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How former banker brought happy socks to Kenya

A simple request by a colleague for fancy socks that are the rage sent Wanjiku Kariuki on a ‘hunting expedition’ that has seen her grow a company out of making people’s legs more colorful

Wanjiku Kariuki, a former banker, is building an empire out of happy socks. The genesis of her growing a renowned business, Sox Kenya, was an audacious move she pulled while at her former vocation. She dared to cash in on the side by selling mitumba outfits to her co-workers.

“I used to buy clothes for sale at Gikomba Market. I was the go-to-person for shirts and socks at the office. A colleague once asked for colourful socks, which most people didn’t know were called happy socks at the time. I went on a search for them, but I couldn’t get them in the second-hand market.

He then suggested that I get into the business of selling them since they were clearly hard to get,” she says. That is how Wanjiku became a foot, accessory entrepreneur.

She took up the challenge and went on an online research spree before finally venturing into it. This was in 2015, the same year she quit her job to focus on her infant business. The only hiccup was that she couldn’t find happy socks locally or get them made. She was forced to import.

“Having heard of countless awful tales of people getting swindled online, I was a skeptic of shipping. My friends warned me about it, but I still wanted to take the risk. So I invested a minimal amount that wouldn’t pain me if I got duped,” says Wanjiku.

With Sh15,000 wired to her overseas source, Wanjiku waited for the arrival of her first shipment with baited breath. When it finally docked in, she was so thrilled. There was only one problem; this was a retail deal that couldn’t sustain her start-up. She needed a better plan if her young venture was to scale up.  To make it sustainable, she went on a search for a wholesaler. By now, she had attracted attention and orders were trickling in.

Once she had the assurance that there was demand for her merchandise, she shipped in a huge second batch from a wholesaler. She has since then nabbed wholesale deals that she dispenses into the market at Sh300 to Sh1,500 per pair. Not to lock out anybody, but she says her market largely constitutes of men even though the multi-colored cotton-made socks are unisex.

The certified accountant’s business keeps getting steady with each shipment. Her initial fear and uncertainty dissolved as she became grounded. “After resigning from my job, I had to dig into my savings, especially the first two months.

I wasn’t sure this passionate leap I would work. Fortunately, I had a lot of support from my mum, who believed in me,” she says. She is a happy entrepreneur and is sure that no employee can fulfill her the same way this job does.

Seeking reinvention and sustainability, her business has evolved and created room for more accessories on the shelves. Ties, bow ties, pocket squares, lapel pins, suspenders and collar bar chains are now in the equation.

“I have also partnered with personal styling gurus who tailor suits. We have an agreement where we work with my accessories and their suits for our clients. We, therefore, tap into each other’s client base,” she says.

In her accessory basket, the ties could go for Sh500 to Sh850 while the bow ties retail at Sh300. Last year, Wanjiku made a cut into the wedding industry, which she says, has been her favorite market when it comes to styling. It all started when she dressed her brother’s wedding entourage and their photos went viral on social media.

The business reads like a success story and like any other risk in a marketplace, things aren’t always smooth. Wanjiku has now invested in more accessories, but the backbone of her business lies heavily in the socks, which aren’t a basic need.

This means that as a luxury item, there are bumpy episodes of snailing sales. The business worryingly plunged during the election period but has regained its tempo.

The biggest frustration, however, is the fact that there are no local happy socks manufacturers, which leads to spending more on shipments that usually take 40 days to get here. If the sea transportation is compromised, then the product has to be flown over, which tips the costs.

“My plan is to invest in a machine that makes these socks. I know it’s a big investment and I’m willing to bank on it. I think one machine costs more than Sh1m.

I also need to get training in its operation before I can fully dive in. It will take time, but I’m aiming for it,” she says. This would make a very big and lucrative difference to someone who has spent more than Sh400,000 on a single shipment.

Happy Socks have become a craze, which means the market has more dealers now. At some point, Wanjiku was afraid that she would lose her grip on the market, but she soon figured that competition is a healthy push. She, therefore, puts her best cards on the table to keep her clients coming back.

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