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A Community, An Art, A Business: Threadless

October 14, 2011

Over a decade ago, Jake Nickell won a t-shirt designing competition. Soon after, designing became a hobby which he shared with friend Jacob DeHart. They found the craft so engaging that they decided to come up with their very own online t-shirt design contest; sure enough, it gained the attention of many. This move turned them into accidental businessmen and led to the conception of Threadless, a start-up t-shirt company now worth millions.

Threadless began with a capital investment of only $1,000 — a small expenditure even for a start-up business. Its concept is to build a community of artists who would like to submit their own designs. The designs are put to a public vote in the company website Threadless.com, and the artist whose designs have the most number of votes will receive a cash prize, a gift card and of course, royalties for every reprint of their design. But without advertising, sales force and retail distribution, how can an Internet t-shirt company become XXL?

According to Nickell, the formula to their company’s success is the online community. Because their community members provided them with the design, and potential customers voted on which t-shirts should be mass produced, every product sold out. From a handful of designs in year one, the company has now received over 300,000 unique concepts from 100,000 artists. The customer is the company, and with this driving force, Threadless has never produced a flop during its ten-year period as a start-up business.

Nickell further states that the company was never meant to provide jobs, but it is interesting to note that some people are making a living by continuously submitting their designs and winning users’ votes. With a cash prize of $2,000 and an additional $500 for every reprint, their community of freelance artists is growing each year.

Due to its success, in 2007 Threadless decided to open a physical store on Chicago’s North Side. This move from clicks to bricks is a fresh approach to reach their consumers on a more personal level, although deemed risky by retail consulting firms at that time. Despite potential risk, Threadless seemed to have conquered the difficulties as the store remains standing to this day.

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