Make Great Together

At first glance, the headquarters of Threadless, located on 1260 W. Madison St., looks like an urban art gallery rather than a booming business. Colorful graffiti line the outside walls and tall windows give a tiny peek into the growing company.

Once inside, the flamboyant colorful array of art takes a second to fully grasp. Hundreds of Threadless t-shirts hang from the ceiling, and huge installations of robots and cats stand guard. There is a ping pong and foosball table, as well as a photo shoot set up, where all photos for the website are taken. More graffiti and art cover the otherwise white walls as a receptionist greets you.

Welcome to Threadless HQ, a unique business headquarters that mixes business with pleasure and is artistic in everything they do. They are best known for their creative t-shirt designs and are growing in numbers. With over tens of thousands of visitors to the website daily, and 1,000-3,000 pieces of art submitted each week, Threadless has made a name for itself in the Chicago tech, art and fashion sphere.

I was able to chat with Marketing Coordinator, Kyle Geib, along with founder and CEO, Jake Nickell, about the success story of this booming business.“Our motto is ‘make great together’ because it’s really a combined collaboration between the artists and ourselves,” Kyle explains as he walks me through the vast warehouse, full of thousands of t-shirts in all colors and sizes. The headquarters also operates as a retail store from 9-5; patrons use computers near the front desk, order from the website, and someone brings the order out from the warehouse.

Couches and comfy seating are spread out everywhere on the first floor, as a creative thinking space for Threadless employees. This is where we sat to talk about the multi-faceted business model that is Threadless.

“I really like this,” I said, holding up a soft pillow with a rainbow design and a cheery, smiling rain cloud. “That’s actually one of our t-shirts,” Kyle said. “Mostly everything around here is art that has been designed by Threadless artists in one way or another.” I felt like I was in a hip gallery instead of the lucrative headquarters for a creative business, but that’s the great aesthetic that Threadless emanates. The story behind the business and the creative collaboration on all levels is what makes Threadless on the cusp.

A: So in your own words, what is the main idea behind Threadless and its model?

K: The main purpose of Threadless is to be the best place for independent artists from across the world to make money from their artwork and we do that through the website and our platform. The way it works is artists from all over the world can submit their work to Threadless and then their artwork goes up for scoring in the scoring section. We have just about 3.4 million users on the website that are scoring designs and picking the stuff that they like. We take the highest scoring stuff and we print it on t-shirts, iPhone cases, wall art, and other canvases like that but true to form, the t-shirts sell the most. We have always been known for our t-shirts since we started in 2000 and we have expanded the product line through the years with t-shirts always being the foundation of that.

A: Why choose t-shirts in the beginning?

K: The way this all came to be was that Jake was participating on a website called It was a place for people that were interested in coding and websites as well as people that were interested in art to hold discussions, so kind of like a forum. What happened was, Jake decided that through that, he wanted to host a design challenge on dreamless as a fun way for everybody to participate and come up with a cool t-shirt for dreamless. He hosted what would technically be the first Threadless design challenge right there on dreamless. A few people submitted t-shirt designs and everybody voted on the ones they liked the best. He then printed them on t-shirts and everybody that participated got one. From there, that was kind of the spark that went on to be So essentially Threadless is a blown out, more intricate version of this idea. At the time, Jake was in art school, but he ended up leaving once Threadless took off and ended up taking his time. He ran threadless out of his apartment for the longest time too.

A: Did you always want to own your own company? How does one even begin to get into the entrepreneur business, especially in the fashion/art industry?

J: I always wanted to do my own thing but I wasn’t interested in entrepreneurship or becoming a “business-man” … I went to art school, not business school. I’ve always had a multitude of side projects going on through high school and college. Threadless started as a hobby, another side project. Then when people slowly started to participate, uploading designs, buying shirts, etc, it turned into a business! My background was more in web design and development and I was doing a bunch of freelance work for companies building them websites and such. Threadless served as proof that I knew how to build an E-commerce website. I think the best way to get in on this sort of thing is to just have personal projects that you spend time on outside of work or school.

A: Between 2004-2006, the company revenue went from 1.5 to 6.5 million. What do you think played a major role in that?

K: A lot of what drove Threadless’ success in the beginning was word of mouth and the way that this was happening was that artists were speaking to other artists or promoting their own work. We have really incredible artists on the website that make t-shirt designs that sell really well. We get artists that submit from Asia, Australia, and domestically here in the U.S., all from varying backgrounds. We have artists that don’t have any art background professionally, but they like graphic design and they do it as a hobby on the side and Threadless is kind of their outlet to get that out into the world. Then we also have artists that submit to Threadless and get printed that work other jobs as creative types in ad firms. There is a huge spectrum of backgrounds for artists.

A: When WIRED Magazine coined the term “crowdsourcing”, they associated it with Threadless. How do you think Threadless incorporates crowdsourcing and how has it helped the business?

J: One of the nice things about our model is we’re asking potential customers up front the stuff that they’d like to buy. Before it is even available for purchase, you can go on the website and look at the artwork that is available for scoring. We have a scoring model of one to five, with five being the best. Recently this year, we enabled another way to participate through funding, so you can actually fund designs that are up for scoring. I think that reaching out initially and having this outlet for people to tell us what they are liking before we’re printing makes the model inherently successful. The products available on our website are curated by our customers who will in turn buy them.

A: What has been some of the company’s greatest accomplishments throughout the journey?

K: Just watching the community grow and new artists come through, as well as seeing the improvements of artists who have been with us for a long time. The fact that artists can communicate and critique on the forum throughout the process has been a really great thing to see as far as success. We have also gotten interest from other intellectual properties like Disney, Marvel, and Nickelodeon. These companies see what we are doing and how the art community is so involved, and they in turn become involved with Threadless. We have a Spiderman collection, we just released a collection of Disney Pixar tees, and we are currently holding a design challenge for Big Hero 6. Bigger brands with intellectual property have approached us, and I think that’s a great testament to the community itself and what we do here.

A: What are some strategic challenges for the company, or owning your own small business in general?

J: I struggle with the “people” side a bit. I’m a total introvert and it can be hard to keep up the communication with my team and the community as a whole. As for strategic challenges, as a web-based company that’s been around for 14 years, that’s a lifetime! Technology has changed so much, and online communities have moved from forums to social networks to mobile. Even the product-creation side of technology has changed from limited screen printing to on demand printing. We are constantly upgrading the Threadless platform and adding new features to it and doing it as independently as we can. We also unrolled something this year called artist tips which you can throw a couple extra dollars in the checkout cart to the artist whose t-shirt you are buying. They receive 100% of that money on top of the royalties. We are always trying to innovate here and trying to stay on top of and be the leader of places for artists to meet and participate online.

A: What are the benefits of being in Chicago?

K: There is a ton of art inspiration going on here in Chicago. We see street art on the side of the road every day and we are fortunate enough to have access to art galleries and some of the best art museums in the world. Chicago is a really down to earth, creative place. For a company like ours, where we are so surrounded by art all day, it is a comfortable feeling. We really try to embrace the local art scene in Chicago here at Threadless. We have brought in some local street artists into the space to paint murals on the wall, to do our garages outside of the building. Bands and musicians come into the office to perform for the employees and we open that up to the public. It is about embracing art and art culture in every way possible.

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[Via: CUSP Magazine]

About Allison Murray