Rules to Grow Community By: Sell T-Shirts, Make Up to $100K a Month

13 06 2007

So is this Web 2.0 stuff really hard to do?

Can you create community that can also design product for sale that people will really buy?

Just ask the 20 somethings at Threadless.com and the company behind it skinnyCorp. If you are unfamiliar with Threadless, it is a community of designers who work together to create t-shirts. This little enterprise ranks currently on Alexa at 4,064. By contrast, the Gap comes in at 2,240.

At the 2007 Community Next conference, the founder and CCO (chief creative officer) gave an unusually honest presentation on their business model and approach to creating successful community. You can view it yourself below, but here were some of my observations.

  • Stop talking and start doing. Develop your project and let it evolve over time. People often don’t get started on developing a project because they think it needs to be a masterpiece when its finished. Think Beta = always changing and don’t apologize, keep improving it.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously…make it fun. This is probably a big one for the Millenials. The comments they make about LinkedIn are interesting.
  • Letting go of control means letting potential customers share their experience, expertise and ideas. It doesn’t mean you lose control, you just need to adapt new ways to “guide” development.
  • Nurture and incent participation by community users. It’s the soft stuff not the hardware (technology) that will make the difference.

Here are the “rules to develop community by” from the Threadless folks.

  1. Allow your content to be created by the community. My take: If people can see they can apply their passions to build or create something this is a powerful thing.
  2. Put your project in the hands of the community. My take: The entire process of design and development should be “open” with the means and incentives to drive a project to a successful conclusion. See an earlier 4-part post on product co-creation.
  3. Let your community grow itself. (They don’t like advertising as a community building model.) My take: Providing a genuine user experience should be backed up with strong word of mouth marketing which in many cases can be driven by the community itself. Key here is if you TRUST them enough to let them. If you subscribe to the “not invented here crowd” as many associations do, you begin at a significant disadvantage.
  4. Reward the community that makes your project possible. My take: Incentives are key. This can be built into the ecosystem like a robust recommendation system (e.g. ratings) but can also include financial or other forms of public recognition. Check out some earlier posts on Reward and Recommendation systems to see some possible options.

Do These Principles Work?

Threadless was selling around 80,000 t-shirts a month.

The video of their presentation is worth the time. It runs about 20 minutes. Besides the points above you will be impressed or maybe surprised that these guys are actually running a business and communities (they have other projects) on pretty small budgets. Their focus on creativity and a “no fear” attitude is refreshing.

I have never met someone whose vocabulary reminds me of Cartman from SouthPark as the Threadless CCO. Sweet!

If you want to learn more about the Threadless business model, take a look at Guy Kawasaki’s interview on his blog (here).


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