Jake Nickell, the entrepreneur | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Jake Nickell, the entrepreneur 

'I don't have a business degree. I think a lot of the time innovation comes from amateurs.'

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Nickell, 31, is the founder and chief strategy officer of Threadless.com.

I was on this forum called Dreamless.org. It was this group of artists all around the world. It was an invite-only forum, so it was these really talented artists. They held this event every year called New Media Underground Festival where they'd all hang out together and share their thoughts. They held a T-shirt design challenge on the forum. I entered into it and I won.

Literally an hour later, after learning that I won, I started Threadless by starting a thread on that forum saying, "Post up designs and I'll print the best ones, make them into T-shirts that we can all have." That was 2000. It was in the age of the forum that I started Threadless. It worked out pretty well. Even though it's different now, I think that the underlying idea of connecting with people online, just as a communications platform, is still the same. It's just different tools.

I didn't really start it to be a business. It was more a fun thing to do with my friends on this forum. Over time I started to see the scale—how many people there are around the world able to easily connect. One of the things I did from day one was ship internationally. That was something I never second-guessed because there are people on the forum who live in the UK; I want to be able to ship them the shirts. A lot of e-commerce companies wouldn't do international in the beginning because it's too hard or something, but for me it was just a given, because that's where the people are.

For the first two years I had set up a separate bank account. Every dollar that came in for T-shirt sales I used to print more shirts. I didn't take any salary. No money was really used for anything other than printing more shirts. Threadless was proof that we knew how to build a website. It wasn't until four years into the business where it was making enough money to support us working on it full-time. Even though it's been a struggle, it's been interesting approaching those problems with completely fresh eyes, not knowing how it's supposed to work. I don't have a business degree. I think a lot of the time innovation comes from amateurs.

About three years ago I was getting kind of overwhelmed with the business side—my background is in art and development. I actually moved out to Colorado for a little while. Right before I moved out there I hired a CEO to run things. Just about four months ago I moved back here and I felt like this great weight has been lifted and I'm able to do things I'm excited about because our CEO is so great at running the business. So today I spend a lot of my time finding out where help is needed and just diving into it completely. I don't really work on one specific thing. I move around from department to department and I like to identify areas that are pain points and dive into those. I also think a lot about the company culture and how we are able to maintain that as we hire new people and keep artists excited about participating on the site. Definitely a passion point of mine is the community side of the business. I feel like the commerce side will just happen naturally, really, if we do the community side right.

We have about 1.5 million registered users—I think it's actually 1.7 now. But you don't have to be a registered user to buy stuff from our site. We've had millions more buy stuff. The only thing you have to be registered for is to vote and submit designs. We've had 150,000 artists submit designs and we've printed about 2,000 of them. So it's pretty difficult to get printed, obviously. We get like 1,200 designs submitted every single week. And then there's a smaller group of really, really active, everyday users on our forum. We also have a gallery of photos where people can upload a photo of themself wearing a shirt they've bought for credit off their next order. There's people that only do that. There's all these little miniature communities that sometimes overlap, but sometimes it's like completely unique people within each one.

There's a lot of stuff in the works right now. The Griffin iPhone cases, thermos bottles. If you buy a Dell laptop you can get it customized with a Threadless design on the cover. Wall graphics with Blick, like vinyl stickers that you can put on the wall. The purpose of all that is we've been making great products with artists for T-shirts for so long we feel the best way to grow the company is through partnerships. It means more opportunities for more artists. We're pretty stoked to use the art for more than just T-shirts. —As told to Sam Worley

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