell at pop-up stores, launch our online store and run that for a few months, and then find a brick-and-mortar location. Then, we got an opportunity for a storefront in on LaSalle Road in West Hartford Center. It happened sooner than we’d planned, but it was such a great space in a fabulous location that was affordable for us. The phase-in approach to our sales we had outlined in our business plan went out the window and we ramped up and decided to open the store.
NAN: When did the business open?
ANDREA BARTON-REEVES: SockStarz had its first sale in March of 2019. And then we opened our brick-and-mortar store in September 2019.
NAN: How has the process been to learn how to run this type of business?
ANDREA: It’s been a lot of trial and error. It called for a culture shift in our organization, because we are fairly risk averse by nature due to the work we do. Taking care of people and risk taking, don’t go hand and hand!
So, in doing this, we had to think very differently. And it was challenging for a while, because we weren’t sure whether we could make that shift. But we also knew we wanted the business to be successful. Over time, we all learned we were more than capable of making a cultural shift that would make SockStarz successful. That meant we had to let go of some of our ideas of perfection, because when you’re taking care of people, you have to get it right. There’s not a lot of room for any significant error. But, when you’re starting a business, sometimes things don’t go right, and you have to regroup.
NAN: Any specific examples or lessons learned?
ANDREA: It’s simple things like: How do we get the socks from this building to this pop-up without them all landing in the street? And, some of them landed in the street! So, we had to figure out what we did wrong and how we were going to fix it.
It was also things like determining pricing, what manufacturers to carry, and how to track sales. We had to learn all of that, which then carried over to the rest of the organization. It made us feel like we were capable of doing much more. And, it has energized the entire organization, because people are so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
NAN: In what ways is SockStarz providing opportunities for people with special needs?
ANDREA: The business was designed to generate revenue to fund our employment work here at Harc, not necessarily to provide a lot of employment opportunities for people, because it’s a nascent business right now. It does have the capacity and we hope it will grow.
That said, we do have people with intellectual disabilities working in every revenue stream we have. We employ people at the store in West Hartford and have people employed at Harc’s location in Hartford who label, sort, and help us select the socks and products we sell. We also have people with disabilities who work at our pop-up sales and some who helpful fill orders we get from our website.
We’re excited to provide these opportunities and we’re thrilled with the way that the community has embraced SockStarz. We’re exploring growth with new products and maybe new locations, too.