Crown Point grad building Web-based empire
While a student at Crown Point High School, Jake Nickell provided technical support for an Internet provider in the city’s downtown square. Now the 30-year-old owns a Chicago-based company whose business model has been taught at Ivy League schools.
Threadless is a business that “was never intended to be a business,” Nickell said.
In 2000, Nickell was working as a full-time Web designer and was enrolled part time at the Illinois Institute of Art when he entered and won an online T-shirt design competition. It inspired him to create a website—Threadless.com—and an ongoing competition in which people could submit T-shirt designs.
Nickell put up some money for the first winners, and $200 was spent on a lawyer to set up the company.
The concept skyrocketed into a multimillion-dollar Web-based business and two retail stores in Chicago.
“We print six to 10 designs every single week, and each of those artists gets $2,500,” Nickell said. “Last year, we paid over $1.5 million out just to artists.”
During the first two years of operation, all of the money made from T-shirt sales went toward printing more designs.
The first significant revenue came in 2003. Within a year, Nickell realized Threadless had the potential to become a significant business. Two retail stores opened in Chicago in what Nickell calls “more of a marketing tool.”
“Ninety-nine percent of our sales are online,” he said.
As the company grew, Nickell had to hire more employees, many of them with local connections. The 80-plus Threadless staff includes Dustin and Mimi Henderlong, formerly of Crown Point, who operate out of the company’s satellite office in Colorado.
Nickell’s wife, Shondi, also a Crown Point High School graduate, helps with the company’s children’s line. Prior to having her first child with Nickell, Shondi was in charge of operations.
“It took like six people to replace her,” Nickell said.
Threadless’ growth continues. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the company just relocated to a new 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago’s West Loop. The company also released a book that is a “mash-up” of the business story and tales of artists who have designed Threadless shirts.
Threadless’ community-based business model has been taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and Stanford universities.
“Harvard put out a case study about us that other schools teach,” Nickell said.
“I was on the train the other day, and a lady asked me if I was Jake Nickell and said she teaches my case study at her business school.”
Nickell said he sees the company branching out into more of an art community. T-shirts remain the core of the business, but Threadless is diversifying through designs for other products and partnerships.
When he’s not busy with his growing empire, Nickell and his wife find time to visit family and friends in Crown Point.
“I actually have a few graffiti pieces in town that are still up there,” he said.
Threadless Broadway: 3011 N Broadway St, Chicago, 773.525.8640
Threadless Division: 1905 W Division St, Chicago, 773.698.7042