Dec 29 2010


I recently received the Threadless: Ten Years of T-shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community book. I’ve never submitted a design or voted for a design on Threadless but I wear shirts and I’ve always been a fan of their products. The book was in my wishlist and someone in my family bought the book for me as a gift. The book is full of great designs which have been used on Threadless shirts over the past ten years. While reading about how Threadless started and the company culture one thread, pun intended, stood out. The community is the key to the success at Threadless. Threadless started out in a thread post in an online design forum where designers submitted designs for review and the best one was printed. As a business model, it seems very straight forward, but you can’t stress enough how important the community is to the company. As a classically trained software engineer, I approach everything from the aspect of technical specifications and software requirements so when I see a site like Threadless I think of the software features, like voting, commenting, etc. But reading this book I realized that Threadless is not a technology solution, but a living community. Fostering communities trumps technology. As engineers, we often quote and misunderstand the saying, “If you build it they will come” to mean technology focused website. At least, this was Google’s mistake with Google Wave, they built a great technology but no one came. I now believe that what the saying is referring to is not technology, but community.

Here are some other things I learned from the book. Threadless included free stickers with every order. Stickers have been used for years to spread word of mouth, and it pre-dates viral marketing. Stickers are a physical real world viral marketing vehicle. Everyone that has been to a developer conference has seen a conference speakers’ Mac Book Pro full of web 2.0 logos and stickers.

Networking is really important. For Threadless, this meant sharing office space with fellow designers and developers. Creating shared experiences builds community. Participating in events is fostering community. Provide the tools and means for the community to spread the company message and brand. Jeff Howe, who is credited with coining the term crowdsourcing, said the following in an essay in the book. “It takes a special company to understand that their ego – their creativity, their brilliance, their ideas- are welcome, but not necessary.  What’s necessary is the room in which the party takes place.”


Threadless Designs

Here is my favorite quote from the book. “Jacob and I also began teaching a course at the Art Institute of Chicago.  That made us feel a little better about dropping out of school.”