TOM HUDSON: From charitable investing to charitable giving, there’s a
company in Chicago turning it into an art form. Threadless sells t-shirts
designed by artists from around the world. What started as a novel idea a
decade ago has grown into a booming business. Diane Eastabrook is back to
explain how Threadless uses its e-commerce clout to help charities.
DIANE EASTABROOK: You are witnessing the marriage of art and commerce.
Inside a massive warehouse with wall to wall T-shirts, workers are
frantically filling holiday orders. Threadless is a community-based design
company on Chicago’s west side. Artists submit designs to the company’s
website and its online community votes for the best ones. Winning artists
get paid for their work, then 31-year-old co-founder Jake Nickell mass
merchandizes the designs.
JAKE NICKELL, FOUNDER, THREADLESS: We started with T-shirts and we’ve
expanded quite a bit. We do iPhone cases, water bottles, backpacks,
dresses, tons and tons of stuff and we’re exploring more and more.
EASTABROOK: Threadless estimates it has a global audience of nearly
two million people, so recently it decided to tap that community for a
greater good. The company is now partnering with charities through a new
unit called Atrium. It’s currently printing T-shirts benefiting a breast
cancer awareness group called Men for Women Now. The charity will get a
quarter of the profits made from the sales of the $20 shirts.
NICKELL: Right now, we’re printing about 850 and we always sell out
our first batch. And depending on the velocity of those sales, we chase
into it and print more. And we regularly do reprints of products that sell
EASTABROOK: The idea to sell cause based T-shirts came to Nickell
after hurricane Katrina. The company designed a T-shirt to benefit
hurricane victims and ended up raising over $100,000. Since launching
Atrium 10 months ago, Threadless has raised nearly a half-million dollars
for 16 charities including the Red Cross. CEO Tom Ryan says promoting
causes was a natural for Threadless because its community of artists and
consumers tend to be young and socially conscious. But, he admits it also
made good business sense.
TOM RYAN, CEO, THREADLESS: Doing this design for causes specifically
is one great way to bring in people who are already supporters of a cause.
When they support that cause, sure, they will probably find other things on
Threadless that they are interested in, but it wasn’t the primary
motivating factor in why we started to do this.
EASTABROOK: Threadless wants to host at least one cause-related
design challenge a month next year. It thinks harnessing the passions and
pocketbooks of its own community can help make the world a better place.
Diane Eastabrook, NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT, Chicago.