Jake Nickell is Threadless‘s young and fearless entrepreneurial leader. Currently, he’s focused on running the worldwide, hugely successful business that Threadless has become.


By nature, entrepreneurs are innovators. We’re always looking for new opportunity.

But actually building something from zero is hard. I founded Threadless in 2000 with just $1K; today, we sell t-shirts, hoodies, iPhone cases and even wall art using artwork from a 2.5 million-strong artist community. Getting to this point has taken years of work — and a couple failures too.

When we think about new projects now, the question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we find new opportunities to benefit our artist community that also work as businesses?

That’s how we approach innovation, because that’s what we believe in as a brand. And it’s what made partnering with Open Me, a next-generation greeting card company, a no-brainer for us.

If I’ve learned anything from the experience that other startups can benefit from, it’s that the best way to create opportunity is to start with what you have. If you have a brand people believe in, and a community they want to be a part of, build on it. And use your own networks to launch new ideas faster and smarter.

Be active in networks you trust

Connecting with other founders from your network can shorten the timeframe between idea and launch — and, as was the case with Open Me, bring new opportunities to your doorstep.

I met Open Me’s founder Ilya Pozin through an entrepreneur network. Ilya contacted us through YEC, an entrepreneur organization I belong to founded by superconnector Scott Gerber. The fact that Ilya came to us by a trusted referral was a great icebreaker.

Find a community of like-minded entrepreneurs you can trust. Starting up isn’t easy, but it helps to have a strong network of your own. You never know when you’ll need it — for advice, a technical co-founder, or even investment opportunities.

Collaborate — and then get out of the way

Partnering with others who have complementary skills reduces your overall investment and your risk — and can help you scale more quickly too.

Threadless has always been about collaboration. We’ve been working with others to do cool things together for a long time. With Open Me, we knew that offering greeting cards as a product wasn’t going to be as simple as just offering the designs on another canvas. Using technology to disrupt to the way the current greeting card business works required a whole new paradigm.

For that reason, Open Me and Threadless are separate businesses. We asked, how can we can provide a great product that people want… and then get out of the way so Open Me can scale the product through built-in social features?

Plus, working with Ilya made good business sense — he understood the power of community from the get-go, but he also had the technical ability and vision to create an extension of the Threadless brand.

Leverage your existing brand to build something new

It can be tough for brand-new startups to succeed because there aren’t a ton of eyeballs on their products yet. But it’s awesome when they start flourishing, especially if you’re in on the ground floor.

So why not start with your community — your brand, and the people who care about it — that you’ve already built?

We started a lot of other brands early on that failed. And frankly, the problem was we never really leveraged our largest brand to help make them successful. It’s difficult to start a brand from zero, but with Threadless’ backing, we’re able to give Open Me a nice kick-start. We make sure our community knows about it and goes and checks them out, and in turn their work gets greater exposure.

The best part? Hearing how stoked our artists are to see their designs in a new setting. Online platforms are a great way for creatives to be able to leverage their talents in a simple way, oftentimes cutting out the middleman in the process.

Integrate social from the start

If you’re going to build something new online in 2013, you’ve got to think social. Think about all the really smart, interesting things you can do when you can help a person maintain their relationships through access to a few data points.

Sure, knowing a friend’s birthday shows you care, but I think Facebook has somewhat trivialized that (with a “HBD” post on someone’s wall). The idea with Open Me’s social integration was to make it just as easy but much more thoughtful — multiple people can sign one card from anywhere, like passing it around the office but simpler — and if you want to mail it, you still don’t have to go to the drug store.

That’s what we loved about the concept so much. Social integration is key; no one wants to build just another product in a catalog. And for me, this is one more way to get great independent art out there.

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One final thought: As you build your business, make sure you stand for something aspirational. For us, it’s about supporting independent artists.

People who love Jeep aspire to drive off road. People who love Patagonia aspire to climb mountains. Whether or not they do either on a given day, they aspire to — and the brands and communities they care about very clearly stand for those things.

Image credit: igor kisselev/Shutterstock