Threadless: The ups and downs of selling cotton

How many T-shirts is e-tailer selling, and what mistakes has the company made along the way? We hear from its founders.

Threadless founder Jake Nickell and chief creative officer Jeffrey Kalmikoff chat with TechWeb's Jennifer Pahlka. James Martin / CNET

Threadless.com founder Jake Nickell and chief creative officer Jeffrey Kalmikoff on Friday chatted with TechWeb's Jennifer Pahlka about crowdsourcing design and feedback from a user-base that's buying up more than 100,000 T-shirts a month. Despite darkening economic times, Nickell says the site is still getting 150 to 200 user submitted designs per day, a number that the Threadless community whittles down to just nine that get released as new shirts on a weekly basis.

Kalmikoff said one of the things that keeps the designs coming in is how much designers are getting paid. According to him, the $2,000 (plus being able to retain the copyright on the image) is approximately four to five times what's being offered at other design shops. Nickell also said that unlike efforts from competitors, the Threadless formula has worked so well because the site doesn't ask designers to create T-shirt designs around specific things, something he said can limit the number of submissions they get.

Part of the operation that's not quite as streamlined, however is Threadless' marketing, something Nickell and Kalmikoff say they've learned on the fly after a few follies. "The whole idea of reciprocal promotion is something we now think about when doing a partnership," said Kalmikoff, who described early missteps where the company would offer what later turned out to be free sponsorship for movies, video games, and film festivals without getting any promotion in return.

Not all is bad though, Nickell says there are more than 800,000 people signed up for the company's weekly e-mail newsletter, which he says has driven repeat business.

To further the site's marketing push, Nickell says Threadless will soon be getting Facebook Connect integration. "All these moments when you could be sharing, commenting, posting a blog post. (That) interaction becomes content," he said. Threadless users who log-in with their Facebook credential can shoot their activity on the site and favorite designs back out to their public feed.

One thing that was not mentioned in the interview was how well the company's brick and mortar store was doing, and if the pair planned on continuing retail expansion. The Chicago store, which opened up in September of 2007 offers most all of what's available online, in addition to designer's art in a gallery space. It was also the first in a series of planned retail operations across the country, including stores in Colorado and California which have not yet opened.

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About the author

Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.

 

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