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Episode 13: Baris Atmaca, Socks Kick

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This week we’re chatting with Baris Atmaca from Socks Kick, located in East Jordan. Baris has such a cool story, as he is originally from Turkey, and came to East Jordan as a Rotary exchange student in the early 2000s. He fell in love with the area and came back years later to run his socks manufacturing company in northern Michigan. We chat today about why he chose to run a business in northern Michigan when he could have gone to any big city, the local difference in terms of community support, and what makes his socks better.

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Show Transcript

Ruthy:

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Terrapin Small Biz Connection, the show where we really get to the heart of what it means to be a small business owner in Northern Michigan. We’re powered by Terrapin Networks, which is your place for small office IT located in Traverse City. Here at Terrapin, we believe that small businesses are special; their struggles, their triumphs and particularities are sometimes overlooked by our communities and especially our politicians. This is especially true in Northern Michigan where we believe it really takes a certain type of grit and resilience to run a small business. Today, myself and my cohost, Tim Gillen, will be speaking with Baris Atmaca of Socks Kick in East Jordan. Baris is from Turkey, and he originally came to Northern Michigan in the early 2000s as an exchange student. He fell in love with the area and later, he met and married a woman who was the daughter of a major socks manufacturer in Istanbul. The couple of them brought their incredibly comfortable socks to Northern Michigan and started their own company. Designed, owned, operated all within Northern Michigan. Socks Kick is a part of the local fabric, if you will. So without further ado, I’m going to hand this over to Tim to welcome Baris from Socks Kick.

Tim:

Thank you, Ruthy. Tim Gillen here, Terrapin Networks, Traverse City, Michigan. I’m the founder and president of Terrapin Networks. And we thank you for joining us this week for the Terrapin Small Biz Connection. The founder this morning from Socks Kick up in East Jordan, Michigan is Baris Atmaca. Hello, Baris.

Ruthy:

Hi, how are you?

Baris:

I’m well. Thank you. It’s nice being here.

Ruthy:

Thank you so much for being here.

Tim:

So you have a terrific “origin story”, as the exchange student who came back to make good with the locals. Give us a little bit of that story if you don’t mind.

Baris:

I first came to Michigan as a Rotary Exchange student in 2005. After spending a year here, I realized that Michigan is full of warm hearted people who live in very cold conditions. It’s where I use my hand as a map, started measuring distances in hours rather than miles. I found out that the UP is a place, so not a direction. They run on ice, swam in lakes, fished, camped snowmobiles and baked with soda and drank pop. I loved it here so much. Over the years, I kept close contact with my host parents that I stayed with and my friends, of course. So about two years ago, I came back, and I got the idea of bringing socks here.

Baris:

So the socks business started with my father-in-law. My father-in-law started a company in Turkey manufacturing about 30 years ago. After I got married to my wife, I started working with her and the family business. We produce very, very thick winter socks, cold weather socks that are suitable for the Michigan weather. When I came back to Michigan to visit my host parents, I realized that the socks we produced in Turkey would work well with the weather. So we designed a collection, we came up with a brand and everything is designed in Michigan and produced in our family owned factory in Istanbul, Turkey. So that’s just the beginning of the story.

Tim:

Wow, that’s a terrific story. So you’re working for the family business with your father-in-law and started thinking, “I got someplace else we could sell these, dad, because these people need warm socks and we’re making warm socks.” It’s such a natural relationship, I guess. Was there a lot of difficulty setting up the import/export part of things? Was that difficult? Was the state and/or feds here in the US easy to work with? Was it a challenge? How’s that worked out?

Baris:

Well, actually, when I first came back to Michigan after my exchange years, I did a lot of research. So I got in connection with the Eastern Jordan Chamber of Commerce, and also people from the Small Business Development Agency in Michigan. I tried to get a lot of information of how to set up the business because it’s not just selling one product, it’s actually exporting it and producing. So there’s so many steps to it. We have experience in the sock business and exporting from the Turkish company. With them, we currently sell to most of the European countries, UK, as well as Canada and the US right now.

