For this round of Entrepreneur in Focus I was ready and willing to write about one of my favorite hip and fun Chicago businesses, threadless, but I didn’t have to. So many people love theadless that my job was already done for me. In fact, I’ve probably had more trouble choosing what awesome video to show you that best portrays this plugged-in, Generation Y company, than writing a blog post. But let me indulge in a short who-is-threadless-intro.
Who Is threadless?
Threadless is a community-centered online apparel store run by skinnyCorp of Chicago, Illinois. Co-founders Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart started the company in 2000 with $1,000 in seed money after entering an Internet t-shirt design contest. How does it work? Members and artists of the threadless community submit t-shirt designs online and are open to the public vote on. A small percentage of submitted designs are selected for printing and sold through an online store. Creators of the winning designs receive a prize of cash and store credit. It’s a company the relies heavily on crowdsourcing and web 2.0 to connect to the public, and it’s this open connection and two-way communication that laid the foundation for this company’s success.
This is a great documentary that explains the history of the company.
2000-2002 – Threadless, The Hobby. Jacob and I met on an online design forum called Dreamless (it doesn’t exist anymore) that was run by Joshua Davis. There was a tee shirt design competition that took place on a thread on Dreamless to design the official tee for an event to take place in London. Jacob and I and about 100 other people all entered and I actually ended up winning it with the design below. (It’s a crappy design, I know, but it would make sense if you were a member of Dreamless b/c that’s what the forum looked like)
So then Jacob and I started talking online about how awesome it was to participate in the competition. Dreamless was all about art and design and a lot of artists on there had ‘battles’ and shared/critiqued their work with each other. It was all around a very creative environment for hobbyists and professionals alike to unleash some creativity in their free time. We thought Threadless would be a fun project that would ‘give back’ to the community by actually creating goods out of the work created by these artists. We started it as a hobby, just a way to enhance the Dreamless community.
We held the first design competition directly on Dreamless. We started a thread on there asking people to make tee shirt designs and stated that we would print the winning designs, put them up for sale and use the profits to hold another competition and print more winning designs.
Jacob and I each invested $500, spent $200 of it on a lawyer to start skinnyCorp as a Sole Proprietorship under my name with the intention of doing web development work as well and the other $800 was spent on printing 2 dozen of 5 different designs submitted on the Dreamless thread that we liked. For the first few rounds, the winning designers received a few free copies of their winning tee and that was it. By 2002 though, winning designers also received $100 cash.
For the next TWO YEARS, Jacob and I worked full time jobs WHILE going to college AND running Threadless. For the 1st year, we actually got our tee shirt printer to ship our orders for us. The 2nd year, We stocked all the tees in my apartment meeting once a week to package all of that week’s orders and then ship them out on our lunch break the following day. Shondi was already living with me at the time and she also helped package orders from the very beginning!
For those first two years, every dime we earned from selling tees just went right back into printing more of them.
2003-2004 – Threadless Gets ‘Real.’ Eventually Threadless snowballed to the point that Jacob and I needed to decide whether we should quit our jobs and work on it full time or stop doing it. I quit my job and set up an office right away, and Jacob followed a few months later. We rented about 900 sq ft and shared it with Chuck Forman of setpixel (who now runs i’m in like with you.) We converted skinnyCorp into an S Corp, finally started paying ourselves, hired our first employee (Good ‘ol Craig Shimala) and made a go of it!
I was still in college when I made this decision and made a last ditch effort to finish up quickly by submitting a proposal to my Dean to let me test out of my remaining classes. I ended up getting credit for 7 classes I hadn’t yet took but still had 3 to go. It became too stressful to continue to go to school while beginning to run my business full time and manage new employees so I dropped out.
At this point, even though Threadless was doing OK, it wasn’t really enough to pay the bills and our main focus was our web development business. We basically used Threadless as proof that we knew how to build e-commerce websites. Craig handled the day-to-day order fulfillment and customer service while Jacob and I worked on programming boring websites and working on Threadless whenever we had a free moment.
This is also around the time Jeffrey (iFDL) started working with us. We were basically partnering with him to design the websites that we were programming and ended up hiring him when we discovered just how well we worked together.
By the end of 2004 we outgrew our space and had to move. Oh, and we were paying winning designers a bit more with $400 cash and a $100 gift certificate.
2004-2006 – The Big Growth Spurt. We moved from our 900 sq ft shared office space into a 3,700 sq ft space. We basically just sat in the corner of it when we first moved in and wondered, “WTF, why do we need this much space!?” Well, by the next year we ended up taking up the rest of the 1st floor, expanding to about 8,000 sq ft. And by October, 2006 we moved again into our current 25,000 sq ft main facility.
During these years I watched Threadless grow by leaps and bounds. In number of employees, warehouse space, tees being sold, designs being chosen per week, prizes being awarded to designers, etc, etc. Things were growing a lot in the first few years too, but going from 2 to 6 employees is a lot easier to take in than from 6 to 18 employees.
By the beginning of 2006 we decided we would need some help maintaining the growth. So, by late 2006 we took on an investor (Insight Venture Partners) that could help us figure out our fulfillment logistics and such. They’ve been a huge help so far. It’s been a huge relief to me having some help in that area because I’m much more interested in the creative, fun side of the business. It’s nice to have someone with expertise that is invested in the business to help us figure out all the boring stuff.
2007 and beyond – Now & Later (Too Legit to Quit). So far 2007 has been pretty rockin’ … it’s always fun putting together our sales, it seems like every time we have one we out-do the previous one. We already added another 10,000 sq ft for pallet storage. The prize for a winning design is up to $2,000 in cash and prizes and will only get bigger.
Right now we’re continuing to have fun rolling with the punches and opportunities that Threadless brings. It’s always been about just doing what feels right and what we think would be cool to do. So right now, that consists of creating our very own private label tee shirt, setting up crazy retail stores starting in Chicago (we like to call them community centers), trying to do more for our international customers by getting shipping time and costs down and some other fun stuff, furthering Threadless Kids and a bunch of other random things.
Threadless is such a huge part of my life. Everyone in my condo building I’m sitting in here calls me the t-shirt king, it’s hard to put on anything but a Threadless tee in the morning, I get to work with most of my best friends, I see new amazing artwork every day, communicate with people all around the world, am faced with new challenges every day and here I am blogging about it at 2 in the morning on a Tuesday o_O.
I love every minute of it 🙂