Compression socks are tight, but the business is expanding.
At 30 years old, Michelle Huie launched her fashion-centric graduated compression sock company, Vim & Vigr, in the heart of Montana. The popular, stabilizing socks have seen big success: initially designed for women, within the first year, the brand received innumerable requests from men for products, leading to a men’s line the following year.
Still growing, the brand has more than doubled sales, year after year, since it launched in 2013.
We caught up with Huie, now 35, on landing in a small town out West, compression jargon, how she juggles two full-time gigs and her grassroots business approach.
What brought you to Missoula, MT? I moved to Missoula from New York City, in 2011. My significant other, is a history professor at the University of Montana. We met in Chicago. When I was an undergraduate getting my economics degree, he was getting his Ph.D. in American History, and we met in the library. He moved here in 2007. For four years prior to my permanent move, I was coming out every six weeks.
How was the transition from New York City? The lifestyle has been a positive change with really healthy living, eating, and the outdoors. There’s a lot more value here based on the balance of life, whereas in New York City you are in a rat race. It can be an intense place to live with not a lot of opportunities for reprieve.
In Missoula, you can make your lifestyle what it is. If you want to be intense or if you want to be relaxed you can do that. There’s also no traffic. When I go to visit Seattle or Chicago, now, I can’t believe that I lived in such a crazy environment for so long and all of the hours that I spent stuck in traffic.
What inspired your idea for Vim & Vigr? I was doing pharmaceutical sales — which I’m actually still doing now, full-time. I call it my extensive hobby. I covered a really large geographic region of Montana, northern Wyoming and eastern Idaho.
I would spend a lot of time in the car and was sedentary for a long time. I like to workout, be active and run. I noticed that my workouts were not as effective after work and I was tired, which is counterintuitive: why would I be tired when I was sitting all day? I talked with a physical therapist and friend that said I wasn’t getting optimal circulation throughout the day because I was sitting.
When that’s your livelihood, sometimes you’re required to do that: stand all day or sit at your computer. I looked online for options for compression socks as a consumer. I couldn’t find anything that fit my personality that was for a professional work environment, high quality and at the right price point. A lot of options were medical compression pairs that were $80 per pair.
I was in my early 30s, and I thought: ‘If I have a need for this, I’m sure there are thousands of people that could benefit from a product that could solve this problem.’
How do you balance two full-time jobs? I wear compression socks — I’m joking. I think the number one thing is that I have an amazing team. I have seven full-time employees in Missoula and 16 independent sales reps in the country. And that is growing. My team and I meet weekly, I do the sales job during the day, and then I do Vim & Vigr on the weekends and in the evenings.
A lot of people ask me why I do two full-time jobs: I do not have outside funding. We are bootstrapping it, and I have 100-percent ownership of the business. Private equity firms have approached me, but I really want to maintain the integrity of the product and the brand. We are really doing well, so why mess with a good thing?
What would be the risk for the brand if you partnered with an investor? You want to look for the right partner that augments your business. You want to take the partnership seriously, because you will be in a marriage. When a venture capital firm sees that growth they say: ‘Let’s quadruple sales.’ I never want to sacrifice the culture and quality of the team, which happens when you are being pushed to grow in that intense environment. This year, we are at 120,000 units. Next year, we will more than double that. Our growth of 120 percent is really strong as is.
So, what’s the difference between ‘compression’ and ‘graduated compression?’ The term compression is used ubiquitously and it isn’t a misnomer. Technically, it’s anything that is spandex or tight. Graduated compression is used to apply a medical benefit to the product. A medical knitting machine is needed to add true graduated compression. The ankle is tighter and the sock becomes less tight as it goes up the leg. The compression level is 15 to 20mmHg or 20 to 30mmHg, for example. The higher the number, the greater the compression level. All of our products are listed with the Food and Drug Administration. We also use a third-party testing facility, and we test each sock to make sure it’s within the medical compression range that we are stating.
Why did Vim & Vigr expand to include a men’s line? When we launched, we had an extra-large size and they were selling out. I guessed that women just have larger feet. We dug further and realized that men were buying the extra larges.
When I initiated the launch at Outdoor Retailer, a lot of people were really startled that we just started with a women’s line. In the outdoor industry, many brands, manufacturers and retailers start with the men’s line and then the women’s line comes about second. I didn’t even know that. Initially, the goal to launch with just a women’s line was partially based of off my research. I partnered with vein clinics and doctors in the development of our line. The majority of their patient base is women.
We are seeing [another] huge shift in trends. Women like colorful, fun, self-expressive socks more than men. Now, we have a lot of male customers say, ‘you need funkier designs for men.’
Photo Courtesy Vim & Vigr