The Magazine of the Chicago Tribune, one of the large US quality newspapers, recently featured a LARGE (7 page) cover story on Threadless and their user-design t-shirt business. I talked extensively with Steve Johnson, the article's author, some weeks ago about the business idea behind Threadless. He did a great job in documenting the past, present, and future of Threadless. Read the entire story here.
Here are some interesting quotes from this article:
The Art-Gallery Model.
"They [Threadless] have this innate understanding that what they are really selling isn't a T-shirt so much as the tale of how it came to be, a narrative that involves an artist, a community and a company that sets itself among, rather than above, that community.
"I always compare it to an art gallery," says Nickell, who's 26 and holds the title of president because, in addition to programming the site … and doing designs of his own, he deals with the lawyers and accountants and landlords. "You have people who come in and look at the art, people who made the art, people who are buying the art."
User manufacturing. In the article, Jim Coudal, a Chicago based consultant, summarizes the Threadless model with the great phrase "If they come, we will build it." And indeed, that is some of the quintessence of the Threadshirt business model -- and of other businesses which focus on providing manufacturing capabilities to users:
Threadless is "not building something and selling it to an audience. They're building an audience and selling them what they say they want. .. The Internet has also helped Threadless find and take advantage of the world's "distributed creativity." Just as there are great writers who now have an outlet via blogging, there are great designers who have an outlet via things like the Threadless competition."
Interactive value creation. Steve Johnson then quoted me very neatly, summarizing why Threadless is a perfect example of "interactive value creation":
Distributed creativity "is a very difficult thing to get. In a normal company, you identify the coolest artist and commission him or hire him. What they do is they broadcast their problem: Who makes me the best T-shirt? From an economic point of view, you don't have to know who is the best person. You let them self select. Of course, it only worked because, in their case, they have a lot of desperate artists out there. You have a lot of unemployed graphic design graduates. And they somehow exploited this, but to mutual benefit."
Fashion as Pop-Songs. Patric King, a prominent Chicago designer, compares in the article the Threadless model with a pop song:
"What [Threadless is] doing is just sort of building the wearable equivalent of the pop song," King says. "They throw it up and see what climbs up the Top 40. I've run across a couple of other companies trying to do the same thing, but the work's just not as good. For some reason they just get prettier stuff. Their community has just sort of trained themselves that that's their standard."
A new support industry. Share of labor is the oldest economic principle. And it also helps at Threadless. The article reports about Cody Petruk, a graphic designer for a Canadian software company who owns "about 60" Threadless tees and has seen three of the 13 designs he's submitted get printed. But Petruk also runs a web-site, threadies.org, which supports user designers to participate and win in the Threadless contests. A consultancy for t-shirt designer (McKinsey and BCG, listen!).
The limits of the Threadless model.
"But there are also questions about how much growth a community can endure before it stops feeling like a community. Right now the site is a free-flowing and very entertaining mix of design submissions, which registered users grade on a scale of one to five, blog postings about the designs, links back to other projects and, of course, the store. In a recent week, Nickell says, they had almost 10 million page views from just 500,000 unique visitors.
But already, some longtime site users grumble that as the group has grown, the designs have moved away from their artsy roots and become too cutesy, too clever or too pop. The all-time best-selling Threadless shirt certainly isn't cute. Called "Flowers in the Attic," it depicts a svelte young woman shooting herself in the head, causing birds to fly out. The company has sold 30,000 already, compared to a typical first printing of 1,200 shirts, and is printing another 10,000 for the holiday sales rush."
And the article finishes with a job offer: The Threadless founders are currently considering to hire a COO to run the daily business of the company. Condition: a suit and no t-shirts.
After the article has been published, the Threadless users commented quite enthusiastically. One comment, posted by Radioactivejosh a few hours after the article was published, provides a great perspective why users love Threadless:
"The article hit it right on point; we don't just buy the shirts for the design, but for the story, the meaning, the explanation and the excitement of new prints. It all plays a factor. If I didn't read the explanation of Poet-Trees and I just saw it in Target, it would mean nothing to me. ...
I LOVE when i see people with Threadless tees, because i feel like I know them. They understand the shirts, they visited the site and browsed and saw something they liked. They weren't just trying to be trendy and went into Urban Outfitters ad bought a tee shirt they saw. Threadless tees have a lot more going into them than just buying them."
- The entire Chicago Tribune article in full text.
- The article with all pictures as an user scan.
- Discussion about the article at Threadless with more customer voices.
- My report on Threadless in this blog
- How Look-Zippy developed the Threadless model further
PS: If you want to know EVERYTHING about the upcoming T-Shirt-Economy: Adam Fletcher, who wrote his master thesis about Threadless and is now working for Spreadshirt, maintains a great blog about t-shirts, with plenty of references to mass customization and user co-design: www.hiphipuk.co.uk