Not only is the Threadless book visually stunning, entertaining, and mind-bending, it’s full of great information and views about the creative process. As it should be, as it’s written by a guy who has taken an idea and turned it into a $30 million+ business without following any of the normal tenets of big business success.
Jake is as unconventional a CEO as you’ll find anywhere, and it works! Enjoy the interview, then go order the book.
Young Entrepreneurs: Threadless is so much more than a T-shirt company – it’s a community. To what extent has the community aspect played a role in the company’s success? Was building a community what you had in mind from the outset, or did it just happen?
Jake Nickell: Threadless started as a project within another online community called Dreamless. Had that community not existed, Threadless never would have existed.
Not only that, but if the community hadn’t come to Threadless, become inspired by something and start contributing to it themselves, Threadless would have fizzled out into nothing in the very early days.Given that our products are not only purchased by our community but also created by our community, it would be pretty impossible for Threadless to exist without it.
When Threadless first started it wasn’t so much about building a community of it’s own, it was more a contribution to an existing community. It became quickly apparent that Threadless couldn’t run wholly within this other community and at that point the community was slowly created and grown separately from a thread on a forum over to the Threadless.com domain.
YE: You’ve been described as fearless. What does that mean to you in terms of business, and how has it helped you grow Threadless?
JN: I think the reference has to do with my comfortableness of the unknown. I started Threadless with no way to print T-shirts, no way to charge credit cards, no way to ship orders, etc. I just learned these things along the way and was totally comfortable diving into the complete unknown. I like to continue working that way as best I can.
I’m not a huge fan of the traditional ways of doing most things so I really enjoy looking at things as a complete amateur, and applying my own little creative twist to getting them done. Had I gone to business school, I think I would have learned that a lot of the way we do things is probably not the right way. But learning it on my own and being fearless in doing so allowed me to be innovative.
“Innovation starts with amateurs not entrepreneurs” – Tim O’Reilly
YE: It doesn’t seem like there are many mentors for building your kind of company. Have you had mentors along the way? If so, who were they, and what did they teach you?
JN: I listen a lot to others. But it’s not often experts. I have learned a lot from various artists and community members who have used the site and given feedback. I actually prefer negative feedback because I know it’s real and it lights the fire to fix things that aren’t right. In the early days we also surrounded ourselves with other designers and developers in Chicago. We shared office space with a lot of interesting people and talked with them about anything you could imagine. People like Charles Forman, Nando Costa, Dave Pfluger and Chuck Anderson.
I guess I just really “grew up” professionally with a lot of very creative people which helped me to look at being an entrepreneur a lot different. It was much more about being creative, fun-loving and emotional which I don’t think is traditionally the way to approach business.
YE: What advice can you offer to young entrepreneurs interested in building a new business?
JN: Try not to follow a formula. Be creative and give your own twist to what you are doing. A lot of the “rules” you think you need to follow to start a business are not as strict as they seem.
YE: How do you define success?
JN: Being able to look in the mirror and be truly happy with yourself and what you stand for.
YE: Do you own any shirts that aren’t T-shirts?
JN: A couple! But yea, I really have no reason to ever put on anything other than a T-shirt. Unless it’s really cold outside!
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