RE:INVENTION’s Expert Series presents a biweekly interview with a major player at a company that is notable as progressive, transformative and/or innovative within its industry.
Revered as a pioneer of crowdsourcing, Jake Nickell is the founder and CEO of 13-year-old Chicago-based company, Threadless. Threadless works by having its users both design shirts and vote on the shirts they want to purchase. Retrospectively it may seem like a simple concept, but Threadless was a revolutionary idea upon its foundation and has inspired crowdsourcing among many companies.
RE: How did you start building a culture of innovation or transformation within your team? What approaches do you take to keep up with and develop it?
Jake: It just happened organically as an extension of my personality and the personalities of the people who worked at Threadless early on. Our culture is really about DIY action… making things… getting ideas out of our head and making them real. We have a culture of figuring things out on our own rather than paying others to do them. Given that we were/are complete amateurs about these things that we try to do, that’s how we stay innovative. Because we’re doing things ourselves that we don’t know how to do, we end up doing them in new, innovative, creative ways. We have the confidence and curiosity needed to dive into a problem and figure it out in our own unique way.
RE: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner? What did you learn from it?
Jake: I think growing a team has been a big challenge. Company cultures work really well when everyone knows each other and what they are about. Lots of friends with common interests tend to naturally align culture-wise. But as you grow and you need to hire outside of that circle, you need to know how to identify folks who will thrive in the environment you’ve created. So I end up spending a lot of time communicating and showing by example what we value and believe in as a business. I learned that it can be a full-time job to maintain a company’s culture as it grows.
RE: Have you found yourself having to transform your business methodology since you started? How have you done so?
Jake: Yes, we are a 13-year-old startup that is basically an online social network. The Internet has changed a lot in 13 years and it takes a lot to continue to be a leader in the space. There have also been huge product manufacturing changes in the past 13 years with the improvements in on-demand printing that have been made. We are always looking for new ways to build opportunities for artists. We’re early adopters of many new technologies and love to be on the bleeding edge of what’s interesting online. There are also great best practices for things that we try to tweak and make relevant to our platform. It’s fun to look at things that other businesses are doing that are successful and then think of how to add our twist to it.
RE: What do you think is most important for your company to do in order to keep up with the rapid changes in technology?
Jake: Well, I think it’s important to first be aware of what’s going on. Especially with big shifts in consumer behavior as it relates to technology and our business. But I don’t think it’s good to just react immediately to those things. I think it’s good to really examine each big change and figure out how it really affects what’s unique with your business. Often times big disruptive changes in technology come with big disruptive business models behind them. So you can’t just, for example, build a mobile app that does what your website already does. You need to look at mobile as a new channel and figure out if you have or can create a business model that would work on that channel. I think you need to know what’s happening and then be slow and deliberate in using that new technology to be relevant to your business.
RE: Where did you find the inspiration to create Threadless and where do you continue to look for this inspiration?
Jake: The artist community. Or, just people who create things generally. When I started Threadless I was going to art school and I was a member of a forum online filled with creative people around the world doing cool things every day. Their energy inspired me to start Threadless and continuing to see all of that creative energy still today is why I continue doing this.
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