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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.”

Record Label Exec Teaches Students the Benefits of Digital Disruption

By Jacob Nelson

Gregg Latterman wants to teach his students to be as excited about digital disruption as he is.

The music industry veteran founded Aware Records in 1993, an early adopter of the Internet that eventually entered into an agreement with Columbia Records to combine major label backing with grassroots artist development. The combination proved successful — it helped build the careers of musicians like John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and Liz Phair.

Now, the Internet plays an even larger role in the music business, and Latterman sees that as an opportunity for more creative work.

“If you want to figure out how to make a living today you’re able to do so,” he said, “The playing field is much more level.”

Latterman is teaching a course this quarter called NUvention Arts. Using case studies and guest speakers, Latterman hopes to demonstrate to his students that “success in the arts is a function of passion, work ethic, talent, and entrepreneurial drive,” according to the course syllabus.

As Latterman pointed out, the advent of YouTube and Facebook means anyone can make media and share it, which means it’s easier than ever to be an artist. The trick is cutting through the clutter to get your art to a broader audience.

“Being out there and engaging with your fans” is integral to that, Latterman explained.

“Everyone looks for it, but there is no magic, it’s really just quality engagement.”

British fiction-writer found success in e-publishing

Quinn's book The Thieftaker came out in September. Her upcoming fiction 'Masquerade' is expected to be published sometime in the second half of the year.

Quinn’s book The Thieftaker came out in September. Her upcoming novel Masquerade is expected to be published sometime in the second half of the year.

By Amy A. Ross

Had traditional publishing been her only choice to get her books into the market, Katherine Quinn‘s career as a fiction writer might not have made it off the ground.

However, the possibilities of exploring self-publishing and e-publishing opened up completely new options to this British writer, who has now sold hundreds of thousands of books and advocates for exploring new possibilities of reaching audiences through the Internet.

“I would say it’s really easy to get sucked into the illusion of publishers as fairy godmothers who wave a magic wand and make you a big star (more…)

MSLCE Trek to LA Helps Student Plan TV and Film Career

By Claire Tuft

I’m not from the Midwest, but I’ve lived here for almost half of my lifetime.

I came here for my undergraduate degree and moved to Chicago post-college to be a part of the Second City’s rich theater scene. I’ve truly enjoyed living here, (after investing in a solid pair of winter boots and a sub-zero worthy coat,) and at this point I even know Chicago better than I know my hometown of Denver, CO. But in the past couple years I’ve found myself itching for a change, both in scenery and in career.

Ultimately, I settled on a shift in focus from theatre to TV and film, and the freshly-initiated MSLCE program proved a perfect complement to that decision.A change in career path can be daunting enough on its own, let alone combined with the prospect of trading a well-established life and community for an unfamiliar zip code.

MSLCE’s spring trek to Los Angeles provided our group with the opportunity to meet with well-established NU alums and friends in the entertainment industry, and for those of us contemplating a move West, a chance to test our legs in a city we may soon call “home.” Over the course of four jam-packed days, we met with entertainment professionals from all areas of the spectrum: Josh Goldenberg, manager at Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment; Jackie Laine, TV producer and NUEA West Co-President; Andy Bohn, Co-Founder and Partner of The Film Arcade, an independent film distribution company—just to name a few.

Every interaction brought valuable insight into a wide array of careers in the entertainment sector. They offered us advice and anecdotes, reinforcing the importance of hard work, drive, and skill, but also the helpful (and reassuring) caveat that there is no “right answer” when it comes to getting your start in the industry—a welcome relief for the perfectionists in all of us. These unforgettable meetings helped lay the groundwork for tangible plans post-NU; each day, the reality of this new chapter of my life became clearer and more manageable. But the most surprising outcome of our journey West was a palpable sense of belonging to an already-existent community, even in a city as vast as LA. Every Northwestern alum met us with a sense of shared experience, no matter how distant their days in Evanston, nor how highly they rank professionally today. Jill Leiderman, Executive Producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live! welcomed us in with infectious enthusiasm, expressing her delight in having Northwestern students in the building. Steve Stark, President of Television Production at MGM, shared the story of his start in the industry, an opportunity born out of a variety show he put on during his senior year at NU.

