How Threadless Nailed the Crowdsource Model

I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon at the offices of Chicago based graphic t-shirt printer Threadless recently and their story is one that I never get tired of telling.

Threadless built their business around a now commonplace model known as crowdsourcing. The basic idea behind the model is that you put some defined work out to a community and allow community members to compete to win the project.

This model differs from service offered by organization such as Elance as the projects are not bid on. Project specs and fees are usually agreed upon and then members compete to win the work.

Crowdsourcing has been used very widely in the design industry and has its detractors. In many cases designers are asked to submit fully developed spec work and compete against many other doing the same.

There is a free market argument to support crowdsourcing as well, but Threadless has assembled a number of dynamics that allow them to stay above the pro or con argument while building a multi million t-shirt a year business.

Two Airstream trailers act as thinking pods for Threadless staff

Below are the elements that mesh to make the Threadless model so effective.

Community first

Many crowdsource ideas start with the need to build a community. It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario. You have to come with a robust community in order to get member submissions and you have to have plenty of folks willing to submit projects and pay money.

Threadless started as an online forum for designers and had a supportive community before they ever started to create competitions. This community first mentality is evident today. One casual reading of comments and submission will give you a glimpse into how loyal and committed this community is to the idea of Threadless.

Socialist view

Threadless runs all of the competitions and is the buyer for each of the ten or so designs that get picked each week. This certainly allows them to create stable processes for how each competition is won, but they’ve also chosen to set a specific fee ($2000 + $500 store credit) for each prize.

This set fee model means that world renowned designers (yes they submit too) get the same prize as someone with a brilliant idea, but no design portfolio, if their design is chosen.

This further supports doing work and encouraging community members for the love of the game and removes class from the equation.

Customer forum

Think how many better products would be created and how much smarter those folks over in marketing would be if every time a new product was created it already had thousands of potential customer weigh in on the merits and their desire to purchase the finished product.

Threadless rarely if ever produces a dud t-shirt because the community and potential customer must cast votes of support for a design before it’s ever considered. In essence the Threadless customer produces the company’s product.

Brand filter

Threadless has also installed what I call a brand filter. Sure the crowd, meaning anyone, submits designs and the community votes to bring designs through the clutter of weekly submissions, but the Threadless staff also still makes the final call in a democratic process that helps ensure both quality and mission.

The model becomes the product

Recently, Threadless announced a new initiative, called Threadless Atrium, that is designed as project to take their crowdsource model to others and allow them to use it to produce designs for their needs.

The first two examples of organizations using Atrium can be found on Threadless Causes. The DNA (Demi and Ashton) Foundation is using Threadless to solicit T-shirt designs to raise awareness about child sex slavery, and the Oceanic Preservation Society is crowdsourcing the artwork for its upcoming documentary Singing Planet about mass extinction.

So, what market, industry, product, service or problem could you apply this model to?

Turn Your Facebook Profile Into a Fan Page

Facebook recently enabled what seems like an obvious tool that allows you to migrate your personal page to a Fan or Business Page. There was no announcement of this feature but it was covered by the always informative

The migration only covers converting your friends to “Likes” so you’ll first want to backup and download all of your photos, videos and wall posts using the recently added download feature found by going to To access the Download Your Information feature, go to Account->Account Settings->Download Your Information and click “learn more”.

Once you start the migration it wipes out your profile, can’t be reversed and unfortunately only allows you to use your current name as the fan page name. Note: Back up your personal profile before starting the migration or you’ll lose everything.

There’s a Facebook Help Center page that outlines the process of migration and here’s the migration tool

There are some reasons why someone promoting a business on Facebook might do this. Actually, promoting a business with your personal profile is supposed to be against Facebook’s Terms of Service, although they’ve loose with enforcing that. Some business only profile users also run up against the 5,000 friends limit and could now benefit from unlimited Likes.

Facebook Is Not the House

These days I can’t get through a presentation on the use of social media in marketing without someone inquiring whether they should use Facebook as the primary web presence for their business.

“I mean, it’s free and look at all these cools tools you can add to your Fan Page.”

Let me be very clear on my thinking on this: Facebook is not the house, Twitter is not the house, your social profiles spread far and wide are not the house.

Your hub, your blog, your website—that’s the house. Build the house, fix the house, decorate the house and invite the party to the house, because it’s the one thing you can own and control. It’s an asset you can grow rather than space you simply rent.

Your activity in social media is all about building a persona and brand that draws people to the house, whether you’re a plumbing contractor, consultant, or someone that wants to create a path to a better career. Build rich and engaging hubs on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or wherever your prospects hang out, but remember you’re always going home.

Focusing too much attention on your Facebook play is like spending a bunch of time decorating and fixing up a neighbor’s house while they are traveling Europe for a year or two. It may be a nice place to throw a party or entertain, but you don’t really own it.

An issue of control

The greatest reason I take this stance is because of control. You don’t control what’s being said, contributed and added to a social network profile like Facebook. You get to rent the space, but anytime Facebook decides it wants to remodel, you have no say.

A lot of smart online folks are raving about Facebook’s recent addition of a commenting tool that integrates with blog commenting systems like WordPress. There are a couple features with this tool that, on the surface, are alluring—comments made on your blog are automatically posted to the person’s Facebook profile for example.

