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Threadless Founder Talks Building Online Communities for Artists, Korn Fans and People with Foot Bunions

By Jacob Nelson

Before Threadless grew into the global, hundred-employee company it is today, it was Jake Nickell’s side project.

Nickell started Threadless, an ecommerce website where artists submit t-shirt designs that are voted on and, depending on their popularity, printed and sold, while he was a sophomore in college. It wasn’t until years after he graduated, while he was working at a job in web development, that he realized Threadless was making more money than his full-time gig. So he quit.

Now, Threadless has had 500,000 designs submitted and has printed about 5,000 of them, according to Nickell, who will be speaking at Northwestern’s MSLCE speaker series event on May 6. RSVP here.

The idea for Threadless came not from a desire to sell shirts, but from a desire to make online commerce easier.

“The t-shirt thing came out because I was going to art school and had friends creating amazing art work on their computers,” Nickell said, “but it would never turn into something tangible. I thought it’d be fun to print and Threadless was born.”

In hindsight, Nickell realizes there was a demand that wasn’t being met by ‘90s clothing chains.

“You’d go to the mall in the late 90s and it’d just be corporate logos like The Gap, not art work on t-shirts,” Nickell said. “I didn’t think hundreds of thousands of people would agree.”

Lately, Nickell has been expanding Threadless’ reach outside its website. This year, for example, its clothes will be sold by a half dozen retailers. It’s also expanding into other kinds of products, “all centered around creating opportunities for artists,” Nickell said.

Though Nickell was able to turn his side project into something incredibly lucrative, he doesn’t necessarily think having a side project is the best advice for working creatives. It should be to do something fulfilling.

“The goal should never be to have the side project turn into a business,” he said. “Make sure you’re doing something where your goal is to be happy doing it, not just making money.”

It doesn’t hurt to be a pioneer either. Nickell was quick to dive into web development when the Internet was still young. He made fan websites for the band Korn (something he’s not eager to talk about now) and, in perhaps one of the strangest ways to make a name for yourself, he made a site that became the number one search result for bunion surgery on the Internet.

“Bunion surgery typically occur on elderly women but I had surgery at 15 and made a website after videotaping it,” Nickell said. “I had elderly women emailing me. It was my first taste of online community in a way.”