“You are Threadless. You make the ideas, you pick what we sell, you’re why we exist.”

It’s a great motto for what Threadless does which, if you dig in just a bit, proves to be a lot more than simply produce product like your standard t-shirt company. There’s so much going on here as the company is a crowdfunding originator and has become home to an onslaught of aspiring artists. You see, Threadless is a design community which, through the act of making a t-shirt (and related product lines), foster the broader art community and helps it grow. Always on the lookout for new ways to share art beyond the shirt, they explain it like this…

“Everything we do gives you, and all the creative minds in the world, more opportunities to make great art. We started printing on t-shirts and then we realized tons of products make great canvases. We seek out these canvases, so you can continue to make and pick the best art. The weird art. The geeky art. The beautiful art. And every time you buy from us, you’re supporting great art too.”

By fostering art they are also fostering the artist, helping unknowns become known creators. They do this by promoting the artist responsible for the t-shirt design right alongside the product itself. Add to that regular artistic award programs, their new Artist Shop program (full details here), a long running commission-based incentive system, and the broader way in which they celebrate design success with a very loud social media bull horn; you can see the roots of something very cool continually evolving at Threadless.

Threadless is a Chicago based company that first began back in 2000. They welcome visitors at 1260 W. Madison Street where they brainstorm the future and oversee their art driven empire. They don’t just believe in crowdsourcing, they were the pioneers that showed the world how it’s done. In fact, Inc. magazine called them “the most innovative small company in America”.

Essentially, Threadless allows its user audience full creative control over the products it sells. Artists and creators submit art designs, then site members rate each one with the eventual selected designs seeing print and going on sale through Threadless.com.

Jake Nickell began the road to this company when he was just 20 years old. It all originated on an art focused site called Dreamless. Primarily an illustration and design community, the site decided to hold a t-shirt contest. When the designs were selected but no t-shirts were ever produced, an idea sparked in Nickel. Putting up a $500 prize which was matched by Jacob DeHart (also a Dreamless user), these two hosted their own contest. Five t-shirts from one hundred entries ended up being made and Threadless began to take shape. Those initial shirts sold for $12 each. Let’s just say they’re collectors’ items today.

Those contests continued and a business model began to take shape around their evolving hobby. In the end, the name Dreamless inspired the name Threadless and by 2002 Nickell and DeHart had mashed their talents and launched the retail business we know and order from quite regularly today.

Interested in jumping into the fun, submitting a design, or just influencing which shirts are made? Here’s the initial nuts and bolts of the process…

“Artists from around the world submit designs, the Threadless community scores each design and the best of the best are printed and sold. New designs are chosen for print every week and the winning artists can profit handsomely for their designs, and in some cases, also take home big cash prizes from special themed design challenges.”

Threadless pays successful designers a percentage of the money made as profit. There are other incentives but many view the exposure of being part of a successful design as worthy as the payout. At the time this article is written, 368,306 designs have been submitted and 7,500 have been made (reference) into products. For more on the entire process, full details can be found here.

I can say that I personally love what this company has built and have a massive amount of respect for the ideas they fostered. Many of their shirts hang in my closets and it’s that endless fountain of creative concepts that keeps me coming back. I am a fan.