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Interview with Jake Nickell of Threadless

Jake Nickell is the founder of Threadless, the super cool t-shirt store/design community. When I reviewed the Threadless book I only touched on what the company is about. So here is more of an insight into the workings of a 10 year old successful internet startup.

Q: What do you think has made the biggest difference to the sustained success of Threadless over the last ten years? If you could pull the 20% out of the 80-20% pareto principle for your company, what would that be do you think?

Definitely our ability to attract and sustain a super-talented art community that submits amazing things day after day. This happened right from the beginning because Threadless was born as a project within an existing online art community.

Anyone can build a website like Threadless has, or make and sell t-shirts as Threadless has, but our secret sauce is all of the amazing artists around the world that are contributing. That’s not easy to replicate.

Q: I see many art or design-lead business focus 100% on the product, which is understandable, especially when the customer will be wearing the product, but maybe being more community based you do things differently. How important are things like trust, personality and authority in your business?

They are totally vital, in my opinion. The design and art are created by people and the people are there because of their relationship with Threadless and other community members on Threadless.

Our mission statement is “Inspire Awesomeness” … meaning that we want people to look at Threadless and the things we do and think “Wow, that’s awesome” and then get involved themselves. It’s all about relationships and inspiration… that’s helps to drive the participation.

Q: Do you see Threadless as a startup, even “us against the world”, or do you see things differently? Are the views and experiences of the company vastly different to when you started out?

The company is very much the same as it started, just bigger. We do a lot of things to preserve our culture and what we’re about as we grow. In a way we still view ourselves as a startup… in that we take a very entrepreneurial, scrappy approach to many of the things that we do.

We also like to let everyone’s passions in the company shine through to the work we do. For example, even though our warehouse director, Lance, has the job of keeping our warehouse humming, he also took his love of comic books to work by curating a whole line of comic book t-shirts for Threadless.

We’re not really trying to take on the world though, we look at things in a much more collaborative sense… we think we can bring community based design to partners and want to work with other companies to start putting stories and faces behind the design of the products they are creating.

Q: Threadless is a business I wish I had the talent and smarts to found. Back in the day instead of a programmer I wanted to be an illustrator but I wasn’t good enough to get paid for it, I hung out in communities from the old BBS through to Usenet and forums, and now I pretend to be an entrepreneur. Threadless seems to have everything going for it! Such a cool idea. Are there days where you have to pinch yourself that you get to do this as your work? Does it bother you how many copycat companies sprung up after your initial gajillion t-shirt sales?

To your first question, yes, I pinch myself everyday… I still don’t think I even fully comprehend just how awesome this is. I had a similar background to you where I was very into art and also into programming. Got onto the internet in a very early age. I love that I have been able to learn so much about art, programming and business through this company. It’s super fun.

As for copycat companies bothering me, for the most part I’m actually happy about it. I’m happy to see that artwork on tees is becoming more prominent than logos. I’m stoked to see artists creating t-shirt art and very easily being able to sell tees with their work on it.

Q: A lot must have happened in the ten years you have been doing this, I don’t want to bring you down, but what mistakes or mishaps have happened in that time that you learned from?

I’m constantly learning. We’ve done a lot of things wrong. I’ve owed FedEx thousands of dollars due to a stupid mistake, accidentally deleted all the posts in our forum, shipped gifts meant for the holidays in mid January, etc. With each thing you learn something. I can say that I’m glad I moved forward and kept pushing even though I didn’t know how to do everything, or that it would work.

You can’t live in fear!

Q: It seems looking from the outside that Threadless is this huge combination of many people’s talents, but in a way it is self-sustaining due to a reputation for quality and inspired creativity as much as business smarts and technical infrastructure. When you launched obviously you had the tech but less of a worldwide reputation to work off. This must have taken a lot of “you” to pull off, in terms of your own connections, personality, and so on. How did that work in the early days? Do you think the web is less collaborative now or do you still believe a project or business such as yours could launch any time?

It certainly helped that I started Threadless on the art forum that was called Dreamless at the time… There were a huge amount of global, talented artists there making cool stuff online that were totally down to get involved in this t-shirt project. I do think the web is much more about entertainment now than it was when I started Threadless.

We were lucky to be able to begin at a time when creative, professional people were using the web as a playground to learn digital design and code and all that stuff that was so fun and new back then. There’s definitely still lots of it going on today but it seems like there is less focus and more distractions in most online communities than there was 10 years ago.

Q: Without giving away any super secret insider strategies, how are you going to move the business forward in 2011?

We’re looking at the last decade and how we’ve become this amazing, worldwide art community. So far we’ve made an incredible catalog of t-shirts together but I think that there is so much more that can be done.

Now we’re thinking more and more of ourselves as this amazing art community that just happens to make t-shirts… and thinking, hmm… what else can we do?

Thanks Jake!

Check out my review of the Threadless book here and check out for lots of cool artwork and t-shirt goodness 🙂

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  1. Nice one. Love Threadless’s marketing – always something fun popping up from them. Guess you can have fun when you sell t-shirts 🙂

  2. I know lots of guys who are struggling to make awesome designs for those t-shirts. Great business idea!

  3. Building a sense of community is always a great business model. It touches the core of building relationships and keeping fans and customers around long-term.

  4. Hi Chris and Jake,
    I love the whole community angle of Threadless (and very cool T-shirts). As Bloggers we can take a lot away from companies like Threadless and get our communities built.Without the strong community we don’t have much.