Baris:

So we combined the experience in Turkey with the manufacturing and exporting to running the small business in Michigan. We set up a warehouse that’s 7,000 square feet in East Jordan, Michigan. We also have an online store where we sell the socks, but our main focus is to be able to sell them as wholesale in the larger retail shops, bigger stores. At the moment, we have 15 locations, kind of boutique stores, local stores around Michigan, and as well as Wisconsin and Ohio. But of course, we want to expand from the small businesses to the midsize markets.

Tim:

Turkey is part of the European Union, right?

Baris:

Turkey isn’t a full member, but we have a trade connection with the EU. It’s easy to trade. Also, US has a trade agreement with Turkey that includes textile products as well. But to be honest, we didn’t have a lot of struggles getting the goods into the US in terms of the shipping, everything was pretty well organized and we didn’t have many problems. The only problem we had was getting the socks moved within the US. We use ocean transport. The ocean transport is easy, it gets the goods into Halifax, Canada, and then they go on a train to somewhere in Detroit and then take a truck to East Jordan.

Baris:

So that inland transport actually ended up costing more than what we expected. But other than that, it was fine. The ETA is usually 30 days, but it ended up taking 50 to 60 days because of that issue with inland transport and it was middle of the winter. It was in January, so that didn’t help too.

Ruthy:

So you needed the socks for that cold weather!

Tim:

Tell me about the warehouse that you have in East Jordan. This is a former factory that you’ve been able to move into?

Baris:

Yes. This was an old factory in East Jordan. I think it used to make car parts. It’s called Dura building.

Tim:

Yeah, yeah. The old Dura building, for sure.

Baris:

It’s a really nice place to warehouse the socks. Also, we have a little storefront actually in the back of the building that we can also use as a retail place. We designed it as a showroom so buyers would come and pick their style and order. But of course, that acts as a retail location as well.

Tim:

Now, you’re a member of a local Rotary Club. You’re actually are an exchange student who’s joined the Rotary Club. Am I following that correctly too?

Baris:

Yes. Yeah, I actually did a little bit of research and I contacted Rotary International about this. I am the only exchange student in the world that became a member of his host club.

Tim:

Isn’t that great?

Ruthy:

I love that. I find that hard to believe that you’re the only one so far, but I guess that’s pretty cool. That speaks a lot to how it’s such a cool program that they have, the exchange student program. They’ve been doing that exchange program for so long.

Tim:

My next question for you, Baris, is when is your exchange student showing up? (laughter) Come on now, Baris. You got to pay that back, right?

Baris:

Of course. Yeah. I’m actually in the board of my Rotary Club that also handles the exchange student program as well.

Ruthy:

Let’s cycle back to running your business in Northern Michigan. I know that you have this connection with your host family andthese warm socks work very well in Northern Michigan. What is it particularly about Northern Michigan, other than your host family and all that, in the actual act of running your business? Is there anything about doing that in Michigan, as opposed to Turkey, that you prefer or that you really love?

Baris:

Yeah. It’s working to our advantage so far. We didn’t have big issues in the beginning. We didn’t have staff problems. For example, even when we had our first shipment in, if we were in somewhere else other than a place that I don’t know, we would have to make an announcement, try to get people to help with the unloading and stuff. But when I was in East Jordan, I just called my host mom. I said, “Mom, there’s a truck coming,” and she made a few phone calls and 20 people showed up in 10 minutes.

Ruthy:

So it’s the community support.

Baris:

Yeah, the community support. When you compare the small towns with of course, the cities, you see that in smaller towns that the community is much more close to each other, and we like that. We really want to wanted to grow from there rather than get lost in a larger place, a bigger city.

Tim:

That’s actually a significant benefit that gets overlooked.

