Design in the community

Since launching in November 2000, graphic t-shirt company, Threadless now has over 2.5 million members and has received
 over 400,000 submissions from 12 year olds to 60 year olds.

Founder, Jake Nickell describes his business that began as a hobby as:
“A community-based design company. Artists around the world submit design ideas to our design site. Our community votes on them to help us figure out 
which ones are the best ones and then we turn the best ones into products that we make and sell and we compensate the artists for their work.

“It took a good two years for us to realise that it was a business, it was really just a hobby where, I’d be keeping these Tupperware boxes of shirts in my apartment and in my lunch-breaks at work, I would take whatever orders we had had from the previous day and head down to the post-office. It was just a fun, creative thing.”

Threadless Reunion

Since setting up, Nickell’s role has shifted from CEO of the company to focusing on the community side of the business.
 As Chief Community Officer, Nickell makes sure that Threadless is a great place for people to participate on a daily basis. Threadless celebrates individualism within a community, where crowd sourcing has made the Threadless community essential to its success.

“Crowd sourcing is a business model that has been bastardised a bit. A lot of people are seeing it as a way to outsource their work to this crowd of people who do it for you faster, cheaper, better. That is not why we started at all. In our case it is much more like we noticed this already existing community of people doing amazing things. We are able to come in and throw gasoline on that and make it much more successful. You have all these artists who are creating stuff whether Threadless existed or not. What we are able to do is find really cool opportunities for people.”

Threadless Reunion

For example, the Art Director for the 2008 Obama campaign, John Slabyk, was discovered through his designs on Threadless. The manner in which Threadless draws in a worldwide crowd to contribute has meant that the designs have an active relevance to social, political and economical events. The success of Threadless has also highlighted a cultural shift that is taking place:

“When I was growing up, everybody was listening to the same music, going to the same movies, watching the same five TV stations. Now in all kinds of different industries you are seeing stuff getting spread out a lot more. People are able to be unique and find something to personally identify with. You see it in fashion where we went from department stores to small outlets to fast-fashion and e-commerce. You see it in TV with the move from network stations to cable to satellite to YouTube. And in music, the other day I was looking up the top-selling music album of all time was Michael Jackson’s Bad. It came out in 1987 and in 2011, you would have had to group together the top 70 albums of the year to reach those kinds of sales. Everything has spread out into so many different niches. At Threadless, we come out with a new product every single day whereas usually fashion is seasonal. We have a huge variety of products. We are not defined by one style. There is a huge variety of people who can identify with Threadless in ways that are personal to them.”

Threadless Reunion

Nickell believes that American author and journalist, Daniel Pink’s 2011 book, ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ defines what Threadless is all about. Autonomy, mastery and purpose.

“Autonomy because you are on your own, you are able to design whatever you want, it is your own objective, your initiative. Mastery — you are learning a lot. For every design you make you get tonnes of feedback from our community, people commenting on it, saying what they like or don’t like about it. And just by submitting over and over again, you are honing your skills
and becoming a better illustrator. Purpose
— there is this bigger community that you are contributing to, it is not just yourself, you are working with a large group of people too.” The community within Threadless is generated by visitors finding common interests through the backgrounds of the designs featured on the website. This is what makes Threadless accessible and appealing to such a wide audience. Whether it is fashion or organic foods, Nickell identifies the importance of the story behind designs and products.

“Everybody wants a story. People are buying into a story, there has to be a reason behind why they are purchasing the thing they are. Usually people get sucked into Threadless through a design that they like. We come out with a new design at least every single day, sometimes more. With all the designs that we are actually releasing, usually there is something that people can connect with.”

Nickell’s drive to encourage individuality and relevance stems from his time in high school: “I was really frustrated with the fact that all the popular kids in school were always wearing just logo shirts like Abercrombie, Tommy Hilfiger, whoever it was. I didn’t like how in fashion, real casual fashion, like t-shirts, the only option was to buy something with somebody else’s corporate logo on them. So I always wore band shirts, because at least then you are supporting an individual. Art t-shirts never really existed that I knew of before Threadless.

“Everything that we are doing every day as a business is about finding opportunities for artists, getting their work printed, getting them paid for it and making sure their name is on it, it is all about the artist. By doing that if we maintain our integrity and do a good job with that, we are creating a very prosperous business too. The business model is built into the reason we exist.”

As well as helping artists grow their careers, Threadless also has partnerships with communities such as the online gaming world Minecraft and leading brands such as Disney, Cartoon Network and Gap.

“We were worried what a partnership with a big company would do to our community and customers. It actually became a Harvard case study. I went to the Harvard classes and what we ended up learning is that from the customer side, our customers hold Threadless really dear to them, almost like as secret, where they don’t want everybody else to have what they have. Then on the artists’ side, they want their art to be everywhere. They would love for as many people as possible to be able to buy and see what they have made. So we decided that we would not sell the same designs through these partners as those that are available on Threadless. We need to make sure that as we are expanding through these new growth opportunities such as partnerships etc, that we are not doing anything other than maintaining integrity as we grow. It is easy for a business to get larger and to focus more on optimising revenue, usually for short- term benefits. Often, the things that give a business its integrity are much more long- term thinking and brand building that you can’t even quantify.

“I started with t-shirts because it was easy. Every small town has a t-shirt store. Now, we are really focused on making a lot more than just t-shirts because there are plenty talented enough to design more than just t-shirts and they would love to see their designs on other products and distributing them in more places other than just It is a huge growth opportunity for us and for our artist community.”

Threadless began as a hobby and 13 years on and Nickell continues to imbed the essence of fun, enjoyment and fondness within the business.

“Every year we have a meet-up here, where artists from all over the world are invited to hang out. The last one we had was 25th August 2012, where we had 2000 RSVPs from around the world. It is a weeklong affair, where artists come on the Tuesday and leave the next Wednesday. It all comes together on the Saturday when we have speakers, screen printing set up for t-shirts, a DIY thing for tote- bags and we had a couple of bands play. Business needs to be a positive part of your life, not just work or a job that you have to go to. It is more of a lifestyle, where you are doing the things you do everyday at work because it is something that you actually want to do with your life. It is not just a way to pay your bills. It is not something that just applies to entrepreneurs.”

We’ve identified five hallmarks of beautiful business and explored stories from an array of companies from all over the world. Today, we continue to talk to businesses with an alternative approach, which you can read more about here.