Tag Archives: Creativity

Entrepreneur in Focus: Jake Nickell

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.

And in case you can’t watch this video at the moment, here’s a great blog post that Jake Nickell wrote about the history of his company. You can find the post on the threadless blog, here.
The History of threadless.“Hi everyone! [I’ve been] inspired to recap the non-stop insanitythat has been running Threadless since Jacob and I officially started it in November of 2000.

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.

A special about Threadless on MSNBC

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 🙂


10 Years of Awesome!!!


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Filed under Entrepreneurs in Focus, Young Entrepreneurs Program

Escaping Endless Adolescence. Why are teens growing up so slowly?

I just found an interesting Newsweek article written by Po Bronson reviewing the book Escaping Endless Adolesence. The book’s authors, Dr. Joe Allen and Dr. Claudia Worrell Allen, asks the question, “Why are teens growing up so slowly?” In other words, why does it take teens today so long to mature and be ready for the world? Their answer to this question is reflected in the current education reform discussion.

Structural changes in our school system is part of the national conscious when it comes to education reform, whether it’s extending the school day, extending the school year, block scheduling, starting the school day later, or any of the other ideas that have been tossed around, it’s been part of the mainstream conversation. What these authors have concluded is structural change is needed and should provide real-life, hands on experience that better prepare our children and offer them options to explore their talents, creativity and maturity.

“We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality… We don’t give teens enough ways to take risks that are productive.”

At Urban School Foundation we’re trying to provide this opportunity through entrepreneurship education. We’re creating a program in which students actually start a business and run it. All proceeds from this business are then donated to the school program of their choice.

Read more about our program here.

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The Creativity Crisis

Here’s an interesting article that follows a study done by E. Paul Torrance. The study started in 1958 with group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who took part in a creativity study. The question you might be asking yourself is, how does one measure creativity? Well according to this study you can show the amount of creative potential and thought by judging whether the subjects of the study had “unusual visual perspecitve” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, Ted Schwarzrock, a participant in the study, can still remember the task given to him when he was 8.  He was given a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” He was able to find 25 ways, like adding a removable ladder, which impressed his evaluators.

Torrance’s creativity tasks have since become the gold standard, and “what’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers…the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.” Though they differ in content, both the creativity test (CQ) and the IQ tests are very similar in the ways they are administered, the results are very different. “With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect-each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making skids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.”

The researchers speculate on the reasons behind the decline – too many hours in front of the television or video games rather than engaging activities. In 2009 a controversial documentary came out that has another explanation. This review comes from Variety online:

“The War on Kids” contradicts popular wisdom. Studded with news reports of extreme “zero tolerance” incidents (children expelled for possessing Ibuprofen or for pointing a chicken tender and saying “bang”), Cevin Soling’s documentary posits that, far from being ridiculous exceptions to the rule as media coverage implies, such examples are endemic to a highly repressive, authoritarian [education] institution whose sole purpose is to control and contain.  …[The] docu then takes a giant if seamless step forward to suggest that the entire system of compulsory learning is designed, in the words of an award-winning teacher, “to infantilize the mass mind and condition it to take orders in a docile fashion.”

Check out the trailer below.

“A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.” What are your thoughts on the creativity crisis? Does it relate to the education crisis, as War on Kids implies? Respond on our discussion board. You can read more about the creativity test at Newsweek and a full review of the documentary at Variety or the New York Times.

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Why does the US need education reform? A nation in crisis.

Throughout history there have been defining periods of human ingenuity and creative thought that have transformed society. Inventions in the 1700’s were precursors to the industrial revolution in the 1800’s. The 1900’s saw the advent of the mass-produced automobile, the telephone, television, radio, computers, internet and more. In the past 20 years we’ve seen just how the internet and communications technology can change the world. It still amazes this blog writer that just just a few years ago Facebook burst onto the scene, a site that assisted in an Egyptian revolution and most of us generally can’t live without. We’re all living in a time when the world that’s changing at the speed of technology.

This ever-changing world has put our nation in crisis. Today’s HS graduate will have on average 8-15 careers in his/her lifetime, even if they stay with the same company. This is paradime-shifting in it’s implications for educating our children. Our competitive advantages of the past (natural resources, capital, technology and human captial) have been eroded by globalization. Brain power is now the competitive advantage in the 21st century, making ed the center of  global competition.

If brain power is the new global capital, how is the US measuring up? Let’s take a look. ABC’s 20/20 host, John Stossel, made a persuasive feature he titled “Stupid in America” arguing that a lack of choice cheats our kids out of a good education. This is clearly a pro-charter feature, which is a topic we’ve explored in previous blog posts and not why we’re referencing it. (See previous posts Join the Conversation: Charter Schools The Myth of Charter Schools) What was interesting about this report was a comparison between students at an above average Jersey high school and to students at an equivalent level at a school in Belgium. ABC gave parts of an international test to each class. After taking the test each class felt they had done well on the test. How did they fare?

“Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks, and called them ‘stupid.’ We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey’s kids have test scores that are above average for America. Lov Patel, the boy who got the highest score among the American students, told me, ‘I’m shocked, because it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.’ …When students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.”

Today, more than 220 of the world’s biggest companies have their IT operations in India. Many of these jobs are skilled, high-paying technology jobs. Why are major corporations moving overseas? America is facing the challenge of an increasingly global and constantly changing world with an education system that’s entrenched in educating for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and the market is holding this hard fact up to our face.  Intel’s Sr. Vice president fears four our competitive future as a nation. Lester Thorough of MIT expressed, “if we do not get a handle on this problem of non-functionals entering the labor market, the US will become a third world labor market by the year 2030.”

I was planning on throwing some more statistics at you demonstrating rising dropout rates and talk about how they’ll affect our economy and our ability as a nation to govern, but instead I think I’ll just show you these clips from Jay Leno’s late night comedy show:

  1. Jay Walking: Geographically Challenged. Jay quizzes high school students on geography because he couldn’t believe that 11% of American students between the ages of 18 and 24 couldn’t locate the United States on a map  (that’s 1 in 10 students)

Note: one of the comments below this video reads, “Man americans are stupid! I thought war was the only way for them to learn geography, but they don’t even know where they’re fighting.”

  1. Jay Walking: Citizenship Test. Jay asks passersby to answer questions from the American citizenship test and deports those who fail.

So, the question remains, how do we prepare our children to live in an ever-changing world? We need to find a better way to instill in our students the agility to learn and relearn, to think and re-think creatively and connect ideas, solve problems and think for themselves.  It’s clear we’re not doing that now, so what are we going to do about it?

Learn how entrepreneurship education can help.


Filed under Discussion, Education Reform