For David Heath and Randy Goldberg, the founders of the direct-to-consumer sock seller Bombas, 2020 is playing out as it is for most businesses: utterly unlike anything they had planned.

In June, Goldberg was supposed to get married. Just a couple of months ago, the company projected that a third of its spring revenue would come from selling low-cut, "no-show" socks, driven by peppy digital ads. And their various teams had been securing co-branding licenses to sell new lines of themed footwear (e.g., Sesame Street) and pitching corporate buyers on bulk orders of promo socks (typically for corporate events).

None of that, including the wedding, made sense during the Covid-19 crisis.

The founders, who are riding out the pandemic in a rental cabin in Vermont, weighed their options. Many direct-to-consumer companies were laying off staff and hunkering down. Others were shelving their main product and manufacturing masks instead. Heath and Goldberg landed on a strategy that, so far, is panning out: focusing on existing products and marketing, and encouraging staff to adapt their work to Covid-19 in ways that make what might otherwise seem trivial in the current moment--selling socks--feel urgent and vital to their 130 employees.

"Socks are the new shoes," says Goldberg, referring to the suddenly we're-all-working-remotely time we're in. So far, sales in recent weeks are up 50 percent versus a year ago, says Heath. 

Fancy footwork

To find their footing, the founders immediately scrapped the springtime ads celebrating no-show socks. After all, with the nation sheltering in place, opportunities for outdoor ankle admiration were, at best, occasional. But they didn't cut advertising altogether. With so many advertisers retreating, digital ad rates are cheaper than they've been in years. To take advantage of the low prices, Bombas did some bargain brand-building on Facebook, Instagram, and other digital channels, shifting its messaging to talk about its charitable work--the company has long taken a get-one-give-one approach to sales, donating clean new socks to the homeless.

As sales activity began to edge up toward the end of March, the founders shifted to showing more product-focused ads featuring cozy socks made with softer cottons and arch support--the kind of footwear people want to wear indoors all day long. While the percentage of people who saw the ads and bought socks was lower--plenty of folks are holding onto their cash--they were able to make it up by buying more ads than usual, keeping their cost per acquisition steady. 

Succoring with swag

While digital advertising helped drive sales, the Bombas founders worried about their other staff, especially those, like the corporate gifting team, who catered to selling bulk orders to big companies for use as promotional giveaways at conferences and benefits.

Rather than have that team struggle as the events business evaporated, the founders encouraged them as they targeted a new kind of client: hospital administrators. Using an approach that's similar to their normal work, and their skill at coordinating big orders with big companies, they've routed over 25,000 pairs of socks--all donated--to frontline medical workers, with another 25,000 on the way. 

"We want to make sure nobody is in a holding pattern, that everyone is working at full strength," says Goldberg. "When people feel like they fit into a larger mission, it puts renewed energy in what they do." 

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Benevolent biz dev

Before the days of coronavirus, the Bombas partnerships team focused on ways to get new brands in front of shoppers on the Bombas website--such as a line of Elmo-, Oscar-, and Cookie Monster-themed socks the company produced with Sesame Street. But when the economy is crashing and hospitals are overrun, it's hard to find meaning and urgency in the next co-branded sock deal.

To keep their partnership team poised, Goldberg and Heath urged them to develop partnerships with other direct-to-consumer companies to do charitable rather than for-profit work. In recent weeks, they've worked with Brooklinen, the direct-to-consumer bedding seller, to route fresh sheets to homeless shelters and Cleancult to supply more soap. They're all leveraging what is effectively Bombas's separate, charitable supply chain, one they'd never fully appreciated before: The network of 3,000 charities that the company regularly supplies with donated socks.

The company was better situated to cope with Covid than they might have realized. They just needed to take a fresh look at their assets, and adapt. 

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