However, here’s what should be the deal killer for anyone considering this tool. The comments don’t sync with your WordPress database, which is another way of saying Facebook now owns your blog comments. Facebook has done nothing that demonstrates them worthy of this kind of trust.

Keep this very important distinction in mind—you’re not a Facebook customer, you’re part of the product that they sell—and that makes all the difference in how they view you.

But, fix up the house

I hope you understand that the real house isn’t the physical real estate that I’m calling your blog or website, it’s the way you interact with customers, your email correspondence, your words, your consistency, your ease of use, your responsiveness, your use of video—all the things we’ve come to collectively call your brand.

There’s little value in working hard to attract people to the house if the foundation is cracked or the chairs aren’t cozy to sit in. You can certainly blow a bunch of cash on expensive art for the walls, but the real money might be better spent on making the house as guest friendly and comfortable as possible.

It’s just different in there

Here’s the other thing about relying on social networks as a primary commerce tool. It’s not an effective pipeline for most marketing related calls to actions. So, even the gentle come by our open house will likely fall flat.

I’ve experienced countless examples of people with huge followings promoting a book launch of even free webinar with little or no response while a mention on that same person’s blog makes the cash register ring loudly.

The porch is the bridge

Since social media relationships are so easily formed and mostly casual in nature, you must go to work on building reasons for people you engage in these settings to gather on the porch first. Do that and you’ll start to form the personal engagement to move them to the party—your blog or email list.

Most people’s marketing efforts in social media fall flat for that single reason alone. No matter how engaging your efforts seem on Facebook, they’ll never match the power of your email list or loyal blog following.

It’s not enough to get followers and fans, you must create the bridge that leads them to the house and that’s a step that eludes the social media first mindset.

Facebook and Twitter have an appropriate place in the overall brand and business building efforts, but you’ll never find your social media efforts paying off unless you invest appropriately in the house.

This post originally appeared on AMEX OPENForum

Are Small Private Social Networks the Next Layer?

As business people get in the habit of participating in online social networks and engaging in social behavior as part of their everyday routine, the next waves of online innovation won’t necessarily come in the form of a Facebook killer or Google launch, as they will in little adaptations of tools and apps that let us do more of what we’ve grown used to doing.

To me, a great case in point is the growing buzz around group texting apps. Group text apps such as GroupMe, Beluga and Disco allow users to form groups that can send and receive text messages in a sort of reply and read all manner. You can think of it like group chat or reply all emails, but on the go and on a mobile device. You can also launch group conference calls from the service. (Right now most are limited to US carriers as sorting out International texting is going to prove trickier.)

For our increasingly mobile world this application fills a couple interesting gaps. Texting with your friends lacks the obvious reply all function, so if you want to tell twelve people what you are doing you have to enter the list each time. Email can get this done, but it’s a little clunkier on the phone and requires folks on the list to sync up with their email. Anyone with text capability on a phone can now participate in the group. (I’m guessing that’s getting to near 100% these days.)

To some degree, Twitter was created with this kind of functionality in mind and I recall people using it like this when it caught fire at SXSW 2007, but then we got all these followers and actually reading a stream fully became impossible, not to mention public.

I think group text apps can add a layer to our increasing habit of social communication, but allow us to create small, private social networks that communicate through our mobile devices. The fact that Facebook recently purchased Beluga and Disco is a Google creation, should be signal enough that this is a growing communication option.

The obvious use, and one that first introduced me to group text apps, is a small tight knit group like a family. My four daughters are grown and spread around the country and through the use of a group text app we routinely strike up impromptu chats and send updates and everyday life kinds of photos that happen on the go and wouldn’t happen if we relied on Facebook.

The business uses of a small, private social network seem increasingly obvious as well.

A group that contained staff members would make it very easy to send alerts, quick updates and even throw out topics for debate while including all in an instant loop that could be captured for later reading. There are other tools that can make this happen as well, but there’s something very instantly participatory about SMS. Departments and far flung teams could create on the go alerts and discussions.

Now, some might bemoan the fact that their phone is now going to start buzzing away with insidious group chatter from the office clown that now has yet another way to show off pictures of his cat, but like all things, you’ll need to manage the tools and create process that works for this to be a viable new communication channel.

What about creating select groups of clients that agree to offer occasional opinions about new marketing initiatives. Or, allowing clients to opt in to your referral group and use the tool to educate them about your referral contest. Or, creating a small, private social network of strategic partners that could share information about potential opportunities and leads exclusively.

Because groups can be created and deleted almost on the fly, group text apps are becoming a huge hit at conferences and events as a way for people to get up to the minute updates on what’s happening now. I’m already seeing people splintering off social networks by location and creating on the fly groups when they travel to a city with friends.

Group text apps are easy to set up and allow the group creator or administrator and participants a great deal of flexibility in managing the group. There are opportunities to create public groups, but it’s the private function that offers the most promise. You can be certain that things like advertising and recommended brand led groups based on your interests are likely monetization options for these free tools, but for now, I think it’s a category worthy of consideration.

Shares some ways that you see using this technology in your business?