Baris:

Yeah. For example, another example, we visit all the international trade shows.This past February, we were in Las Vegas having this called a Magic Show, which a lot of brands, big companies get in. So we were there with our Socks Kick booth and a lot of people, especially the buyers from New York and California and those larger states, they come and say, “East Jordan? Where is this place? Why did you pick a very small place to start with then?” And I started explaining the reasons of the community, the support. When we first opened up, so many people showed up to the opening and all the local press coverage was great and people started call. Whenever I go to, for example, a store or get gas, people say, ” Hey, you’re the socks guy.” I wouldn’t have that in a larger city. That wouldn’t happen.

Ruthy:

What a cool differentiator. One thing I was thinking about when you were saying that you were at that Vegas showcase, that the places from big cities were saying, “Where’s East Jordan?” I would think that that would also be a cool differentiator for your business, that you’re not trying to run it out of a big city like Baltimore or anything. It might stick in a manufacturer or a larger company’s mind that you’re running from this small company and the reasons why you’re doing it. I think keeping it local would just make that even moreso, keep making sure that keeping everything here in the area.

Tim:

Well, and also, I think Baris has maybe started a whole new genre here of craft socks. We have craft beer. We have craft whiskey. Now, maybe we have craft socks.

Ruthy:

I don’t think that’s a new thing. (laughter) People have been making handcrafted socks for quite a while.

Tim:

I like craft socks. Maybe I’m jumping the gun a little bit there. I don’t know. The natural next progression in the conversation is the technology. Do you have some kind of a direct connection with your staff back in Istanbul? Or are you a standalone here? What kind of internet connectivity have you been able to put together in East Jordan?

Baris:

Well, in East Jordan, we are using the state-of-the-art computers from Apple. I developed all the systems in Michigan that I can control actually from my phone anywhere in the world. So right now, I’m sitting in my car in Istanbul and I’m talking to you guys with my laptop on my lap. We do use a lot of FaceTime with the video connections, of course. Even though East Jordan is considered ‘middle of nowhere in the US’, the connection is much more stable compared to Istanbul’s connection because we have 20 million people living in Istanbul. So that that’s why, even though it’s a larger city with a lot of connections, believe me, East Jordan’s internet is the best. There’s no disconnections and there’s no power outages and stuff like that.

Tim:

We are in Northern Michigan and Baris is able to give us some input that says that our internet connection up here is better than he gets in that big city, and that’s kind of neat, isn’t it? What do you see coming in changes in the sock, in that kind of wearables market space? Do you see a lot of changes? Do you think that the manufacturing in general is going to be changing? Do you see changes coming after this pandemic and shows and traveling? Do you see some of that shifting or is the general mindset is going to once the pandemic clears through to use that phrase, if that’s accurate, the things are kind of get back to normal, in what it is you folks have done for just a decades?

Baris:

Well, in terms of the socks that we make, we’ve been using the similar machines and then making similar kinds of socks, which are, I call them grandma’s socks because when people see, there’s like, “Oh, my grandma makes similar ones.” It’s also good that the season is pretty long in Michigan.

Tim:

Seasonal for warms socks up here is just about the entire year, except 4th of July weekend.

Ruthy:

We speak with so many business owners on this show who talk about the seasonality challenges that they have with their business. But I think you’re definitely the first one who has 100%, that’s just not really been an issue, except for, like Tim said, the weekend of the July 4th. That’s pretty much the only time. Well, Baris, how can listeners get ahold of you if they’re interested in learning more about yourself or the company?

Baris:

Well, you can definitely follow us and like us on Facebook. You can just search Socks Kick in Facebook or you can follow us at Instagram. If you to reach us, you can always email hello@sockskick.com.

Tim:

Your website is sockskick.com? Easy to navigate. It’s very well done. Easy for a shopping. Easy to see what you’re doing.

Ruthy:

Well, thank you very much for hanging out with us today, Baris. Safe travels getting back to Northern Michigan and stay safe and healthy, and best wishes to you and everybody over there in Turkey.

Baris:

Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for having this and making this opportunity for me to come on to your show. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and hopefully next time, I’ll see you face to face with the social distancing.

Ruthy:

All right. Thank you very much.

