GOOD BUSINESS REALLY IS AN ART
A Chat With Threadless CEO Jake Nickell
We couldn’t wait to chat with Threadless CEO and Chicago’s own Jake Nickell to pick his brain about his latest motivation, inspiration and information about startups and hubs. Jake co-created Threadless, an online community of artists and e-commerce, from a small Chicago Loop apartment 15 years ago, and continues to lead the business locally on an in international scale.
When did you first recognize the opportunity for a community like Threadless?
When I was 20 years old, entering the Chicago winter in November of 2000, I spent most of my time on an online art forum called Dreamless. Threadless began as a hobby. The first design challenge was a thread on Dreamless in which I asked people to post designs and promised that I’d make things like t-shirts and posters out of the best ones. Over time the project slowly grew, more artists joined on, and it became a business. The community was formed very organically and through a lot of real relationship building.
Tell us a bit about your first office. What were some of the challenges?
The very first office was my apartment. I was working a full time job and going to school part time. All of our inventory was under my desk in Rubbermaid bins. At night, I would package up the orders for the day, then bring them to work the next day and ship them on my lunch break from the post office. One interesting opportunity that came from this is that, since the post office lets you ship to any country, I shipped to the entire world from day 1. Now over 60% of our business goes outside of the US!
How does that stand in contrast to your current Threadless HQ?
Well, the 48 or so tees that I had in stock in the beginning fit pretty nicely under my desk. Today we are in 50,000 sq ft here in the West Loop of Chicago with hundreds of thousands of tees in stock. The vibe here is somewhat similar, though, it has a very DIY feel to it with lots of art everywhere and things to see. We’ve always had “living room” type space in every office we have. Today it’s a massive atrium that’s open to the public and used for a variety of purposes from photography to events and even concerts.
Threadless is a hybrid of capitalism and crowd sourcing. Can you speak to the importance of having a community of like-minded individuals, both artists and purchasers?
I think that for Threadless to work, we need a customer who cares about where the things they buy come from. Each of our designs was made by a real person and we celebrate that. When you go to the mall and buy a t-shirt you don’t often know who made it. On Threadless that’s very apparent. We support the independent artists and there are a lot of people that appreciate that. Our business is run almost like a cause. So long as we can find great opportunities for artists, there is a business model on the back end of that.
How has Chicago inspired your business?
We’re humble, we’re authentic, we keep our heads down, and do our work. Chicago has a very “elbow-grease” feel to it, there’s not a lot of glitz to what we do, and I think being in Chicago helps us keep it real!
Tell us about your most successful item. Why you think it worked?
I think the top selling design is Communist Party, though Funkalicious is also pretty popular. They’re both great, simple, powerful designs that work really well on a t-shirt. Bold designs with a clever concept tend to do well.
Do you personally have a favorite shirt from the community?
My favorite is kind of weird and didn’t sell too well. It’s called My Little Pony and is a drawing of a woman holding her baby away in horror because she stepped on a pony with her high heel haha.
What would you define as the most successful moment for Threadless?
I think the best moment was 6 years into the business when we finally decided to focus 100% on Threadless. For the first 2 years it was purely a hobby. The next 2 years I quit my job and dropped out of school but the focus of the company was to build websites for clients. Threadless was still a side project that just acted as proof that we knew how to build an e-commerce website. At the end of that period, Threadless started bringing in more revenue than website business so we fired all of our clients. But even then we spent the next 2 years trying to start up 6 other crowdsourcing businesses in other industries. When none of those worked we shut them all down and finally focused on Threadless full time. Lots of learning during those first 6 years!
What’s one piece of advice you have for those looking to start a business from the ground up?
The best advice I could give is to have a reason that you’re doing it other than to make money. I never thought my business would become what it is today, it was a hobby that I pursued because I wanted to make cool things with artists that I respected, not because I wanted to make a bunch of money. And even today I wouldn’t be interested if all we were doing is trying to sell as many t-shirts as we can every day. It’s interesting because I get to help artists with amazing opportunities!
Jake Nickell sat down with Cusp Magazine in a recent Podcast conversation to discuss the road his business took to find success. CUSP believes that everyone can learn from these conversations and that hearing someone’s story will bring listeners closer to the brand and community CUSP is building.
Any other advice you’d like to share?
If you are ever working with a community or want to try getting into the crowdsourcing game, I think it’s best that you look at what a community is doing and find out a way you can help add to that or make their work more impactful. Too many people look to “use” a community or outsource their own work to a crowd—people will see right through that!