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How to Start a Business Without Really Trying

Threadless co-founder Jake Nickell didn't aim to build a wildly popular online T-shirt shop. But that's what he did--by thinking of the community first and the business second.
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How is it possible for a 20-year-old Indonesian designer, who has never been to the U.S., to get his t-shirt designs in stores like Gap?

A company called Threadless.

I've known about Threadless, which is an e-commerce site for user-generated T-shirt designs, for a while. But recently I was able to visit the company's headquarters in Chicago. As I spoke to founder Jake Nickell, I was struck by how Threadless became a business. He said the initial goal was to "give the creative minds of the world more opportunities to make and sell great art." There was no business plan, no marketing scheme, no sales goals--just a desire to support a community.

Well, those creative minds did come together--2.1 million of them--and as they made and sold great art, Threadless became a profitable business that sells millions of T-shirts every year and shines a spotlight on unknown designers around the world.

Nickell didn't set out to build a company around a social good but that's what happened.

Here's how he did it:

Solve the Problem First

In college, Nickell often spent his time online creating and collaborating with other designers. After a while, though, he became frustrated because their creations were stuck in online forums where only a small community would see them. Nickell wanted to see the artists' work go from the screen and onto something tangible. So he partnered with co-founder Jacob DeHart and they created a contest for the online community to choose the best design. The winning design would be printed on a T-shirt.

Their first contest was a hit. As they held more contests, their community of artists grew as well, eventually into the thousands. Threadless became a solution for digital designers to receive recognition in the offline world.

Lesson learned: Solving a problem always came first. Concerns about logistics, competitors, and marketing never crossed their minds when Nickell and DeHart started; their goal was to support a struggling artist community. So before developing, or even visualizing, a sustainable business model, they prioritized the question of how best to serve the designers' needs.

Give Back

Without its community, Threadless wouldn't work, so the company works to keep its designers happy. Forums filled with scoring, voting, discussion, and critique create a space for artists to interact on a global scale. Plus, when a design is selected, the designer receives a monetary reward--$2,000 in cash, a $500 Threadless gift certificate, and $500 each time the design is reprinted.

Tang Yau Hoong, a successful illustrator and graphic designer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia enjoys the aspect of competition. "I see competing with other members as positive competition to help me improve my designing skills and find my niche in illustration style," he told me in an email.

Lesson learned: Start-ups simply can't afford to neglect the needs of their niche communities. Consider your values and how you can continuously keep serving those in your community through those values.

Make an Impact

Designers around the world have gained recognition through Threadless that they likely would not have achieved otherwise. By shaking up the traditional design industry, Threadless has made an impact in the personal and professional lives of the designers. The 20-year-old Indonesian graphic designer Budi Satria Kwan says, "Since Threadless users are mostly U.S. based, people from half a world away recognize my designs better as compared to the people [in Indonesia]."

Lesson learned: Threadless provides a unique opportunity, and in so doing, challenges the status quo. Over 200,000 artists have submitted designs since Threadless began, and many of them have had their designs featured in outlets like Gap, Apple stores, Target, and Dell.com. The Threadless route isn't typical, even a successful company.

Threadless proves that for-profit companies can do good, just as much nonprofit ones. The question is--how will you do the same?

Last updated: Jun 28, 2012




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