Skip to main content

Threadless Founder Describes Starting Company as a Hobby at MSLCE Event

By Amy A. Ross

It took Threadless six years of success to persuade its founder and CEO, Jake Nickell, that it was capable of becoming something more than side-project.

Although the rapid growth of his business venture had provided proof that he did in fact “know how to build e-commerce websites,” it took a little more convincing for Nickell to finally believe that Threadless was “the business,” he explained at Wednesday’s MSLCE Speaker Series event. Fifteen years after its conception, the successful Chicago-based company employs 70 people and brings together a thriving community of artists with millions ofpotential customers around the globe. Threadless operates as a virtual platform for artists to display their creative work to potential customers.

An online community of close to 4 million people votes on the designs and the most popular are printed and sold by Threadless on shirts, wall-art and phone cases. The volume of sales has grown exponentially: the most successful t-shirt has been purchased by over 150,000 people. However, before earning the undivided attention of Nickell and his founding partner, Jacob DeHart, Threadless was little more than a hobby for their lunch-hour.

The young men invested the bulk of their time on a freelance web-design company for larger clients. “One year we were looking at a balance sheet and we realized that Threadless was making more money than our client work, so we fired all our clients,” said Nickell, who remembers his company’s origins with humor. Rather than turning to Threadless full time, they spent two more years trying to launch six other web-based businesses ranging from bumper-sticker sales for people with poor parking skills to a drink-recipe website.  After struggling unsuccessfully with those projects, Nickell was ready to focus on his hobby full-time.

“I’m a slow learner! It’s funny because I tended to over-complicate things, rather than focusing on the one thing that made us unique,” Nickell said.

Once he did, the business took off. It now serves more than 10 million people around the world. Nickell shared advice and anecdotes from his 15-year experience launching and maintaining Threadless, during the talk. Kellogg professor and chair in Information Technology Shane Greenstein, moderated the discussion. During the event, Nickell told students, faculty and visitors about the company’s origins in a defunct online art forum called Dreamless, where he spent much of his free-time as a young college student. “I started a thread where I suggested a physical forum to show for the art work. I asked them (the artists) to post their artwork on the thread and I would make t-shirts and posters for the best ones,” said Nickell. He would then pack the orders in his apartment and ship them during his lunch hour. Because of his deep respect for creative work, Nickell was pleased to discuss the recent increase in artist earnings on Threadless.

He also announced the upcoming launch of a Threadless project called Artist Shops, which will enable artists to create and customize their own e-commerce websites on a joint platform, while taking care of logistics. Nickell highlighted that at the core of Threadless lays a strong and authentic relationship with the artists, which has been organically developed over many years. “Our artist community is our absolute number-one asset. Without that the company would be dead,” he said. “We still run the bus like a non-profit, trying to make as much money as we can for artists. If I were just trying to hawk shirts all day long, I don’t think I’d still want to be doing this.”