“Threadless was never intended to be a business,” says Jake Nickell of the company he, along with Jacob DeHart (“the two Jakes”), started as a hobby in a corner of his apartment in 2000. After Nickell entered, and won, an online t-shirt design contest, he and DeHart put up just over a thousand dollars to create “an ongoing competition where people could always submit t-shirt designs, and we could print the best ones.” Ten years and almost as many warehouse moves later, Threadless is not just a rapidly-growing business and thriving online community (the very definition of cool for young design-savvy hipsters), but such a successful example of the “crowd sourcing” model that they’ve been studied by Harvard Business School.
Their first book – Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community – is out now from Abrams Image. It’s stuffed with think pieces from a number of high-profile contributors like Seth Godin, who coined the term “crowd sourcing,” Nickell’s year-by-year account of the company’s remarkable growth, and, of course, tons of t-shirt designs, some of which, such as John Slabyk’s “this was supposed to be the future,” have become iconic (Slabyk went on to art direct Barack Obama’s presidential campaign). When it came to the challenge of creating a cover for such an amorphous brand as Threadless, Nickell asked hundreds of past contributors to each create a character wearing a plain t-shirt. The result has “coffee table” written all over it.
You say that Threadless is more than a t-shirt company; it’s a community. But it seems like it’s even more than that.
Yeah, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not to say that all businesses should be this way but it’s inspirational to see that sometimes really crazy ideas can work. You don’t have to work in a cubicle the rest of your life. It’s just a different way of thinking about things and it’s nice to see that you can find success within that.
But it seems pretty specific to your generation.
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this lately. I grew up in a generation where everybody listened to the same music, everything was mass produced. Now though, it’s all about individuality and knowing where things come from. We want to know what the hell’s in our Big Mac. Look at names. In the 1950s the number one baby name was John, and 10% of all babies were named John, and in 2008, I think, the number one name was Jacob, but only 2% of kids were named Jacob. It’s definitely a generational thing.
Do you think this generation has a different relationship to the idea of branding?
A lot of companies treat brand as a logo and a tag-line and everything lives and dies by that. At Threadless, it’s more like... what happens on Threadless.com, all the stories and the people involved, that’s our brand. What you write in Publishers Weekly will change people’s brand perception; people learning about Threadless for the first time, this will be their perception of the brand. So we just try to make sure we tell our story right, and make sure that everybody knows that it’s about this art community, and there are all these cool things that happen. Everybody’s involved in molding it, and being a part of it themselves. Without the community, Threadless would be nothing. We don’t even put our logo on the outside of our t-shirts.
You call Threadless an “accidental” company. What do you do to make sure the accident doesn’t run away with itself?
That’s kind of most what I do: keep the culture of Threadless intact, doing crazy shit that a t-shirt company has no business doing. But it’s what makes Threadless ridiculous. Look at our customers. Most people are probably like, ‘In order for Threadless to grow, they just need to figure out how to sell more t-shirts,’ but we believe that building the community is more important than selling shirts. Selling shirts is, like, our by-product. It’s more valuable for us to get somebody to come on and rate someone’s design than it is to get somebody to come on and buy a t-shirt. Building up the community, eventually, leads to selling t-shirts. Our community members who are very active participants? What they’re doing all day on Threadless isn’t buying t-shirts, or even submitting, it’s just getting involved in organizing, from baking a cake or knitting something or critiquing somebody else’s work or getting a Threadless tattoo.
What’s been the hardest thing for you to learn?
I didn’t even know how t-shirts were made when I started the company. We didn’t even have a screen printer. We didn’t know to ship orders, we didn’t know how to charge credit cards, we didn’t know how to do anything that we do today; we had to learn everything.
Did you turn to any books for help?
I think the book I liked the most was called Drive, by Daniel Pink. It goes into what motivates people to do things they want to do. There are three main factors. One’s autonomy, doing things on your own. From concept to execution being able to see something through and do it yourself. The second’s being part of something bigger than yourself, working towards a common goal with a group of people, and uh... (laughs) I’m drawing a blank on what the third one was. But it’s funny ‘cause none of it has anything to do with money. And in fact money can get people to not want to do things. If your child is coloring in the coloring book and they’re really enjoying it, and you say, “I’ll give you fifty cents for every page you do,” then it becomes a job, a chore, and you don’t put the same type of energy into it. I want to make sure that everybody who’s working here is motivated to do the work for the right reasons.