Interview with Jake Nickell, founder of Threadless

by Andy on April 5, 2010

jake nickell of threadless interview

Here’s what I like about the interviews I’ve been doing over the past few weeks; I’m asking people I find interesting questions I want to hear the answers to. I guess it’s a little self-indulgent, but I think it works and hopefully you guys are enjoying the interviews as much as I am. In the tee world, if there’s anyone that doesn’t need an introduction I think it’s Jake Nickell, he’s one of the founders of design competition giant Threadless, and therefore probably responsible in one way or another for part of your wardrobe.

1. Jake, I’m no businessman, what does a CSO do all day?

I’m CSO because I’m not businessman either! A couple years back, I finally hired our CEO, Tom Ryan, to help take over the ‘business’ stuff. Not my specialty and kind of stumbled into becoming a ‘entrepreneur’ after Threadless, my hobby, turned into a business. I took the title CSO (Chief Strategy Officer) because I love working on the community side of Threadless. I thought that since what differentiates ourself (our strategy) is our community – the title made sense. Maybe I should just cut to the chase and call myself Chief Community Collaborator or something. Titles are lame anyway.

What do I do all day? Well – a huge variety of stuff. I work closely with Tom to ensure that all the ‘business’ stuff we do makes sense for our community. I also work a lot on keeping the company innovative – making sure all our employees are empowered to make change and helping them to make their ideas happen. I work on Threadless projects of my own a lot too and still do a fair amount of coding on

2. Am I right in thinking that you live permanently in Colorado now? And if so do you get back to Chicago much and do you miss the buzz of being in Threadless HQ on a regular basis?

Yep – in Boulder, CO. I get back every month or so. I do miss it, I miss everyone in Chicago, it was a tough decision. I knew I wanted to live here and raise my family here. I lived in Denver a bit growing up and always loved Colorado. The decision was personal and maybe staying in Chicago would’ve been better for the company but sometimes you gotta make sacrifices to balance your work/personal lives. I absolutely love it out here!

3. Do you ever just wake up and think “I’m the coolest dude on earth”?

Haha no! I usually wake up and think “Damnit why can’t my daughter sleep in past 6 just ONCE.” I do have an ongoing quest to be #1 on Google for the search “coolest dude on earth” and I have been there for like 5 years now! Fun.

4. A few years back I almost had an internship with a company in Boulder, so when I was researching the place everything I found said “best place to live in America,” do you agree?

Absolutely. Every day I see more about how great this town is. I had no idea before moving here that there was such a strong tech & startup scene. Apparently, we have the most startups per capita here than anywhere else in the US. And I love getting involved with it all. It’s impossible to walk downtown here without seeing someone you know who is doing something amazing. Very inspiring place to be. And that’s not even taking into consideration the terrain… It is so beautiful here, and so many outdoor activities to do.

5. A few years ago I read an interview with someone from Threadless (I think it was either you or Jacob) saying that because of the way the company was growing it wouldn’t need VC investment, and then Insight became a partner of yours, what changed?

What really got us thinking about this is that Amazon actually wanted to buy us around this time. Although we knew we didn’t want to do that – it did get us to start thinking about these types of things. We didn’t need investment when we did our deal with Insight. We’ve been highly profitable since our first month when we earned back the $500 we each put in to get started and that’s never changed. There were two main reasons for us to do this. First, it was a way for Jacob and I to sell a minority of our shares to make some money for ourselves for what we built up until then. Second, we needed help (not money) in running the business. It was growing so fast underneath us and we are both college drop outs doing this for fun. We were unable to manage the growth… for example, sometimes it would take us over a month to ship an order out because we were so overwhelmed with orders. What we liked so much about Insight was that they had a team called “Insight On Site” that came in and helped us with our problems. They weren’t just a faceless VC firm.

6. I often think of the t-shirt world like bands, all the cool kids want to know about the latest and greatest indie band and hate them by the time they’re on MTV, do you think that there is a danger of Threadless suffering a backlash from early adopters, or should they just get over it and accept that it’s good for your business to be popular?

Sure, and that’s normal. I think we’ve seen a lot of customers come and go and come back again. What I think is really neat about Threadless though is that it evolves with the times. We are never stuck with one style of music that defines us. We’re not going to purposefully stop growing to stay ‘indie’ but we can definitely ensure that we produce stuff that has niche appeal in addition to things that have more mass appeal. There are some people who won’t want anything to do with us purely due to our size and that’s fine too. Personally, I buy from small indie tee labels all the time but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate Threadless. To me, each artist who submits to Threadless is basically their own little indie brand.

7. As I sit here at my PC, looking to my left I see a sticker for on my printer. It seemed like a solid concept when it launched, crowd-sourced drink recipes, I’m hesitant to call it a failure, but it obviously hasn’t been a big success, why do you think that is?

