The man who found the perfect luxury for your feet
I spoke to Vahan Hovhannisyan, who is the co-founder of Lookmate.co, a London based start-up selling high quality designer socks online, along with his brother, Vahagn.
Originally from Yerevan in Armenia, Vahan came to London in his early 20s.
Before moving to the UK, he co-founded a chain of hair salons for children in Yerevan. The business started with one salon and expanded to 3 salons with a large customer base over the last 5 years.
In this interview, Vahan tells me how his running by the Thames inspired Lookmate's unique sock design, the importance of having a good co-founder and why it's possible to run a successful business without resigning from your day job.
What inspired you to start selling designer socks online?
Great question. You might think, why on earth is an accountant selling socks?
Generally when starting a business you do your market research, find out what’s out there that you can improve, what skills you have and then you go and do it. But we did the complete opposite!
Until the last moment, we didn’t know what product we were going to sell. For us, it was about building genuine relationships with creative people and having really cool, well presented products.
Once we found the product we wanted to develop, we had to fill that gap of skills and knowledge to learn the manufacturing and development process involved in the sock industry.
We put time and effort into studying the industry and grasping the knowledge to gain perspective and starting point. We built on this further by contacting designers followed by finding a manufacturer and that’s how Lookmate started.
Where are Lookmate’s socks made?
They are made by a second-generation family business in my home town, Yerevan in Armenia. The family also get involved in the community as well as employing disabled people making up 20% of the workforce. I spent Christmas with the family last year and had a really good time bonding with them so having good strong relationships is important to us.
How does your subscription concept work?
At the moment, there are 3 ways to buy the subscription for which you get a pair of beautifully designed socks delivered straight to your door.
The first option is £9 per month with payments taken on a rolling basis. You can leave anytime you want so there is no contractual obligation.
We also have a three month subscription option, which could work great as a present, costing £8,50 per month.
If you buy a six months' subscription, a pair of socks will only cost you £8 per month.
Your brother, Vahagn, is Lookmate’s co-founder, how is the partnership working out?
Yes, Vahagn and I are only one year apart and so we grew up together. When we were kids, I was the guy who was breaking all the toys he was the one trying put them back together so this perfectly developed to a business partnership. My brother is, in the words of Picasso ‘everything you can imagine can become real’ kind of guy so it’s a win-win situation. We have another business in Yerevan and I absolutely love working with him.
That's intriguing, tell us more about the other business in Yerevan?
We have a small chain of hair salons for children. We created this nice creative space with no mirrors so that no one sees themselves and cries (laughs…). It’s all about fun for the kids. We have a huge fish tank and they get to sit on toy cars, motorcycles and get a balloon as a reward. It’s basically bribing them not to cry while they’re having their haircut.
How many customers do you have?
When we started, we had 10 customers within the first couple of months. Last year alone, we had 25,000 clients so we are dominating the entire market in Yerevan, which is a relatively small city though.
After 5 years, the business pretty much runs itself now. We have an operations manager who looks after the business, leaving us to focus on Lookmate in London.
What does it take to find a good co-founder?
You need to have a lot in common, say you should both be passionate about, let’s say, craft beer or tea or whatever it is for you.
There should be a good degree of trust as without trust you cannot have a good working relationship. You already know your 'Why', your motivation, and now their goals and aspirations need to match yours so you can take the business to its full potential together as a team.
When is a good time to start looking for a business partner?
I started an online business at 19 after my return from America in 2001, where I had managed to make a fair bit of money working over the summer. I put that money towards the business.
At that time, I was on the lookout for a co-founder who could help me build a website as it was quite a task back in 2001. I found a capable guy who knew how to code and we put the website together. But guess what? The business failed.
Remember that your co-founders skills are important but you can develop those. These days it’s easy to learn as everything is available online. The answer is to try finding a co-founder at an early stage and making sure they are as motivated and driven as you are!
How do you approach prospective designers?
The designers we approach are architects, street artists and illustrators. I have created this small box which I call the 'Sock Design Toolkit'. It includes lots of pens, pencils, a few socks, and a personal message saying: ‘We love your work, here is your sock design kit. Will you design a sock for us?’
