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January 30, 2006

Threadless.com – when mass customization meets user innovation meets online communities

(Update of the original post from Aug 05) Threadless.com is a young Chicago-based fashion company that follows an innovative business model mixing customization with new ways of customer interaction to create high variety products without risks. Started in 2000 by Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart, Threadless.com focuses on a hot fashion item, t-shirts with colorful custom graphics. All products sold by Threadless.com are created by some if its users and inspected and approved by user consensus of the entire community before any larger investment is made in a new product. Customers evaluate potential new designs before the production process starts. Top-rated submissions are transferred into final products and produced in limited editions (their creators get $1000 as reward, and their name is printed on the particular t-shirt’s label).

Threadless Since its launch, over 250 winning designs have been chosen for print from more than 32,000 submissions. The company builds on a large pool of talent and ideas to get new designs (much larger than it could pay if the design process would have been internalized), enabling it to identify new trends early and transfer those into a product design. The Threadless community is thriving with over 100,000 users signed up to score designs (in 2005, an average of 1,500 new users were signing up per week).

Compare this idea to traditional customization: Instead of investing in highly flexible manufacturing systems and dealing with individual custom designs, the company focuses its energy to draw creative designers to submit new designs, and to facilitate the evaluation and voting process by its customer community. The often costly elicitation process of a mass customization system is substituted by the pre-order taking and a voting mechanism of a large number of customers.

Instead of customizing individual products, Threadless.com has a system of “custom mass production”, building on the early involvement of some (expert) customers in the development process of new product designs and the refinement of their ideas by a larger customer groups (this idea has been described already in 1998 by G. Elofson and W. Robinson in a paper for Comm. of the ACM, but has never took off in practice).

Motivated by its success in the young fashion market, the founders of the company have recently extended their categories to formal wear like ties or polo shirts (http://NakedandAngry.com) or music (http://15MegsofFame.com). It will be interesting to see how sustainable this business idea is. In the moment, it is highly successful and a very interesting alternative to conventional mass customization.

More information:

In a recent paper with Susumu Ogawa, we looked into more detail on the Threadless model. The paper has been published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Issue Winter (January) 2006, pp. 65-71. Abstract & Download here.

In a second paper, Petra Schubert, Michael Koch, Kathrin Moeslein and I comment on the possibilities how communities can support customer co-design: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 10 (2005) 4 (August).
[http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/piller.html]

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