The secrets behind Threadless' success

No advertising

There's one area of a traditional business that Jake still doesn't want to touch, and that's advertising. "We've experimented with advertising pretty recently and have had mostly negative reactions to it," Jake explains. "It's always been something that we've felt is not right for us. Me and Jeffrey [Kalmikoff, Threadless' chief creative officer] used to work at four ad agencies, so we have a pretty strong understanding of what advertising means and how evil it is." He chuckles.

"With our company it's all about trust and honesty and we just don't like the idea of pushing our brand on people who otherwise wouldn't hear about it. We like the idea of it spreading via word of mouth, organically, naturally. It's not that we don't market, we just don't advertise. I'd rather somebody hears about Threadless through an article in a magazine than an advertisement in a magazine."

This strategy has worked wonders. Threadless's community has grown to more than 850,000 people, submitting around 600 designs a week and creating a buzz around the site. Styles have come and gone and the designs have also become a little bit more mainstream, as Jake admits. He compares it to a band getting popular – you lose some of your core fans and gain more new ones.

"Starting off, when it was just a tiny, very opinionated community, it was all about what's happening right now within design. It was a little bit more forward thinking. But that doesn't appeal to most people." For Jake, giving up some control and letting the community run the site is part of the fun.

Open philosophy

"Instead of just dictating what should happen, I have a really open philosophy when it comes to both managing and working with our customers. I mean, that's the whole point of the company: we trust them to tell us what is right and we agree with the general consensus of the community and adapt to it."

Sometimes, however, the consensus needs tweaking a bit. The T-shirts that get printed aren't chosen 100 per cent on the votes. "It's about making sure we have variety," Jake explains. "One time we had a Star Wars submission that got printed and we immediately got tons of Star Wars designs submitted and a lot of them scored really well. But we didn't want to become just a Star Wars T-shirt company.

"We try to push the community, too, and experiment with new styles, stuff that hasn't been accepted by the mainstream but we feel might be headed in that direction. If we find that people who have a lot of influence within our community are really gung ho about this certain style that hasn't been adapted yet, we'll try it out. Sometimes we look for designs that have scored lots of very high and very low ratings, because those are usually controversial. They create some excitement because people debate and talk about them a lot, and they tend to sell really well, even though the average score may not be that high."

Threadless redesign

The Threadless team – around 60 to 70 people – is actively taking part in the community but until recently there wasn't even a community manager. Now, as Jake explains, they've become a bit more aware and have started putting things in place. The site – often hailed as an example of a great user experience – is also about to get a facelift. Jake, who still does a lot of the coding, explains:

"We do see flaws in our user experience now. The site has been around for so long. People are always talking about Web 2.0 but we feel like we've been using those ideals for a long time now. It's almost at the point where we're not keeping up with what a lot of newer Web 2.0 companies are doing right now, so we're constantly making changes to the site to improve the flow of information, more like a structural redesign."

Exclusive partnerships with other companies are also in the pipeline – a big step for a company that's been very inward focused from the beginning. And then there's video. Threadless experimented a little bit with its Threadless TV format but Jake thinks they haven't quite cracked the code for video yet.

In the long run, however, it's the community that makes Threadless. As long as people continue submitting designs, Jake has nothing to worry about.


First published in .net Issue 198