I think what happens with our side projects is they suffer from a lack of attention. I think we’ve had some pretty cool ideas that could’ve gone somewhere if we were able to focus on them. Threadless pulls that focus away and these projects are destined to fail before we even start them! It’s a shame and we’re trying to think of ways that we can get around that.

8. Also on the subject of skinnyCorp side projects, I Park Like An Idiot is a work of genius, how much skinnyCorp time gets devoted to small, fun ideas like this, and are you always hoping to find “the next big thing” to be as successful as Threadless?

IPLAI is nice because it can sit completely on it’s own with no one managing it and it just does it’s thing. What we’re trying to do now is to do more of these small, fun ideas but keep the core to Threadless. So we are able to do cool new off-the-wall type things but it makes sense to be a Threadless project. Things like Naked & Angry could’ve been Threadless Patterns and made more sense for us now. When you’re having to deal with whole separate brands they just aren’t going to get the attention they deserve from us. We are actually a pretty small, tight company – we don’t want to go doing a bunch of hiring to manage all these side projects.

9. My apologies if this isn’t true, but I’m sure I heard a story that Threadless was going to open a warehouse in London to cut down on the time that European Threadless fans waited to get shirts in their hands, did I imagine this or was it just something that didn’t work out as being feasible?

We looked into it a couple years back but have decided not to at this point. We have vastly improved our ability to ship to the rest of the world from Chicago (though it still is not ideal.) Our strategy now is to go one step at a time. We’ve identified the first step as translating our website into languages but continuing to ship from Chicago. Those translated sites will roll out over the coming weeks. Then we’ll take it from there. Maybe next we localize currency or content – or we set up various fulfillment centers. Having to duplicate inventory/warehouse is hard. So we’re tackling the easy problems first like translation. Maybe rather than shipping from London, we find it’s best to have a really great retail partner in Europe that carries Threadless in physical retail stores. We’ll learn as we go.

10. Are there any plans to open more retail stores outside of Chicago?

Nope. At first we thought it would be cool but while profitable, they really don’t do THAT great. Not compared to the site. What we would look into doing is working with a partner to duplicate the environment within other stores or to do a chain for us… something like that is pretty unlikely and a long ways off if it were to happen but the one thing we do know is that we wouldn’t do it ourselves. Our store is a great proof of concept for what a Threadless store should be and I’d love to expand it, but not myself :)

[You can try, but you won’t be able to read it, all we know is that there’s a lot going on] 11. 2010 is obviously a big year for Threadless with lots of activities for the 10th anniversary of the company being founded. There’s the road tour, Chicago Meetup, the 10/10/10 party in Boulder, even a book, and I’m guessing at least one more $10 tee sale before the year is out, can the community expect even more surprises?

Yea we have an absolutely ridiculous amont of stuff planned. Here’s our promo calendar for the rest of the year just that we’ve built to date. It’s complete madness and I am just stunned at the amount that we are able to accomplish these days. Huge shout out to the Threadless team here.

12. Threadless Loves has involved lots of really interesting collaborations, is there anyone out there that you’d really like to work with, and has anyone ever said no to being in a Threadless Loves competition?

No one has said no because 99% of these were done with companies that approached us to do them. I really dig the loves challenges, it’s fun to see what people come up with. I think my dream loves contest would be one with South Park where the winning design is worn by Cartman in an episode!

13. If my Twitter-stalking is right, you’ve got two kids, including baby (a ‘nickel’ to your dollar, if you will) has this seen you taking a bit of a step back from day-to-day operations at Threadless to focus on your family, and if so, how do you juggle that?

In the first few years of Threadless I was working non-stop … all day, all night. It was unhealthy. I began working more regular hours around ’05 so I’ve been balancing for quite a while now. I still work regular 8 hour days today and often times find myself doing work for a few hours at night after the kid’s go to bed, but in between I really focus on my family. That’s what’s truly important :) You can always be thinking about things – you don’t have to be sitting at your desk behind a computer to work. Some of my best work gets done in the bathtub. I’ve actually been working from home the past few weeks and am right now. We are between office spaces in Boulder. I get up for 15 minute breaks every now and then and build Arli a fort or change a Dash diaper.

14. So, what’s to come in the next 10 years of Threadless, jetpacks?

One thing’s for sure – we won’t plan that far ahead! … Lately I’ve been trying to keep Threadless as organic as possible – becoming what it needs to be at any moment. When you get too locked up into a plan it makes it difficult to change. I like to just let it do its thing, steering the ship with the current :) I have a dream that we can teleport-ship tees by then because shipping BLOWS.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer my questions, Jake!

Thanks for the interview! I am a long time HYA reader, love the blog :)

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