On our free time, I attended two (unrelated) events hosted by NU alums, and on both occasions I was met with warmth and camaraderie when I divulged my story—the mutual understanding and reference point that comes with the Northwestern experience enables newcomers with an instant, invaluable sense of community. Making the move West will no doubt come with its challenges, and it will be difficult to leave the people and places in Chicago that I’ve grown to love and know so well—I’ll even miss the frigid temperatures and the robust winter wardrobe I’ve curated out of necessity. But knowing that the notorious “Purple Mafia” is not only present and thriving in Los Angeles, but that it embodies so much more than just a network of contacts, is perhaps the most essential piece of encouragement I took from our trek. It means that no matter where I go or what I set out to achieve, Northwestern will be the steady ground for me to build upon.

Nonprofit Arts Management Courses Gives Students Real Consulting Experience… With a Real Client

By Jacob Nelson

Michelle Shumate wanted her students to get hands-on experience in the world of nonprofit arts management. So, she found them a client to manage. Not an in-class, hypothetical client, but a real-life, small theater in Evanston.

“I really want them not just to know things and do armchair problem solving,” Shumate said, “I want them to get on the ground, hands-on, in the trenches experience.” (more…)

On MSLCE Trek to LA, Purple Pride Abounds

By Evyenia Constantine

In true Midwest fashion, a late Spring snowstorm bid us goodbye as the MSLCE cohort embarked on its networking trek to Los Angeles, California. As we left the snowy arch of the Northwestern Campus in Evanston behind, we were soon greeted in LA with sunshine, palm trees, and the welcoming, smiling faces of Northwestern alumni eager to be our gracious hosts, and share with us their secrets to success in the entertainment industry.

We might have left the campus but the shared feeling of purple pride was as powerful as ever.Our trek began with a meeting with SoC alum Michael Janak and beloved SoC faculty member David Downs, who shared with us their experiences and stories of life and work in LA. During the meeting, I noticed my cohort and I were equal parts laughing out loud and taking detailed notes as we received both hilarious stories and thoughtful advice. This tone carried over to our meeting with NU alumna, Producer and Co-President of NUEA West, Jackie Laine, who gave us wonderful insights about the panels, seminars and events specifically for NUEA West members in LA. Encouraging us to reach out and engage, she told us, “Come to the events, build your network and reach out. We are all here to help each other.

NU alums really like to mentor.” True to her words, she then invited all of us to attend two events hosted by NUEA West, where we instantly had the opportunity to put her advice into action. In addition to the stories, advice and networking opportunities, the LA trek gave us the chance to participate in Q&A’s with all of our speakers and site visit hosts. After the Winter quarter in the MSLCE program where course work included Entertainment Law, Finance in the Creative Industries, and Digital TV, I had a wealth of knowledge and felt completely comfortable diving right into discussion. Because of the rigorous and relevant coursework, the Q&A’s felt more like a dialogue, and it was thrilling to contribute.

A session with Anikka Sellz , Director of Awards at Weissman/Markovitz Communications, provided valuable insight into how TV award campaigns are constructed and won through marketing techniques and publicity. A site visit to UTA, one of the top entertainment agencies in the world, gave us the opportunity to ask pragmatic questions about managing clients, as we were welcomed in both the mailroom and the boardroom. Andy Bohn, Co-Founder of The Film Arcade, gave us an incredible overview of the changing landscape of film distribution, in addition to further explaining the acquisitions process. Josh Goldenberg, an Agent at management firm, Kaplan/Perrone, provided us with his origins story in the business and gave us sage advice. ” Don’t ask for permission,” he told us, “go after what you want.”

Jill Leiderman, the Executive Producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live, was a sensational host, giving us a complete tour of the entire studio right before the show began and providing us with a private ‘green room’ experience. She even introduced us to another NU alumna, Casting Assistant Allyson Byers, who generously answered our questions about the casting process. Mrs. Leiderman’s enthusiasm, energy and passion were palpable, and the entire building was bursting with energy and excitement. As she fielded questions, gave approval for the opening monologue, and took us to the various production departments, I noted the grace and respect with which she handled every person and situation. Watching her work was a privilege, and a true lesson in leadership.

