Citizen Made Citizen Made

Swimming with Threadless

Ecommerce used to be a dirty word. When we have so many huge global issues to address, why would the best and brightest in digital work so hard to sell more stuff?

Then, we started meeting the makers. Designers, mothers, artists, writers, chefs, lawyers, students, new to town, new fathers, the generous, the insightful, the brave. Ecommerce empowers visionary people to make work that matters and to live a more meaningful life.

Threadless is doing this like a boss. Fifteen years after the company launched in Chicago’s Ravenswood corridor, people still cock their head inquisitively, ‘T-shirts, really?’ And yet, many thousands of artists have launched careers in creative, collectively earning many, many millions — year over year. This year, we expect Threadless to see growth they haven’t experienced since pioneering the crowdsourcing model that’s revolutionized creative community. Yet again, they’re breaking new ground with the launch of their new Artist Shops platform. This time democratizing not only ecommerce, but also manufacturing.

The Artist Shops ecommerce platform is a free service — a shop owner needs only to show up with some image files, and within minutes, that design work shows up in a catalog of apparel, ready to sell. Threadless manufactures products on-demand, then handles shipping and customer service as well. The manufacturing + fulfillment fees are deducted from the purchase price, and shop owners set those prices then glean the margins. And the icing on the cake — artists can create their own shop, with their own brand. This is not simply another marketplace filled with artisanal goods, this is a means for shop owners to deliver a unique experience — which is what we want from artists, right?

We caught wind of the Artist Shops platform last spring, and after working with many businesses to figure out both ecommerce and manufacturing, we were immediately intrigued by what promised to be a simple solution. So we trekked on over to Threadless HQ and met Jake Nickell, the company’s founder. Jake explained that his primary motivation for taking on this new platform is to pay artists more per piece, much more than any other available option in this service space. When selling affordable product like t-shirts, it can be a challenge to find sustainable growth on the order of actually making a living.

With this mission in heart, we spent six months working with Threadless to explore priorities at the crux of design, engineering and community. And finally this week as Artist Shops opened its doors to merchants and makers everywhere, Bryn spent a couple hours to launch her own shop. (Actually, she spent less than an hour to open the shop and about 1.75 hours to design inspiring product art.) Given as much time as we’ve spent in ecommerce, you’d think this is old news. Yes, we’ve set up many, many shops and we’ve had a loose idea for how we’d fulfill some orders if people actually came to buy what we’d set up for testing and learning. With many ideas of beautiful product and designs to boot, it’s not so challenging for us to set up a store. But then to manage a production process, get those products out the door and have a sustainable interest in and budget for doing it repeatedly? That’s a different story altogether.

In having interviewed hundreds of artists and makers, the fulfillment part of the equation is no joke. These are some of the hardest working people in town. Fortunately, their work is beautiful, and its soulful enrichment supplements the business value. It takes quite some time for the dollars to make sense while growing from one-off making to a manufacturing system at scale. Designers like us are hard pressed to make time for that.

But taking some art and launching into full-fledged business over an afternoon? Yes, please. This truly feels like a ready-made business, just add nurturing. Check out Bryn’s shop — we hope it inspires you to make your own!

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