Ruthy:

Now, for Tim’s Takeaway. Welcome back to again to Terrapin’s Small Biz Connection with your hosts, myself, Ruthy Kirwan, and Tim Gillen of Terrapin Networks in Traverse City. This is the section of our show here that we like to call “Tim’s Takeaway” where he and I just kind of chat about the technological aspects regarding the conversation that we just had. Today, our conversation was with Baris from Socks Kick in East Jordan, which is the coolest company, the coolest origin story. I loved everything about chatting with him today. What a sweetheart. He’s calling in from Istanbul, and just we had said when we were wrapping up, how much I told him that I appreciated the effort he put into making sure that he was speaking with us on different time zones and calling from his computer and his phone.

Ruthy:

Saying that reminded me of something that you and I talk about often when it relates to technology, and that’s the aspect of how technology and the internet makes it seem like everybody’s next door, which is even moreso. You know, at this moment that I’m speaking to you, I am in Queens, New York City, and you are in Traverse City and Baris was in Istanbul, and it felt like we were all sitting in the same room chatting about his business. I want you to talk a little bit more about that and how that can help other small business owners run their business, especially in these unprecedented times that we’re having.

Tim:

Yes, the old, “In these uncertain times,” it’s like we need a little gong to sound there. Yes, I’m here in the Terrapin broadcast central headquarters, Global Star Chamber Studios complex.

Ruthy:

Yeah, it’s very fancy.

Tim:

It’s just a hub of activity, everything moving around. You’re there in your little apartment in Queens-

Ruthy:

I am.

Tim:

… after spending a wonderful summer in Northern Michigan, and here’s Baris sitting in his car with his Macbook on his lap chatting with us in real time while we record the show. So here’s the breakdown for all of us in small business in Northern Michigan. That’s a huge advantage and a huge risk. One of the things that we’ve talked about over the years on this show is how security and connectivity can be sometimes a lure that can be taken advantage of. For example, we normally do our security, our physical security at our office building, let’s just say, or even our house based on our geographic location.

Tim:

I was chatting with some folks up here in Elk Rapids, Michigan, they have a small manufacturing company. We were speaking here recently about how if their physical factory was in certain parts of downstate Southeast Michigan, there might be bars on the windows and we might have a lot different alarm system and security and fencing. They don’t need really need that up in Elk Rapids because geographically, they don’t have the same kind of risk that they might have in certain other cities, towns, neighborhoods, whatever it might be. However, when it comes to technology, everybody is right across the street and so is Istanbul. Now, that’s a huge benefit. Baris can be back at the family factory in Istanbul and still stay on line. As he says, he can control machines and computers and cameras and see the stock and everything of what’s happening in East Jordan in real time.

Tim:

Now, that’s a huge benefit, but it also means that the bad people, the bad actors, the kind of people who you have to put bars on your windows for because if they see that there’s no bars, they’re going to try to get in, are going to try to get into your outfit through technology. So the advantage still has to be addressed as the disadvantage that it brings along with it. I’m not trying to be doom and gloom here. It’s just something that needs to be addressed. We sometimes think, “Well, geez, it’s working great. It doesn’t have to be addressed,” and that’s always the risk that I tell small business owners: “Just because it’s working doesn’t mean that you’ve addressed some of these risks that you may not know about.” The bad actors take advantage of those things that you might be overlooking.

Tim:

So Zoom meetings are fine. They’re not particularly risky as long as you set up things with a password. Your biggest risk there is being ‘Zoom bombed’, as they call them, and somebody jumps into your meeting uninvited, which is not difficult now to address whether it’s Zoom, Teams, Skype, whatever, BlueJeans, 8×8, whatever you might be working with for your video conferencing. But when you start actually sending data back and forth or working from home or working from that branch office, now we need VPNs in place and firewalls. We just need a few things in place and that’s where you want to bring in, frankly, bring in an expert because if you don’t bring in an expert, you’re probably going to overlook something. That’s what we do. At Terrapin Networks, that’s what we’re known for… we set things up by assuming a high level of risk and that’s not overdoing things, but we assume a high level of risk. We don’t think, “Well, we’re just a small little manufacturing outfit out of Elk Rapids, or a small distribution facility right now in East Jordan. Who’s going to care about us?” We just assume that someone’s going to care about us because everybody’s right across the street. The hacker in Malaysia is right across the street, right there. They’re looking in your windows from across the street, which again, it’s not doom and gloom, but it does need to be addressed.