Our trip came to a close with a site visit to MGM, where we were hosted by Steve Stark, President of Television Production. With my background and passion for film, I was elated to see iconic stills from my favorite MGM films, as we made our way to the boardroom. In addition to his advice and industry insight, Mr. Stark gave us what I consider to be a master class in the art of pitching, as he captivated us with several new concepts for television programs currently in development. He spoke to us about the importance of storytelling and articulating with passion, all the while perfectly exemplifying both.

As the trek ended, and we traded the sunshine for slush, I thought back on the experience of being welcomed into the NU family of Los Angeles. Every one of our hosts has worked very hard to achieve their success. They were incredibly passionate, giving and helpful. We met with so many alumni that I now have started to think of Los Angeles as an extension of the NU campus, filled with bright and talented people striving hard to achieve their dreams. As a member of the MSLCE program, and the NU family, I am filled with purple pride. #GoCats!    

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. (more…)

Jack Morton Director Talks Cotton, Star Wars and Measuring Creativity at Speaker Series

By Jacob Nelson

Not many people get the chance to play with Legos in the middle of Time Square and call it part of the job.

As Marie Davidheiser explained at Northwestern on April 8, it all comes with the role of a brand experience agency. She would know, too. She’s worked at Jack Morton Worldwide for years and is now the company’s Vice President, Director of Operations. During the recent MSLCE speaker series event, she spoke to Northwestern students and faculty about how she ended up working in such a unique field and what a brand experience agency specializes in. “Experience is the buzzword of the 2000s,” Davidheiser said, “It’s participatory, its interactive.”

She explained that while an advertising agency will build awareness for a brand by creating commercials and a public relations agency will generate media attention, a brand experience agency “is going to look at a client’s problem and try to create a holistic experience.” That holistic experience can take many shapes. For example, to help promote the brand Cotton Incorporated, Jack Morton staged a 24-hour runway fashion show, where one model a minute showed off the versatility of cotton.

“To see that all come to life, you’re going to have a different feeling and emotion toward that brand than you would if you weren’t there,” Davidheiser explained.

Davidheiser also discussed a project with Lego that she is particularly proud of, which involved constructing a 60’x60′ Star Wars spaceship (the X-Wing, in case you were curious) out of Legos, and unveiled it along with three days of consumer activities. “With the power of Yoda,” Davidheiser said, “sales went up.” The event unfolded as a conversation between Davidheiser and Northwestern Professor James Webster, who at one point asked how Jack Morton can quantify the success of its creations. “Numbers are tricky,” Davidheiser said.

“My belief is that numbers are telling us stuff about the past… and a breakthrough creative idea is potentially something that has never been done before… Sometimes you just have to go for it, and it might fight the data, but those are the campaigns where the chills go through your body when you see it.” Davidheiser graduated from Northwestern and thought about pursuing a career in video editing before she discovered a passion for event planning. “After college I realized I love events — you get that end product and feel that warm fuzzy feeling in your heart,” she said. During the Q&A, Davidheiser stressed how important it is for students to think about the way they present themselves. She said she’s learned through her years of experience in leadership positions that “you need to balance your representation.”

“People don’t take enough consideration into how people are presenting themselves and how you’re coming off,” she said. “People make snap judgments.” But she said that shouldn’t preclude people from being up front about being outside the mold. Davidheiser said she goes out of her way to hire creative people who don’t fit a formula. She said there’s no one type of cookie cutter employee at Jack Morton. “I don’t want a formula,” she said. “when there’s conflict in a productive sense, that’s when great work happens.”

Television Head Teaches Students to Present with Intention

By Jacob Nelson

Laverne McKinnon is perhaps one of the only television producers out there who doesn’t believe in pitching.

“I believe in finding the right match.”

A graduate from Northwestern’s RTVF program with an MBA from Pepperdine University, McKinnon works as a senior programming executive, independent producer, and media consultant. Her day-to-day tasks include working with writers to help them cultivate and develop their ideas.

It’s a skill she’s developed throughout a variety of professional experiences. She worked as the senior vice president of drama development at CBS, and has since worked with a variety of high profile artists that include directors like Oliver Stone, comedians like Louis CK, and musicians like Madonna.

One thing McKinnon has discovered is that when networks or production companies are deciding whether or not to produce a show or a film, they’re considering more than its plot and its characters.

“Truly, buyers are buying you,” McKinnon said. “It’s not just about having a good idea, it’s about, ‘Are you the person to take this across the finish line?’”

