The Sock Rocket
5 YEARS OF COLORFUL SOCKS: MANNHEIM LABEL VON JUNGFELD GETTING OFF TO A FLYING START
Five years ago Mannheim start-up von Jungfeld re-invented socks. Since the beginnings in the C-HUB start-up center von Jungfeld has become a cult brand, with 15 employees and prominent investors, such as Joko Winterscheidt. In their stylish office-loft, in the Turley Barracks in Mannheim, Maria Pentschev and Lucas Pulkert are preparing to launch the next rocket. We sat down for a talk on colorful socks, new ideas – and why one should sometimes get some sleep, rather than trying to do everything on ones own …
Some people say that the idea of socks was merely your plan C when starting up. Despite that, your team was able to convince Mannheim investor Matthias Storch?
Maria Pentschev: Indeed. Lucas and I had just gotten to know each other and were organizing events in the Jungbusch in Mannheim. Lucas took care of organization and I was in charge of booking the bands. We saw that we worked well together and developed several concepts for projects. At the time we felt that an app was the way to go, and pitched for the first time at a business angel congress in Mannheim. It was there that we got to know Matthias Storch, who said: You guys are great, but your idea is not! Do you have anything else? Luckily we had some colorful socks up our sleeve …
How did this relationship develop?
Lucas: We’ve been collaborating with Matthias for five years now. During our humble beginnings he gave us the chance to start our own business, and he saved us from many classic beginners mistakes along the way. von Jungfeld would not exist without him. We strongly feel that a close relationship with a business angel is crucial to a start-ups success. It saves you from making unnecessary mistakes, saves a lot of time – and a good network is key!
Maria: We feel very blessed to have his Good Brands AG within our group of partners. Even today we receive great support from them. At the same time Lucas and I have grown more experienced and can support Good Brands with our know-how.
Joko Winterscheidt is a prominent and interesting investor of yours. How did that come about?
Lucas: A bit of chance and luck! In our case it was an inquiry via Xing, two bottles of wine in Berlin and his interest in colorful socks. In general though I wouldn’t over estimate the importance of prominent investors. In the case of a successful business, such as ours, a prominent investor like Joko can bring a real benefit. But to think that a prominent investor can bring success to a bad product is wrong. A testimonial can make a good thing better, but can’t save a bad idea.
As a small fish in the highly competitive world of fashion, you have to be clever when marketing your product. What is your brand strategy?
Lucas: We started with our corporate identity and declared our core values: style, quality and responsibility. We knew from the start, that we wanted to have our product manufactured in Germany. For one, as we required small quantities, and also as we thought it was the best way to take care of the issue of responsibility. We were handed 400 euros and sent on a sock-road-trip, to buy samples!
Maria: At the time there were around 40 companies in question. In the end we found the right match in the East of Germany, which is more or less Sock-Mecca. Meanwhile we collaborate with five or six companies, which are not only situated in Germany, but also other countries in Europe. A real challenge is that our competitors monthly marketing budgets are larger than what we can spend in a year. We are forced to adapt our strategy to our budget, so we try to generate exposure through other means. When we started von Jungfeld we took a lot of time to clearly define the brand and to put it all in writing. Every marketing campaign or change in strategy must be in line with these core brand values. This ensures a stringent communication and sustained authenticity of the brand.
The fact that your concept was not as well received on TV in „Höhle der Löwen“ was ultimately a marketing coup. Pure intention?
Maria: No. We assumed that requesting one million as an investment sum was a bit steep for those guys. Though we found their statement: “who would spend a million euros on socks?!” less convincing. In the end that show is a win-win-win-win-situation, which is fine. The businesses pitching get good exposure, the investors can up their awareness level and market value, the station is making money and the audience seems to enjoy it as well.
Lucas: The show brought us 2,4 million initial contacts. This is really valuable and creates great publicity. I think a potential client requires 4-5 contact points to an unknown brand to build trust. The show was such a contact point for many people.
What about distribution? This can be a real challenge in fashion.
