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Inside Threadless.com
editorial

Inside Threadless.com

In 2000, a college student named Jake Nickell entered a t-shirt design contest hosted by Dreamless.org, a (now defunct) online forum for web programmers and graphic designers. The winning design would become the official t-shirt of a Dreamless event in London. Out of about 100 entries, Nickell’s design won the contest.

Jacob DeHart, another college student with a passion for design, also entered the competition. Though his design didn’t win, he and Nickell (who had met through the forum) began to talk about how much fun it was to participate in the contest. “Dreamless was all about art and design and a lot of artists on there had 'battles' and shared/critiqued their work with each other,” wrote Nickell in a blog post entitled ‘Threadless.com: The History’. “It was all around a very creative environment for hobbyists and professionals alike to unleash some creativity in their free time.” That got the two thinking: what if they held an ongoing design contest where the winning t-shirts would go on sale? Soon, Threadless was born.

Initially a contest for the Dreamless community, Threadless quickly expanded into its own entity. Nickell and DeHart, both college students with full-time jobs, each invested $500 to start skinnyCorp, a technology company. At this point, making Threadless profitable wasn’t really a priority. In fact, they didn’t envision Threadless as their primary venture; it was a side-hobby supported by skinnyCorp’s web development work. “For those first two years, every dime we earned from selling tees just went right back into printing more of them,” said Nickell. “We basically used Threadless as proof that we knew how to build e-commerce websites.” Threadless: Mister Mittens' Big Adventure by Joe Van Wetering

Whenever they could, the two Jakes gave back to the Threadless community: from the very beginning, winning designers received a few shirts with their designs printed on them. In 2002, when Threadless started to generate a bit more revenue, they began to award $100 to winning designers. By the end of 2004, after Threadless acquired its own office space and began hiring actual employees (including Nickell and DeHart themselves; for the first few years, they didn’t earn a salary), that figure jumped to $400 plus a $100 Threadless gift certificate. Unlike the early days, Threadless can now afford to generously compensate its talented community: operating as a 50-person company, the site bagged nearly $30 million in revenue in 2009. As it stands presently, winning designers — there are typically seven each week, picked from more than 2,000 submissions — receive $2,000 for their work in addition to a variety of other extras, and sometimes even more for special contests.

Though it’s certainly a nice perk, prize money is only one of several motivating factors to participate on Threadless. Others include the opportunity to foster one’s creative talents, the potential to take up freelance work, and a general adoration of the Threadless community, notes UNC Chapel Hill journalism professor Daren C. Brabham in his article ‘Moving the Crowd at Threadless: Motivations for participation in a crowdsourcing application’. An additional theme also emerges throughout his interviews with 17 Threadless community members: an actual addiction to the participating on the site.

So what can Threadless members do on the site? Besides submitting one’s own designs and slogans, there are thousands upon thousands of t-shirt designs and slogans to browse and rate on a five-point scale. Members can leave each other encouragement and criticism in a comments section below each submission. To earn $1.50 in store credit, they can photograph themselves in Threadless shirts and upload those photos to the site — which, of course, members can browse and comment on. And naturally, they can purchase Threadless shirts that appeal to them. Given that the Threadless community is so vast, diverse, and artistically endowed, it’s actually quite difficult to browse the site without whipping out a credit card — it doesn’t take long to find a t-shirt or hoodie that you just have to own.

Threadless is not a replacement for an online social network, but it has certainly taken a lot of inspiration from such sites over the years. Each member profile on Threadless feels like a social hub, with the ability to link to Flickr photos, Last.fm play history and other sites — not to mention complete listings of an artist’s Threadless design catalog, printed designs, slogans, gallery photos, blog posts, critiques and votes. The site also features a community forum where members can chat all things Threadless, art, culture and so on. “Overall I have won eight times, that is six normal competition winners, one 12Club and a select tee,” wrote member Samuel Hernandez in his blog post ‘5 Years of Threadless!’ “Threadless has been a great place where I've [met] many people from all around the world, many to whom this day I call my e-friends. I am lucky to be around a group of so many talented artist[s] out there.”

To Threadless founders Nickell and DeHart as well as the rest of the Threadless team, the site is its community. “We've got a close-knit group of loyal customers and have worked hard to build that,” said Cam Balzer, vice president of marketing at Threadless, in an interview with Forbes. “The people who submit ideas to us, vote and buy our products aren't random people, and they aren't producing random work. We work closely with our consumers and give them a place on our site, the Threadless forum, where they can exchange ideas with one another — ideas that go beyond designing t-shirts."

"People who do that aren't jumping into a random crowd," Balzer continued. "They're part of the community we've cultivated.” Though many would consider such careful community building to be a type of crowdsourcing — including our very own Jeff Howe, who coined the term 'crowdsourcing' in a Wired article five years ago — Balzer believes the concept of crowdsourcing is actually “antithetical” to what Threadless does, since it doesn’t involve a ‘random’ crowd.

There’s little about Threadless that needs changing. Sure, it could use a better forum interface (more like vBulletin, with private messaging and a search feature, as presently it’s just a series of links to blog posts), but that’s quite possibly the only aspect of the site that’s technologically outdated. As far as improving the participatory element of the site, Threadless should allow anonymous submissions for users who don’t want to compromise their identity or who feel their designs won’t be fairly judged based on their status in the community. But again, those are minor elements that barely affect the company’s bottom line.

Threadless has perfected the ‘prosumer’ model: its community both produces and consumes its own content. All that’s left to do is keep the community happy — to be fair, this is not usually as simple as it sounds — and generally foster creativity with original, fun design challenges.

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