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Threadless founder Jake Nickell on community and crowdsourcing

Threadless, the bookJake Nickell is the founder of Threadless, a brand that has become synonymous with t-shirts, design, community and crowdsourcing. Somewhat disturbingly, Threadless is this year celebrating its tenth birthday. They grow up so quickly these days! 

Jake has commemorated this double-figure milestone by producing a rather lovely book, called Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Design Community. It features some of the best t-shirt designs ten years and also provides a step-by-step history of Threadless, which makes for an interesting read. 

I interviewed Jake to find out more about the company’s approach to community engagement…

I still think of Threadless as a startup, so it’s bewildering to realise that you have been around for a decade. Do you still have a startup mentality?

Very much so! I still try to do most things on an extremely barebones level, trying to do as much as we can with as little as we can, while maintaining a fun, energetic, startup office culture that is challenging and rewarding for everyone involved. 

I think that’s why I’m still around after 10 years… it’s just as fun as it was when we started.

Can you explain how the business grew the community, and what your focus was in the early days?

We didn’t grow the community, the community did. We just made sure it was a fun place for people to interact with each other, fostering creativity, by being real people and members of the community ourselves. 

In the early days our focus was all about making cool things with our artist friends online. It started as a hobby and for two years we didn’t take any salary, just kept making shirts with the money that came in from selling the previous batch of shirts. 

I think just how simple and basic we kept it was the best thing we could have done to grow the community. No funny business going on.

How has that focus changed, as you have grown?

It’s mostly just gotten more and more aspirational. Every year I wonder: How many more opportunities can we bring to artists? How many more people in the world care about t-shirt art, can be inspired by it and find the drive to try making it themselves? And now we’re wondering, what other things would artists want to design for and how can we bring those opportunities to them. 

So the focus is really the same, it’s just on a whole new level scale-wise.

As a pioneer of crowdsourcing, what advice do you have for brands that want to make the most of community-generated content?

The biggest thing I would suggest is to not look at crowdsourcing as a way to outsource your work to a crowd but more a way to help a talented group of people find productive, fun and fruitful things to do with their talents. 

It’s so much more natural when the ‘work’ being done by the community is things their passionate about. That’s why we have no spec of what needs to be submitted. It’s just artwork: it can be a 100% personal art piece, it doesn’t need to meet a specification.

How has community participation evolved over time? Does the Law of Participation Inequality apply to Threadless?

I am not familiar with that law, but the biggest change we’ve seen is just in ways people use the web to communicate socially. 

When I started online it was BBS’s, then chat rooms, and when we started Threadless it was all about forums. Now it’s all about real-time social things like Twitter and Facebook along with mobile starting to become much larger. 

Who knows what will happen next but I think it’s important for you to be where the people are if you are looking for a community to interact with you.

What are the best tactics you’ve used to boost customer and community engagement?

The best thing we did is to trust our community. To constantly ask them for advice, to show them we are listening, and to change things based on what the community is feeling. We also wholly invest ourselves in being members ourselves.

How important are incentives? What does your community value most? Kudos vs cash?

I think the incentives are important for some and definitely a nice perk at the very least for everyone. But I believe that the real motivation for submitting is something else. Things like being a part of a movement bigger than yourself, or growing and learning as an artist from a vast, talented community, or finding a creative release outside of whatever your day job is.

The tone of voice you use on Threadless really contributes to the general feel of the site. How important is this in terms of defining the brand?

I think it’s super important… if we spoke really stiff it would come across fake and with a community based business that just doesn’t work.

With such passionate fans I bet the social media thing to some degree managed itself? How are you using platforms like Twitter and Facebook?

Yeah, for a long time it did. We didn’t embrace Twitter and Facebook fully until really last year. But once we got on there we found a lot of success really fast. 

We have more than 1.5M followers on Twitter and 150k+ fans on Facebook, and it’s one of the best ways we’ve found to get the word out on new stuff. We just use them to tell people what we’re up to… it’s a great way to communicate with a massive amount of people really easily.

I’ve seen the Threadless site almost fall over when you announce time-limited sales on Twitter. Can you share some numbers on the volumes of traffic you need manage when you see spikes?

It gets ridiculous sometimes. At times we can be pushing nearly 1 Gigabit/sec between our servers at Rackspace and our CDN… that is absolutely insane traffic and it can definitely take out our servers sometimes. We’ve gotten pretty good at handling the load recently and haven’t had any complete shutdowns in a good six months.

You added PayPal to the site recently. What did this do for the business?

We found it to be a great move especially internationally and with our younger customers. It wasn’t staggering but we did find a really nice incremental addition to our sales. 

You ship internationally, or at least to the UK… how did you approach the internationalisation of your business? 

Yeah, we ship all over the world. London was actually the number one city we shipped to for a while, even including the US. 

From the very beginning we have had a very international following and to this day we ship more than 50% of our orders outside of the US. 

We haven’t really done anything special though other than just shipping from Chicago, although just a few months back we did launch some translated versions of our site in French, Spanish and German.

So what’s in store for Threadless in the next decade? 

Lots more of hanging out with our community of artists, making cool things together! I try not to put together too comprehensive of a plan because things always change, especially when you have such a vast variety of people helping drive where Threadless should go as we work with our community on nearly everything we do.

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