When we ask if they’d like to design socks for us, they’re like: ‘Hell yeah!’ and when we deliver the socks to them, they are really proud and so are we. They share them with friends and that’s how we build relationships with new people. It’s fun and a different approach to doing business.
Nick Rawcliffe was your first designer, how did the collaboration come about?
Nick is a cool guy, a really good industrial designer based in Clapham, who has become a friend now. He’s done some amazing things, from being on Dragon’s Den and being backed up to running a successful kick-starter campaign in 2015.
We both run for the same running club 'City Runners'. Members meet up every Monday at a brewery in central London, run 6K around Thames and then come back to the brewery. The brewery is open just for City Runners so a nice, cold Guinness is always waiting for us after the run.
And one day I’m telling Nick about my idea to start a business and he says: 'I’ll design a sock for you, we’ll do it for City Runners! Come along to the studio and we’ll figure something out.' So I’ve done my homework, read up on how to design and manufacture socks in a couple of months, by which point I already had a manufacturer and that’s how it all started.
You have a day job as an accountant and run Lookmate on the side. How do you find time for the business?
My alarm clock goes off at 5:30 in the morning, I meditate for about 10-15 minutes, take a shower and have breakfast. Then I head to my local coffee shop and work for about two hours before I go to my day job.
Mornings are the most productive and creative time of the day.
I am a believer that if you start your day well, the rest of your day will be good. In those two hours you’ve already achieved so much and you can do whatever you want for the rest of the day.
What do you do when you’re not working?
If I have spare time it is for friends, family and staying fit. My evenings can be a little hard-core at times, I exercise with Transformers at the Millenium Arena in Battersea, which is one and a half hours of intense training and interval running. You see a lot of regular people in the classes which is great for socialising and making friends.
There is a lot of paper work involved in running a business. How do you keep organised?
There are many great tools for entrepreneurs that help you keep on track such as Wunderlist or Evernote and many calendars that help with collaborations. They are free and you can collaborate internationally.
Say, I am based here in London and my co-founder is in Yerevan or one of my designers is in Sweden and the other in America. We are able to work together as the tools let us connect and collaborate over the internet, therefore location is no longer an issue and it’s important to use these tools to your benefit.
Failures are inevitable when building a business. How do you deal with them?
There could be days with many small failures in tasks or things going wrong but on the flip side you also have your wins and things just working out.
You need to realise that if you fail it’s not you, it’s that situation. You just learn from failures and move on to the next project.
My brother and I have these two lists. One is called 'We f*cking did it' and the other 'We f*cking failed it' and we write everything on these lists. Every failure, every success! We go back to this list once a month or so and read it.
I hear this question a lot but can’t resist asking anyway. Is it possible to start a business without breaking the bank?
Absolutely! The general thinking is that you need a lot of a money to start a business but it’s not true. Both of my businesses were started on a very small budget.
If it’s a physical product, the challenge would be in agreeing quantities with your manufacturers but generally my top 3 tips are:
1. Find a small community of people that know you and sell them your story. In my case it was my running club. Never sell your product! Tell them about you, your goals and aspirations. The rest will take care of itself.
2. Collaborate. Find people who will be willing to collaborate with you and help you get there but you’re helping them as well. Think of what’s in it for them as well.
3. Have a good co-founder who is as passionate about the business as you are.
What keeps you going when times get tough?
I’ll give you an example.
At the early business stages, we were selling just samples and our friends and family were helping out by buying them. Then one time, I look at the orders and see a name that I don’t know. It was someone from Florida and I thought, wow, I’m going to hold on to this because someone who doesn’t know us is buying our socks and I can find 10 thousand of such people!
Maybe it was just a small thing but things like that keep us going. Just hold on to those small successes, celebrate it and document it all so you can go back and read it!
How can designers contact you if they want to work with you?
At the moment, it is us who are approaching designers but you can contact us via Instagram. There will be a way to contact us via The Designers section on our website in the future.
What are you plans for Lookmate in 2016?
We have a lot of exciting things coming up in 2016!
Our entire subscription process is being re-designed at the moment. We want to build a great club of passionate people who are not going to get just socks but a lot of goodies and samples of other products as a result of our partnership with other brands.
I want our customers to be able to get into a club because they’re wearing our socks. The idea is that wearing our socks would eventually become a statement, a bit like having a member’s card.