12 for 12: #MakeGreatTogether with Threadless

Closeup of the Threadless logo on a tshirt
Closeup of the Threadless logo on a tshirt

A good idea is a pervasive thing, but a good idea with the courage to see it through is truly powerful.

Of course, history has proven that good ideas are not always motivated by good intentions. But, when they are, magical things happen—without strings attached—which brings us to Threadless.

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.” – Cobb, Inception

As a multi-million dollar t-shirt company built on a multi-million member community of artists and designers, Threadless was born in 2000 from a simple idea: to create a platform where anyone could create their own t-shirt design of any subject or style, and have the community of ‘makers’ vote on which shirts would get printed and sold. At Threadless, they simply call this “Make Great Together.” It’s a slogan that adorns their 45,000 square foot headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop, and it’s been the cornerstone of their success for the past 15 years.

Wall mural inside the Threadless warehouse in Chicago

12 For 12 recently paid a visit to Threadless to talk with founder and current CEO, Jake Nickell, about how to make good ideas grow. Here are some of the things we learned from his pro-tips:

1. Successful ideas add value.

A lot of entrepreneurs start with the wrong question. They ask, “how can I make money?” instead of, “how can I add value to an industry, market, or community of people?” Look for the gaps, and how you can help fill them. How can you make life easier, faster, better for this community? Look at the value you’re adding—be it a neat solution, a product innovation or a totally new invention. Your idea can only exist on its own if it can survive outside of your mind and add value to others.

2. Have good intentions.

When Jake Nickell launched Threadless, and its crowdsourcing model was born, he didn’t do it to exploit free labor. In fact, 15 years ago crowdsourcing wasn’t even a word, let alone a business paradigm. He just wanted to make cool things with his friends—“make great together.” His idea wasn’t just his. It belonged to everyone and it was free and it was about doing it together. If you have a good idea, with good intentions, success will follow. In Jake’s own words: “…think of it more as ‘how do you help add value to a community that’s already doing cool stuff?’, rather than ‘how can I use this community to do something for me?’”

3. Flip Your Fears.

There’s a great line from Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, Dune: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Over the centuries, fear has killed many truly great ideas. Having the courage to see them through can be equally daunting for green-faced entrepreneurs and the experienced business leader alike. When Jake Nickell started Threadless he played against this fear, simply by flipping it…”I didn’t know how to print t-shirts, how to ship orders, how to process credit cards—any of that stuff. By telling all these people that I respected online that I was going to do it, I kind of forced myself to figure it out. I flipped my fears a little bit. Rather than being scared to do it, I was scared not to do it.” Change your perspective, and change your results.

Threadless is more of an art curation club than a retail giant. And while the brand was built on cool and unique tees, they are deeply dedicated to their global community of artists and promoting their work; calling them a t-shirt company is a bit misleading. That’s their secret sauce, and the reason we at 12 for 12 can’t get enough.

Enjoy it yourself: watch this month’s installment of 12 for 12, and find out how making great together has helped Threadless build such a vital and booming brand.





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