The Crowd Goes Wild for Threadless

By Bizclik Editor

This story originally appeared here in the September issue of Business Review Australia magazine.

Written by Allie Schratz, Editor of Business Review Australia

There are millions of artists and designers all over the world in search of a canvas to display their work. Chicago-based company Threadless offers a unique option: inviting these talented people to submit their work to the company’s website, asking members to vote on their favourite designs, and then printing the winners onto t-shirts.

We chatted with Bob Nanna, the marketing manager of this design company making waves in the marketing realm with their innovative approach to business expansion: crowdsourcing.

Hi Bob, thanks for speaking with us. What’s the story behind Threadless?

When Threadless started, it was just a hobby. In 2000, Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart belonged to this (now defunct) arts forum website called Dreamless. Dreamless decided to have a t-shirt contest within a forum thread and Jake submitted the winning design. They thought, “that was cool, maybe we should try and create a site where we can do this all the time.” [Thus], it was founded completely by accident.

And now, 12 years later, it’s much more than a hobby. What makes the company run?

What makes Threadless run is our community: we’re selling t-shirts and other products with cool designs we’ve asked the community to [submit]. We’re putting the call out to the general public to make awesome designs for us to sell.

Threadless is credited foressentially establishing the ‘crowdsourcing’ concept. Can you elaborate on that?

We’re using the knowledge of the general public to decide what people want to eventually purchase, what they want to see, and how they want to express themselves. It’s sort of like letting the general public do most of the work on what they want to see done. They’re the ones who are buying it; they’re the ones who are in charge.

Sounds like it’s worked nicely for you, and your community of 2.2 million artists and designers.

Yes. There are a lot of attractive things about Threadless that would be attractive to designers. If a design is chosen, we give them $2,500. We put out their tee and anytime we mention it, we always mention their name. We’re very interested in helping artists get known and recognised.

Perfect example: New Zealander Glenn Jones. His designs were so popular on Threadless, he quit his regular job and started designing t-shirts full time as Glennz Tees.

How are the featured artists chosen?

Any artist can submit a design, and that design then goes up for voting for a week. Anyone can come in and score the designs. At the end of the week, the ones that score the highest are voted on by Threadless staff. The shirts we decide to print are then sold on our website and within our Chicago retail store.

And what happens to the designs that are not selected?

[This year] we partnered with Gap to release an exclusive line of tees [in the US and Canada] featuring 16 backlogged designs from worldwide artists. This way, more artists are getting printed. We also partnered with (US housewares store) Bed, Bath and Beyond to produce designs on other canvases: pillows, duvet covers, etc.

You were recently in Sydney to present at the Online Retailer Conference about social marketing and online community building. What are some of the takeaway points from your presentation?

When you’re a business, or a company looking to build a digital community or social following, it’s surprising to me that so many people think breaking into social media is difficult when it should be fun. Also:

1. Be patient. The communities don’t happen overnight. If you try and force it, it just seems inauthentic.

2. Be authentic. If your company has positive vibes to it in real life and your employees like to come to work every day for the creative, stimulating environment, that’s going to show in any form of marketing you do.

3. Be a part of it. Develop an online community around your brand.

4. Be supportive. Listen to what your community does. Don’t be afraid to let them steer you.

Good to know. What does the future look like for Threadless?

We have someone managing our international initiatives; investigating new ways to help our overseas customers save on shipping times and cost.We’re always looking to develop more partnerships that are in line with our company’s spirit. Recently, we’ve done a lot of design challenges with re-imagined characters, such as Disney, Sesame Street and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Anything we can do to help the community is a good thing.


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