Threadless by Jake Nickell

I have a book recommendation for you:



Threadless.com might be the perfect example of how to launch a dot-com company in the post dot-com bust era. It was founded on a simple idea and a strong community—the idea of an “ongoing t-shirt design competition” in which the winning designs, selected by the community, would be produced. It also allows for community input—people can comment on submissions, make suggestions for improvement, etc. And the profits are shared between the company and the winning designers.

This book tells that story, from the early days in which the founders of Threadless were just a couple of design students, through the current state of the company, with a global following, 80 employees and a bricks and mortar store. But as Seth Godin puts it in his short description of Threadless, “This is not about t-shirts.” To him, it’s about an attitude, “about being willing to fail and relishing the idea of being different…If you page through this book, you’ll see example after example of love, art and joy…but not a lot of fear.”

In addition to capturing the Threadless history and philosophy, the book is a retrospective of some of the best designs, along with stories behind those. And this is where I find the most inspiration—flipping through and seeing all of the brilliant concepts.

I have an assignment that I like to give students in my advertising class once they have figured out how to do ads: Now make a t-shirt for your brand. Because beyond conveying a message, a t-shirt has to be something that people want to wear. Something they love enough to want to wear as a part of what identifies them. That’s a hard thing to do. But page after page in this book, I see dozens of examples of t-shirt designs that make me laugh, smile, or that I’d like to wear. And that’s inspiring.

The Work Makes the King


Hugh Mcleod drew this. It appears in Seth Godin’s book The Dip. And it’s very true.

Except in advertising. At least the creative side. At least in agencies that care more about producing great work than about politics.

Creative advertising really is a meritocracy. If you have the best ideas, you get recognized. And the more you’re recognized, the more control you have over where you work, with whom, and on what accounts. That’s not to say you get a blank check, and can call your clients idiots. But being in demand gives you a little more control over your destiny.
So if you find yourself in this king/pawn situation, it’s probably because someone isn’t focused on the work.

Portfolio School Lies to You, Part 5

When I was in portfolio school, one thing was drilled into me over and over and over:

It’s all about the big idea.
Okay, it’s not a lie. But it is only a half-truth. Because having brilliant ideas does not mean the client is going to buy them. As Seth Godin pointed out in a recent post, “Selling ideas is a fundamentally different business than having ideas.”
He also writes, “The quality of ideas is not a factor in whether or not you will be in a position to have a chance to sell those ideas.”
In other words, you can have a Titanium Lion-quality idea get killed in a client meeting because you thought you’d wing your presentation. Or because your account team, creative director or president doesn’t recognize it as a Titanium Lion-quality idea.
You need to be concerned with having big ideas. But it’s not all about the big idea. You have to have the skills, the team, and the perseverance to sell them.
Make sure you’re at an agency that will champion big ideas. If the client needs to be challenged, make sure you’re at an agency that will do so diplomatically, but thoroughly. And make sure you either develop the presentation skills you need to sell your work, or have someone you completely trust to do so for you.

Be Uncomfortable

I’m reading Seth Godin’s Tribes. He’s got a lot of good things to say about leadership, which relates to anyone putting their book together. Why? Two reasons:

  1. No matter what product we’re working on, we’re trying to create a leader. Don’t confuse that with trying to create a behemoth megabrand like Coke and Microsoft. Small niche brands also need to lead to be successful. On a brief, the Who are we trying to communicate with? section may as well read Who are we trying to lead?
  2. Not to get all Tony Robbins on you, but you need to see yourself as a leader, too. Whether it’s because you’re an aspiring ACD with longterm CCO goals, or you’re simply trying to win a client’s trust and respect, to be successful, you need to lead.
So with that in mind, let me share something Seth wrote (page 55) that’s really stuck with me:
“If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”
When you’re given your next assignment, what are you going to do to make yourself uncomfortable?
(Disclaimer: If you’re still fresh and putting your book together, there are more important books to be reading than Tribes. As much as I’m a fan of Seth, don’t even think of picking up one of his books if you haven’t read Hey, Whipple a couple times through a spend every spare moment flipping through the annuals. Once you’ve done that, if you really want to read something by Seth Godin, I recommend The Dip for these reasons.)