Lucas: The first step we took with the brazenness of real greenhorns. We jumped in the deep end and sent out a lot of samples. Through this we quickly acquired many small shops and boutiques, which led to a certain market presence. To get through to the larger stores and chains was exhausting. We had to be present at trade fairs and wait for the right moment to get a foot in the door. we were never the kind of trendy product that everyone wants to have. Rather we had to work hard for every slot we got. We also didn’t work with agencies to facilitate a faster roll out, because in the end you become dependent on them.
Are you still all about DIY?
Lucas: Initially we were, and we did everything together. After that we started to split operations. Of course we trusted one another, but it was still a big step to go out to customer meetings and to make decisions on our own. To see things work out in the end was great for us.
Maria: Today Lucas is in charge of online operations, PR, social media and business development. I take care of offline distribution, resourcing and everything regarding brand building and the collections, which entails samples, colors and so forth.
Lucas: We even work in different locations now. But we communicate at least 1-2 hours a day and take on all responsibility as a team.
So you can vouch for a two person business approach?
Lucas: I wouldn’t have wanted to do everything alone! I probably never would have even thought of starting up.
Maria: This kind of business has real highs and lows. It is very important for ones mental balance to have someone to exchange views with.
Would you say a good team is more important than a great idea?
Maria: Yes I would! It’s easier to make a bad idea happen with a good team, than to realize a good idea with a bad team! You will really see this when things get rough. In this case one sees what is important: great team spirit between the two of us, and within the whole team.
Lucas: Experience shows that investors value a good team more than a great idea. Other start-ups have gone under because the team was dysfunctional. Productivity dies off, as well as communication. Once people stop talking with one another it’s over.
Maria: Our sock concept wasn’t the most innovative idea. But I feel we really make it work! We stayed with it, kept evolving and are ready to take the next step now.
What is the current challenge?
Lucas: Right from the start we got great feedback and were growing in all areas. After three years it became clear that we had to either build up our own production or find a production facility abroad. The latter was difficult, as we had been marketing our “made in Germany” approach. After careful consideration we decided that we can stay true to our core values and also shift production to an other country.
How does this work?
Maria: Very well! There is the GOTS seal, which is the highest standard in textile production …
Lucas: … that has very clear rules regarding the amount of synthetic material allowed in the textiles, to ensure sustainable production. Another aspect is social responsibility. This pertains to issues such as occupational safety, minimum wage and so forth. This aims at a transparent production process. We can keep track of the manufacturing process of every single sock. Achieving the certificate is complex. GOTS, which is a NGO, send guys over to check on all sorts of factors: Where are the fire extinguishers? Where are the TÜV-seals? When was the last fire drill? Did you inform your employees about their right to be part of a union? It’s a long list, which we precisely work through.
And where are your certified socks manufactured now?
Lucas: At the moment a GOTS certified production in Germany is not possible. Our options are in Istanbul, Turkey and Braga, Portugal.
Maria: I just got back from visiting production in Portugal, which uses state-of-the-art technology.
Lucas: And the cotton we use is harvested in Turkey. So it doesn’t have to be shipped halfway around the globe.
What have you learned from everything? What is important to know as a start-up?
Lucas: For one thing: Don’t get buried by the operational business load. Rather learn to delegate and get some sleep. Everyone needs time for themselves to regenerate, to become effective again. Overworking yourself is worth nothing in the end.
Maria: It’s great to find that you can remove yourself from things for two weeks, and when you return business is just fine. We have a magnificent team that can take care of operations just great.
What else can help a start-up?
Lucas: Defined structures and open communication. For example keeping up meetings with very clear proceedings is highly important.
What connects you with Mannheim?
Lucas: When I moved here eight years ago, I was sure it would only be for the duration of my bachelor studies. Though with every passing year I fell more in love with the city, the people, the bars and subculture. When we founded von Jungfeld it was very clear we would stay in Mannheim. Moving away was never, and is not, an option to us. I just love the Jungbusch district along the Rhine way too much!
Interview: Paul Heesch / LA.MAG
Photos: Daniel Lukac