Ruthy:

It’s just the reality of what the internet is right now. There was another thing that Baris mentioned that I found surprising and curious and pretty cool, and I want you to touch on that a little bit and that’s that he’s recognized that the internet connectivity in East Jordan is better than what he gets in Istanbul, which is a major metropolitan center. So talk to me about that because connectivity is a, is a topic that comes up often on this show, the good connectivity as well as the bad.

Tim:

Well, we overlook it in Northern Michigan and we overlook how actually, how good we actually have it up here. Now to be fair, you have to be in East Jordan. Your eight miles outside of East Jordan, it’s not going to be the same thing, or 15 miles out and that’s just out in Charlevoix County. Those are kids who will still go to the East Jordan schools and they may not have the same connectivity at all, but in the city itself of East Jordan, which is a really small town, terrific connectivity. Elk Rapids in the city, small town, terrific connectivity. So in our cities, especially, and by cities, I mean small towns, we might talk 2000 people and 5000 people and 1500 people, our connectivity can be just rock solid and Charter Spectrum has done a good job for us up here.

Tim:

Charter can be frustrating to work with because they’re a big outfit. AT&T has actually done a pretty good job. Their offerings are actually solid. Once they’re in place, usually the trick is getting them to respond. But once you’ve got things in place, they’re pretty solid. We’ve got folks all over Northern Michigan with a solid Charter Spectrum connection doing VPN, site to site VPNs between a branch office from Traverse City up to an East Jordan, that kind of thing, that are very solid connections. They’ve laid a cable and, in many places, fiber. We’re getting fiber in Traverse City. That has been rolled out. And here is someone in Istanbul, city of 20 million people, again, two and a half something times the size of New York city, large city, and even then, he’s got a difficult time getting good internet connections, getting solid power that that stays up.

Tim:

So we actually have really good technology infrastructure that we sometimes overlook up here. Northern Michigan is blessed to have it and they’re taking advantage of it at Socks Kick. I think all of us could take advantage of it. Again, going back to the conversation just a couple of minutes ago, be sure you put your security in place. That’s easy to overlook and you do want to have that and that actually helps keep the connectivity solid too because you don’t have traffic going back and forth, people trying to break in.

Ruthy:

That’s a very good point. Yeah.

Tim:

Yeah. So when we talk about the solid connectivity, that’s one of the advantages that we’re able to bring to the picture also. I’ve been here in Northern Michigan doing technology support and tech system setup and support for 30 years now and kind of know all the players, know the techs at Charter. We have access to their network operations center when we need somebody to get online. We know who the wireless providers are. We tend to know all these providers. When we need to need to solve a particular puzzle or problem on the technology side because you’re 15 miles outside of East Jordan, or let’s just say, we’re able to help you figure out what your actual solutions are because we’ve done it.

Tim:

That’s a nice advantage too, and our customers give us feedback a lot that it was pretty nice that we knew who to call and how to get that done right and what the actual options are because geographically, those options can change. In Traverse City, it’s different than even in Acme in the edge of Traverse City, which is different than Elk Rapids, which is different than Williamsburg, which are all little towns around Traverse City. But because of the geographic spot that we’re not one big metropolitan area, some of those options change and so having some expertise, I’ve been involved in just about every scenario you can think of. Now, we’re able to bring that to bear, which can be really valuable.

Ruthy:

That’s a very good point and truly. Unfortunately, I think that’s all the time that we have for this week. You want to hang out again next week and chat with somebody else who’s cool? We’ve got some great people in the works.

Tim:

Sounds good to me. And thanks, Baris, a great story and really enjoyed this show.

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