How Jake Nickell Built His Threadless Empire

FROM SMALL TO XXL: You’ve heard of crowdsourcing? The 31-year-old founder of the Chicago T-shirt company basically invented it. Now he’s taking it to malls across the country

Nickell and his merch at Threadless’s West Loop headquarters   Photo: Taylor Castle

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Jake Nickell meets me in the front office of Threadless, happy to show me around. This is his place; he built it, figuratively, from an idea he had a dozen years ago, and so he has an obvious sense of pride, though a soft-spoken, easy-pedaled way of projecting it. “So we use this room in a number of ways,” he says vaguely, waving his hand.

No kidding. It’s not really a front office so much as a front playroom, a cavernous space that is only a small part of the 45,000-square-foot former FedEx distribution center in the West Loop that Threadless leased and rehabbed last year. (Click here for a photo tour). An Airstream trailer, where Threadless podcasts are shot, sits on one side; a sofa with crumpled cushions holds the back of the room, near the beer keg refrigerators; murals of parrots and exploding comic book exclamations—“WTF!?” “Awezome”—fill the walls. There’s plenty of room to project movies or race go-carts—both things Threadless employees are known to do. It’s like Pee-wee Herman’s playhouse reimagined by some goofy hipsters.

Moving at a fast pace, Nickell continues his tour. A boyish-looking 31, he wears skinny jeans, Toms shoes, and yellow-and-orange plaid socks. He’s so lean that he barely fills out his medium-size tee. On his left hand, in place of a wedding ring, is a tattoo of the letter S, for his wife, Shondi. “After I lost or broke four rings, this seemed to be the way to go,” he says sheepishly. How do you break a wedding ring? “It was wood.”

A hive of young employees—all dressed very much like Nickell—hover over scores of computers on two floors. In the warehouse, endless rows of shelves hold stack after stack, box after box of tees. There are enough shirts to outfit a small army, which is pretty much what Threadless does. The company sells more than 120,000 T-shirts a month to cool-hunters around the globe. As Nickell and I race-walk past the shelves, the placards identifying each design speak some secret hipster code: “Wild Rage,” “Bird Hair Day,” “Ride or Die,” “Bang!” There are more than 750 designs here; how can Nickell keep them all straight? He gazes across the room, over the sprawling shelves. Then he smiles and replies, “This is what I do.”

Threadless is a T-shirt company, sure, but it’s much more than that. It is one of the first companies anywhere to make crowdsourcing an essential part of its business plan. Just as Facebook lets users create customizable social networks to connect and collaborate with others online, Threadless gives its social network—two million people and counting—creative control over the products it sells. Anyone in the network can submit T-shirt designs that site members vote on, with winners printed and sold by Threadless.com (see sidebar on next page for details). Back in 2008, Inc. magazine called Threadless “the most innovative small company in America.”

Revenues for the privately held firm have been widely estimated at $30 million last year (a figure that Nickell will neither confirm nor deny). But that could change dramatically if Threadless’s latest strategy—forging partnerships with huge national retailers—proves successful.

Gap sold a limited run of Threadless tees in the spring, followed by an early summer line of new designs, created by designers from Shorewood, Illinois, to Tangerang, Indonesia. A back-to-school line of new tees arrives in August. At presstime, Bed Bath & Beyond planned to roll out in June a back-to-school line of products (linens, wastebaskets, comforters, pillows) with Threadless designs. Add in Griffin iPhone covers with Threadless designs and customized laptop covers for Dell and you have the makings of a cultural juggernaut.

It’s an amazing accomplishment for any entrepreneur, especially one who isn’t cranking out computer code like Mark Zuckerberg. Nickell built his empire on T-shirts—not exactly a rare commodity. But he did capitalize on a key insight before most anyone else: the power of crowds.

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