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The Right Way: Threadless Makes T-Shirts That You Wear on Your Body

By: Steve Stormoen / Thursday, November 15, 2012

Our series “The Right Way” profiles RightSignature power users, revealing their success secrets and the technology tools they use every day.
Part art and design community, part internet fashion hub, Threadless has developed a cult following by producing some of the most stylish t-shirts on the internet. In the 12 years that Threadless been in business, they have grown in size and scope, and have even moved into brick-and-mortar retail. RightSignature’s Steve Stormoen caught up with Threadless Founder and Chief Community Officer Jake Nickell to get the skinny on Threadless and hear his thoughts on art, business, technology, and the internet.

Tell us about Threadless. What’s your origin story?

Jake Nickell: Threadless started in November of 2000. I was 20 years old, a full time web developer and going to art school part time. When I wasn't working or in school, I participated in an online art forum called Dreamless.org. Threadless started as a thread on that forum: I asked people to post up t-shirt designs and then made the best ones into designs we could all have. It was a hobby, never really meant to be a business. Over the years it kept growing and growing to the point that I had to drop out of school and then eventually quit my job to support it. At that point it really turned into a business. The premise has always been the same. Artists around the world submit designs, they get voted on and we make and sell the best designs, paying the artists.

A large part of what you do seems to be based on your community of designers and supporters. How do you use your community base to grow your customer base, and vice versa?

JN: A lot of our growth comes organically just due to our business model. With our community-based model, each design that gets submitted, printed or not, becomes a little piece of content that gets spread around the Internet. Friends tell their friends to vote on it, some of those people end up submitting designs too and it just keeps snowballing. It's also a great tool for artists to use to get exposure. Designs uploaded to Threadless get seen by a lot of people and the best ones really blow up!

You’ve been maintaining an business and a community online for 12 years, which is an eternity to the internet. How have you seen the internet change during that time, and how has Threadless dealt with those changes?

JN: When Threadless started community online meant forums or bulletin boards. Things have changed a lot since then and now there are amazing, massive social communities like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc that have dominated community online. It's funny because you'd think as the internet gets more 'social', it'd be easier for companies to tap into that. In our case, I think it's actually been more difficult to keep people on Threadless since they have all these other places they can participate now.

As for commercially, I think e-commerce has just kept growing and growing so you get more and more people comfortable shopping online which has really helped. The tools businesses have access to now are also way more powerful and prevalent. When we first started we built everything ourselves, fulfillment software, shopping carts, etc ... but now you can leverage third party services for just about everything you need to do and have the time to just focus on what makes your business unique.

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken with Threadless? Did it pay off? If so, how?

JN: I'd say the biggest risk I've taken with Threadless has been to start to work with major retailers to distribute our products. There is a bit of a disconnect in our community between our artists and customers when it comes to this point. Our artists really want their work to be seen and distributed everywhere so they can get great exposure for their work and because it's just cool to see something you made in a major retail store.

On the other hand, our customers like to keep Threadless small and special to them and don't want everyone to have access to all of the unique designs. We found a balance though by differentiating the product sold at retail from the product sold on our site. This allowed us to print even more artists and also keep the product on our site special to Threadless. It paid off and our retail partnerships are going great! I think it was worth the years of careful consideration and creative thinking that went into figuring out the right way to do this.

Tell us how you use RightSignature, and what are your 4 other favorite online tools?

JN: RightSignature has been crucial to managing the contracts we use for the artwork we print. Since we started using RightSignature a few months ago we've had nearly 1,000 signed contracts come in from all over the world. The key part for us is being able to use the Online Forms Share Link feature in all of our email notifications which makes sending out the contracts super easy. We send out tons of bulk emails and not having to set up and send each one manually is a life saver. All we have to do is check the email we get once someone has signed.

Some other great tools we use online to manage our business are Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, Google Docs and Custora.

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