Currently, McKinnon’s title is Head of Television for Denver & Delilah, Charlize Theron’s production company. She’s teaching a course this spring that’s designed to provide an experiential opportunity for students to learn how to be aware and mindful of all the moving parts in the production cycle.

“It’s all about perspective and choice,” she said. “It’s about process, not perfection. You could fine tune your pitch or your presentation and then you walk into a room and if you’re not fully present and experiencing what is happening in the room your pitch isn’t going to land.”

The course will develop students’ ability to make compelling presentations, and, more importantly, to read a room — a skill that will benefit anyone, regardless of their professional pursuit.

“Whether you’re a writer producer or go work in tech, it’s important to be able to walk in a room with intention,” McKinnon said.

Second City Outreach and Diversity Director on Comedy: ‘There is room for everyone’

By Amy A. Ross 

When Dionna Griffin-Irons began to pursue a career in acting and writing, the future she envisioned for herself in the creative industries had little to do with social activism and its intersection with art and entertainment. However, as her career developed, she inevitably found herself putting on a large and proud “diversity hat,” which eventually crystallized into her current position as Director of Outreach & Diversity at the legendary comedy theatre, The Second City, where she promotes accessibility and inclusion regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

“The obstacle I overcame was letting go of everyone’s perceived expectation. I did not have to run in and fix every “race” issue. I needed to listen and provide a space for others to be heard and included, she said. Addressing discrimination in the world of comedy can be challenging, as comedians and improvisers frequently rely on stereotypes in constructing humor. However, for Griffin-Irons, stereotypes can be exploited to arrive at truth.

“We know that all black women are not (fill in the blank) … just as we know that all white women are not (fill in the blank), but it is good fodder to exaggerate that notion in comedy,” she said. “My job is to empower every student and actor to use these interactions as “gift moments” and ask what if or how come? If we start to question, we dismantle the ridiculous nature of stereotypes. It’s an inroad to the truth,” she added. Griffin-Irons has taught over 200 workshops at colleges, women’s shelters, South Side Chicago public schools, and corporate boardrooms, and worked with the United States Embassy to introduce improv workshops in Norway and Latvia as a tool for social change. The world’s largest comedy improv theatre, The Second City committed to inclusion over two decades ago, after CEO and founder, Andrew Alexander, witnessed an all-white resident cast struggling with how to address the Los Angeles race riots at the beginning of the 1990s. Last year, The Second City launched its Bob Curry Fellowship program, awarding 16 fellow recipients comedy fellowships to train with them. NBC Universal came on board as a partner and the program kept growing.

They hired 14 fellows in various divisions including touring, theatricals, resident stages and outreach. “Well, I can’t speak for all the ‘minority groups’ represented, but I can say when you see all of the world reflected in prime time, we are doing our job and have come a long way,” she said. Letting go of fear has been a big part of Griffin-Iron’s journey towards success. Releasing fear, she said, allows you to tap into your power by trusting your instincts and intelligence. When teaching, she often urges students to give themselves “permission to play” and discover the ways in which they can recreate their own experiences, without censoring or judgment. Griffin-Irons advised upcoming artists to create opportunities for themselves by surrounding themselves with the best people, working hard, and researching the industry. “The best way to break barriers of discrimination is professionalism, persistence and a positive attitude. “There is room for everyone. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. Give yourself permission to do your best work,” she said. 

5 of Griffin-Irons’ favorite promoters of diversity in the industry

Michael Key and Jordan Peele, creators, writers and actors for Key and Peele: “Their brand and perspective is timely and progressive. If you can create great synergy with a partner, go for it.

Robin Thede, Head Writer for Larry Wilmore Show:”Her passion, creative wits and ingenuity is unstoppable. Having a theatre background and working as an actress gives you incredible perspective.”

Shonda Rhimes, Screenwriter, director and producer: “Her powerhouse writing and casts are taking us to new places that was once dominated by white males.”

Issa Rae, Creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl: “Issa is one gal who is hugely successful in creating a web series (20 million You Tub views) and telling more of our narratives. She also founded a grand initiative Color Creative TV to create more opportunities for diverse writers.”

Justin Simien, Director and Writer of Dear White People: “His box office success is really opening up a new niche and narrative that we’ve been waiting for a long time.”