Crowdsourcing Success: Threadless Puts Community First

Alicia Bedard    February 15, 2015

Organization Name: Threadless

Industry: Retail, e-commerce

Name of Contact if Available: Kyle Geib – Marketing Coordinator, Threadless

Web References: Threadless, Inc., Forbes, Wikipedia, Wired

Description of How Social Media is Used for Business Performance

Crowdsourcing 101

If I said the word crowdsourcing to you in the early 2000s, you’d have no idea what I was talking about and you’d probably look at me a little funny. The word simply did not exist. With the popularity of the internet and social media on the rise, companies were beginning to crowdsource, they just didn’t know it yet. Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, typically outside of your employees or suppliers. The term crowdsourcing was coined in a June 2006 Wired magazine article published by journalist Jeff Howe and was quickly associated to Threadless.

The Rise of the Crowds

Threadless logo

When talking about crowdsourcing, the first company that came to my mind was Threadless. Threadless was one of the first companies to adopt and successfully execute a large scale crowdsourcing business model. So, what is Threadless? Plainly, Threadless is a t-shirt company, but it’s much more than that. I had the opportunity chat with Kyle Geib, Marketing Coordinator at Threadless, to learn more about the company.

“Threadless started out when Jake Nickell was participating on a now defunct website called Dreamless. Dreamless was a way for those interested in art and programming to connect. Jake thought it would be fun to host a t-shirt contest for the users on Dreamless, which was met with enthusiasm and some really great results. From there, Jake took the idea and built it into the Threadless that we know and love today. With that said, I believe that crowdsourcing was always an inherent component to the Threadless model.” – Kyle Geib, Marketing Coordinator at Threadless

Collaboration and Creation

It all began with collaboration. While in college, Threadless co-founded Jake Nickell spent much of his time creating and collaborating with others online but became frustrated that their creations were stuck on a screen. He looked for ways to make their online creations tangible.

The Solution

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 2.45.50 PM

Image Source: Threadless – Homepage

Threadless was born – an online community where customers control the products that are produced and sold. Designers from around the world submit designs to online contests, the Threadless community ranks each design on a 1 to 5 scale, the best of the best designs are printed on various materials (t-shirts, hoodies, phone cases, canvas, etc.) and sold via the site. Winning designs are selected weekly. Winning artists are awarded royalties and paid cash prizes. With the unpredicted success of Threadless, Nickell dropped out of school, started the skinnyCorp web agency, and focused full-time on developing the Threadless community.

Threadless has continued to see massive success. In 2014, the company had over 2 million registered users on their site, received over 69,211 submissions, and printed designs from 289 artists. But what led to this success?

“Crowdsourcing has impacted the success of Threadless because the model requires us to listen. We have to listen to what the artists are saying about their experience on, we have to pay attention of what is scoring highly, and we must listen to customers once the product is in their hands. With this ear to the ground approach, the crowdsourcing models has allowed us to be very tuned into what Threadless artists and shoppers want.” – Kyle Geib, Marketing Coordinator at Threadless

Transitioning to Communitysoucing Over Crowdsourcing

Threadless t-shirt designs

Image Source: Threadless Instagram

Although Threadless started as a crowdsourcing venture, it has transitioned to a communitysourcing venture. In the beginning, Threadless embodied crowdsourcing. They were relying on the vote and opinion of random consumers to drive the direction of their company. This led to wide spread and rapid growth on and offline. However, transitioning to communitysourcing has carried them to the success they’ve achieved today. Threadless grew from a hobby, with the underlying goal of giving artists the opportunity to share their designs with the world, opposed to generating profit.

Today, Threadless has a loyal group of creators and customers in a community that they have cultivated. Jake Nickell has transition to the role of Chief Community Officer to focus on what he does best –  building the community, finding new members, and promoting the brand online.

“Threadless is popular because we have taken the time to build a platform that artists from around the world can use to connect with other artists, share their artwork, grow as artists, as well as monetize and gain exposure for their work. We listen to our artists and try to provide them with the tools necessary for success. We print artwork that really resonates with people. We have so many pop culture designs (music, movies, gaming), that a lot of niche audiences find t-shirts, phone cases, and wall art that speak directly to their interests. Since we’re only printing the highest scoring submissions on Threadless, there is already a built in audience for every design we decide to print.” – Kyle Geib, Marketing Coordinator at Threadless

Lessons for Others

Crowdsourcing is a difficult business model to execute and isn’t the right fit for the majority of businesses. Threadless attributes a lot of their success to the realization that they are not in charge of their company, their customers are. Considering adopting the crowdsourcing business model? Here’s a few tips that we’ve learned from the success of Threadless:

Stay Focused mural outside of the Threadless HQ

Image Source: Threadless Instagram – ‘Stay Focused’ by Eric Zelinski mural outside of the Threadless HQ

1. Don’t Forget Where You
Came From

Don’t forget your roots! Threadless was a community first and this mentality has remained at the forefront of their business operations today. They created solutions for their community which has fostered a strong sense of loyalty. When Threadless introduced design challenges they had a willing group of contributors to fuel their success. Today, Threadless fosters a strong community with their forums, blog, and various social media channels.

2. Find the Right Crowd

Through developing a community first, Threadless was able to find the right crowd. They had cultivated a group of diverse and talented artists from around the world. These artists shared the site with their friends and a social ecosystem was born. Threadless doesn’t have a huge marketing department, they don’t spend huge amounts of money on advertising, and they don’t rely on a trained salesforce – they rely on their community and the art. The strength of their online community is shown through their 2.18 million Twitter followers and 882,000 fans on Facebook.

Threadless artist update image.

Image Source: Threadless Blog

3. Feed the Need – Incentives

Threadless knows what motivates their artists from being actively involved in the community and being artists themselves. It started off with providing artists with a better way to collaborate and connect. It morphed into providing artists with a platform to share their craft, gain recognition, fame, and glory. Cash prizes don’t hurt either!

4. Defining the Output

Although the community is largely responsible for the direction of Threadless, Threadless ultimately controls the final output. Artists can submit general designs which are voted on by the community. After voting closes, Threadless determines which designs to print by taking into consideration the community votes. Additionally, Threadless creates themed challenges where artists comply with design specifications.

5. Listen to Your Customers

When I asked Kyle about the advice that he had for customers considering adopting a crowdsourcing model he said:

“Make sure you have the capacity to listen to what your audience/community is saying.”

It all ties back to your community. It’s great that you can provide your customers with a forum to submit their ideas, vote, and provide feedback. However, if your not ready to listen you’ll never be successful.

Submitted by: Alicia Bedard, University of Waterloo

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