Advice from the master. Jake Nickell of Threadless

by Andy on March 24, 2010

jake nickell of threadless

In case you thought that Threadless was only good for stalking people and performing menial labour tasks and calling it fun (I’m talking about FarmVille), I spotted this cool note from Jake Nickell, one of the founders of t-shirt powerhouse Threadless, showing an e-mail exhange he had with some asking him about the early days of Threadless. Here’s part of the e-mail sent to him:

I’m mostly just amazed that you were able to start a company for $1000.

My future partner and I seem to be spinning our wheels, continually changing our business model and general idea for what we want to create. I think this is due to the fact that taking the step from concept to reality has so many hurdles we don’t know where to start. What was the first step you and your partner made to make Threadless a reality? If you could do it over, what would you do differently?

How long after coming up with the idea for the company did it take for the first shirt to be sold?

How would you have done things differently if you had $20,000 instead of $1000 to start up Threadless? Was money a real limiting factor?

I’m sure you haven’t made TOO many mistakes, but what was the first big mistake you made while creating Threadless?

Thank you again, and I totally understand if you don’t have the time to answer any/all of the above questions!

Random Question: I know you got the first $1000 for Threadless by winning a T-shirt design competition, but have you ever had any of your designs printed by Threadless?

And here is his response:

Yo! Good questions. My answers all revolve around the fact that Threadless started as a hobby not a business. The company was started 1 hour after the idea was born. It started as a thread on a web forum. We simply asked people to post tee designs, we’d pick some good ones and make them – and sell them… Giving the designer a few free tees for themselves.

As a designer and member of the art forum, this was just a fun project/thing to do for the community. $20k would have been way too much to spend on a pet project like that. It’s kind of like saying would you have been better at becoming a good skateboarder if you had $20k to buy your first board and build some ramps rather than $500. I’d never want to spend that much on an unknown hobby.

When we posted that thread nothing operationally existed at all. We had no t-shirt printer lined up, had no idea how we would sell the tees, no business entity. This is when we put the $1,000 together. (which was actually out of pocket – I didn’t win anything but my design bein printed in that first competition) I used $200 of it to talk to an accountant about setting up a sole proprietorship. I was 100% owner under this structure for the first 3 years before we became a corporation and I gave some ownership to my partner. Who, btw, was another member of that forum that I talked to a lot. Just great to have someone else excited about the project to bounce ideas off of.

The first contest on that thread was in november ‘00 – we had the winning tees up for sale on a crappy website by February ‘01 and that is when we made our first sale. For the couple years that followed, we had a separate bank account collecting revenue, using 100% of it to just print more tees. We didn’t take a salary at all.

There is absolutely nothing I would change. Honestly.

I know that quite a lot of you will already be aware of the backstory to Threadless, but it’s still good to hear it from another angle and in such a candid way.

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