Design That Fits to a Tee

What began humbly enough as a design submission for an online contest has spooled into the thriving T-shirt business and web-based community, Now a multi-million dollar enterprise selling more than 90,000 tees a month, this is the little community-based design company that could.

Central to its success are the independent designers and supporting community that make up its more than 650,000 registered users. Here's how it works: the site holds ongoing open calls for T-shirt designs, which are then scored and critiqued by users; next the winning designs are printed and sold. When it comes to the democratization of design, a T-shirt is about as accessible and utilitarian a vehicle as it gets. This medium offers wide exposure for budding designers, and an affordable (reprinted tees start at $5) way for people to support independent artists. And of course there's the benefit of having something unique to wear, cooler than the average mall gear.

Recently chosen selections at Threadless (from top left): Beaver Circus Spectacular by Jon Burgerman; Renaissance by Heintz Sébastien; Smile... My Shadow by Lim Heng Swee; It's Just A Summer Job by Mike Sayre.

Jake Nickell, a self-described “entrepreneurial mad man” who programs “neat community websites nonstop” is the founder and CEO of Threadless. In 2000, while a student at the Illinois Institute of Art–Chicago, he entered a design contest on the now-defunct The charge was to create the official T-shirt for an event in London. Nickell's design won the competition—a perk for an art student. However, the greater reward was the exposure to a unique online community of designers.

“It was a great environment for hobbyists and professionals alike to unleash creativity in their free time,” Nickell says of Dreamless. Artists chatted online, shared critiques and bantered back and forth in mock design battles. It was through this online forum that Nickell met his first partner, Jacob DeHart. Although no longer with Threadless, DeHart was crucial to its inception.

Inspired by the London contest, Nickell and DeHart decided to host another design competition as a thread on the Dreamless forum, aptly titled “Threadless.” “We thought it would be a fun project that would give back to the community by actually making goods out of the work created by these artists,” Nickell explains. “We started it as a hobby… just a way to enhance the Dreamless community.”

Designing tees is fun for kids.

The winning design was then printed on T-shirts and sold. Any profits gained were put towards hosting another competition and printing more winning designs. For the first few rounds winning designers received a few free tees, but by 2002 they were able to award a $100 cash prize.

Nickell and DeHart each invested $500 to fund these competitions that they began hosting on a Threadless site. As Threadless expanded, they created the umbrella company skinnyCorp to launch other online projects and communities. “For those first two years, every dime we earned from selling tees just went right back into printing more of them,” recalls Nickell. Not only were funds tight, but their free time was, too. Nickell and DeHart each worked full-time jobs, while attending college and running the business on the side.

By 2003 it was clear that this was more than just a hobby. Nickell and DeHart scouted office space, quit their jobs, finally began earning an income from skinnyCorp (by programming and designing other websites) and even hired their first employee. Although not profitable yet, Threadless proved that they could build an e-commerce website.

By 2004 they had outgrown their 900-square-foot space. Two blink-of-an-eye years later they were up to 18 employees and running the operation from their current 25,000-square-foot facility. The team took on an investor, Insight Venture Partners, to manage the rapid growth. Nickell admits, “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.”

It seems like a simple concept, this T-shirt business, but visit the site to catch a glimpse of why this model has thrived. Far from floating adrift in cyber-space, Threadless has sparked a vibrant, involved community with an inviting, friendly vibe. Members can check in on designers, keep up with celebrity tee sightings, rate submissions or chat back and forth with other like-minded members. When asked if he ever dreamed the community would expand as it has, Nickell says, “I did not envision it to be as large as it is. I think that having a variety in the designs that get chosen is pretty important in keeping the community fresh. To be able to see design trends come and go is important, and we always need to be on top of what is cool at any given moment.”

Threadless' flagship retail/gallery space in Chicago (photo: outlaw01).

Today, winners receive a sizeable cash prize ($2,000), extra exposure with an interview slot on the site and, more importantly, they get to see their designs splashed across chests everywhere. Maybe even a few notable chests, since Moby, Hot Chip, the Decemberists and MTV reality stars Rob and Big are all Threadless fans. The designer success stories are impressive, too. “Tokidoki is a great example of an artist that has gained huge exposure since being printed on Threadless,” Nickell points out, referring to the Italian artist Simone Legno, who has gone on to collaborate with LeSportsac, Oniksuka Tiger and Sanrio. Another is Glenn Jones, who “recently started up his own T-shirt site and left his full-time job due to his fame and success on Threadless.”

Nickell's advice for other aspiring designers? “Submit to Threadless!” he jokes—well, sort of—adding, “I would say try to do work that you are passionate about and that you find fun. Don't give in to boring clients, it's not worth it!”

Proving that commercial success need not be dull, the Threadless empire continues to evolve. In fall 2007, its first retail space, or community center, opened in Chicago. The street-level store gives way to an upstairs, interactive floor used for gallery shows promoting independent artists, design classes and other special events. The company has also created its own private label to further perfect the end product. As for the future, Nickell muses, “We plan to continue to grow the awesomeness levels to new, previously unreached heights.” And as with all things Threadless, we users will be the judge.