In 2000, Jake Nickell founded Threadless with about $1,000 and a simple mission: to build a community of designers online. Members of the Threadless community would submit design ideas for T-shirts, which would be put to a public vote. Threadless then produced and sold T-shirts showcasing the winning designs, with cash prizes going to the winning designers. In the process, Threadless became the poster child for a new business phenomenon known as crowdsourcing. Today, Threadless continues to sell apparel online, as well as at a storefront location in Chicago.
Q: What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
A: I'm more interested in what my 18-year-old self would advise me today. But I'd say be more confident. I think I had an internal confidence in myself that was very strong at that age but I was less confident in my interactions with others...I was very shy.
Q: If you could do one thing over, what would it be?
A: I would probably look for ways to do less of the things in building a business that are commoditized. Having a background in Web design and development, we always built all our systems ourself, like order fulfillment, customer service, business intelligence...there are plenty of third-party services out there that can do all that stuff for you so that you can focus on the piece of your business that makes it special.
Q: What personal trait has been most critical to your success?
A: I think my ability and desire to constantly learn how to do new things. Especially early on, we didn't know how to charge credit card numbers online, how to screen print tees, how to ship orders, etc...but instead of saying "Welp, I don't know how to do that, better find someone that does," we figured it out and did it. Even today, I always throw myself into new, uncomfortable situations that force me to learn and hack my way out of them.
Q: If you were to start another company, what would it be and why?
A: What I love about Threadless is that, at it's core, it's about giving a person with a hobby something productive to do with it. In the case of Threadless, it's an artist who would be creating artwork in her free time whether Threadless existed or not. But with Threadless, they can then take that art and post it up for the world to see, and, if enough people like it, get paid for it and see the world wearing their art. I love this type of business because it's so real—the community of artists, voters, bloggers, customers are all in it for an actual love of the parts of the process. I would probably start up something similar, something that helps a community of people with a shared interest find interesting things to do with it.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
A: Lately, I'm most proud of our efforts at Threadless to take it to the next level. We've been nearly 100 percent about T-shirt design for the last 10 years. We're finally starting to break that mold and work with our artist community on creating art for things other than tees, and distributing those things at huge retailers around the world.
Q: What's your No. 1, unconventional hiring tip?
A: Early on, I hired a lot of friends to get Threadless going. I actually think that is a great thing to do... it's nice when people come to work for more reasons than it being their job. I wouldn't want to do it forever, as you need to make sure you are hiring the right talent for the right job, but early on when so much of your success is dependent on the pure energy you all have and (in my opinion) a little less on the skill sets everyone has, it can help. Of course, as the company grows, there will undoubtedly be tough moments between friends that can be hard, but true friendships can make it through those types of times.
Q: What advice would you give to business owners thinking of crowdsourcing?
A: Think about ways that you can benefit a crowd first, rather than ways that you can use a crowd for your own advantage.
Q: Where do you do your best thinking?
A: In the bathtub. I've slowed down a bit lately but I used to take three to four baths a day! Weird.
Q: What's your biggest weakness and how have you tried to overcome it?
A: I think my biggest weakness is that I'm too quick to say "yes" to something. I've overcome it by surrounding myself with people that are comfortable with giving me a thoughtful "no" to a bad idea.