Max tells the entire story of Threadless, starting with the episode of a meeting at MIT where the Threadless guys gave one of their first public presentations. I had the privilege to be part of this meeting, and it is fun to read about it in paper (especially as I am at MIT in the moment, writing these lines from the same building where we had the initial meeting with Threadless).
Max did a great job in documenting the history and genesis of Threadless, but also reflecting on its future. Here are some quotes of Max' analysis of the case, but head to the website to read the entire article:
On Threadless' Size and Development
This rapid engagement propelled the company through four years of phenomenal growth, beginning around 2004. The user base grew tenfold, from 70,000 members at the end of 2004 to more than 700,000 today. Sales in 2006 hit $18 million -- with profits of roughly $6 million. In 2007, growth continued at more than 200 percent, with similar margins. Though Nickell refuses to disclose the exact revenue number -- perhaps because he now counts Insight Venture Partners, a New York venture capital firm, as a minority shareholder -- it seems fair to assume that Threadless sold more than $30 million in T-shirts last year.
Ask Nickell what he makes of his company's whirlwind success, and he will respond rather sheepishly. "I think of it as common sense," he says. "Why wouldn't you want to make the products that people want you to make?" Indeed, the idea that the users of products are often best equipped to innovate is something many entrepreneurs know intuitively.
And it is supported by a growing body of research. A study published last year in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal suggested that the vast majority of companies are founded by "user-entrepreneurs" -- people who went into business to improve a product they used. Meanwhile, studies by von Hippel and others show that in industries as diverse as scientific instruments and snowboard equipment, more than half the innovations generally come from users, not from research labs.
On user innovation and the resistance of traditional companies to adopt it
Some companies actually punish these people by cracking down on unauthorized innovations. Apple has famously "bricked" -- that is, electronically disabled -- iPhones that have been enhanced by their owners. Other companies pay lip service to user innovation but have trouble following through on the concept. "Companies are very good at creating platforms for external input, but they're very bad at using this input," says Frank Piller …
Threadless is an exception to this. "You could say that what Threadless does is trivial, but it's not," says Harvard's Lakhani. In fact, the very triviality of Threadless's product -- something as low tech and as commoditized as a T-shirt -- proves that vibrant online communities can drive all sorts of nontechnical businesses. This should be encouraging news to entrepreneurs. Customer communities have become exceedingly inexpensive to build and manage; blogging software and social network platforms, for example, are now available for free from a handful of start-ups. "We thought that open source could only work in software, and now it's being successfully applied to a product as mundane as a T-shirt," Lakhani says.
On Threadless' Corporate Culture and Work Style
[Today], the company is suspiciously companylike. The go-carts generally stay parked, the buck stays mute, and the Ping-Pong table serves as a gathering place for impromptu meetings. "When I started, we spent half the day playing," says Lance Curran, a bearded 29-year-old wearing a beanie, jeans, and a flannel shirt. "That doesn't happen anymore." This is not to say Curran doesn't like his job. On the contrary, he nearly glows when he talks about his rise from a temporary warehouse worker in 2005 to the warehouse manager in charge of a staff of 18 today. ...
Like Curran, most of Threadless's employees come with no obvious qualifications for their jobs. The oldest staff member is 33, and many are under 25. The employees do, however, arrive with a deep and abiding love of Threadless, having joined the community long before they entered the work force.
Joe Van Wetering, a 21-year-old illustrator who works in the production department, was a frequent visitor to Threadless's offices as a teenager before taking a job in the warehouse in 2006. Ross Zietz had won seven competitions while studying art at Louisiana State University before he took a job as the company's janitor in 2004. He has since been promoted to art director, charged with helping the winning designers get their entries ready for printing. In fact, 75 percent of the company's 50 employees were community members before they were hired.
On other product categories Threadless is exploring
Now, Nickell is set to let his club loose on other businesses. In addition to expanding to children's clothing and retail, Threadless will begin selling prints and posters online. And later this year, the company will add a range of products, including handbags, wallets, and dinnerware, under the brand Naked & Angry. Each item will be adorned with patterns submitted by users, with a new product launched each month. "I think Naked & Angry, if handled properly, has the potential to be way bigger than Threadless, because we have the flexibility to do everything," says Kalmikoff, who envisions moving into high-end clothing as well as housewares. Jeff Lieberman, managing director of Insight Venture Partners and a board member, is even more bullish. "To say it's just a T-shirt company is absurd," he says. "I look at it as a community company that happens to use T-shirts as a canvas."
And Max' final evaluation of Threadless' Business Model: A fundamental economic shift
The way Eric von Hippel sees it, Threadless has tapped into a fundamental economic shift, a movement away from passive consumerism. One day in the not-too-distant future, he says, citizen inventors using computer design programs and three-dimensional printers will exchange physical prototypes in much the same way Nickell and cohorts played Photoshop tennis.
Eventually, Threadless-like communities could form around industries as diverse as semiconductors, auto parts, and toys. "Threadless is one of the first firms to systematically mine a community for designs, but everything is moving in this direction," says von Hippel. He foresees research labs and product-design divisions at manufacturing companies being outstripped by an "innovation commons" made up of tinkerers, hackers, and other devout customers freely sharing their ideas. The companies that win will be the ones that listen.
This may or may not come to pass, but the lesson of Threadless is more basic. Its success demonstrates what happens when you allow your company to become what your customers want it to be, when you make something as basic and quaint as "trust" a core competency. Threadless succeeds by asking more than any modern retail company has ever asked of its customers -- to design the products, to serve as the sales force, to become the employees. Nickell has pioneered a new kind of innovation. It doesn't require huge research budgets or creative brilliance -- just a willingness to keep looking outward.
- My earlier reports on Threadless are here and here.
- The full Inc. Magazin article