Threadless Innovation Panel with Playspace and DePaul CPE

Threadless Customer Support

All Threadless Customer Support is done from these three desks.

On Friday Bob Konow, Matt Kemp, and I went to visit Threadless courtesy of Playspace and DePaul’s Continuing Professional Education Program.

We arrived, milled about and talked with one of Bob’s friends whose name I completely forget (Nikki?) because that’s how I roll (no notes = mostly forgotten). I do, however, recall she was the photographers assistant, her studio lights are always being moved for events, and they only have one camera they scrap for. And she was wearing a brown plaid cowboy shirt and black Vans.

So apparently I have a mind for details as long as they are ancillary and useless.

We had a tour of the facilities guided by Mig Reyes who was awesome. He showed us around the warehouse and walked quickly (lots of ground to cover). We saw the t-shirt stacks, the basketball court, the offices (lots of light and open space) including the Customer Support area which was a bit of a thrill even though nobody was there.

The questions lobbed up to the panel by Pamela Meyer were met with informative responses from the panel of Mig Reyes, Kristin Studard, Lance Curran, and Brock Rumer. Some of the key points in growing an active, engaged team with natural evangelists as employees are: to hire people who care, have them come to work to make cool shit, and allow them to slow burn (ie don’t push them for awesomeness, but encourage and reward it). Part of the slow burn seems to be cultivating the ability to try, fail, succeed and not be assholes about any part of the process. It doesn’t seem like anyone is breathing down anyone elses neck at Threadless and when someone screws up they are genuinely sorry.

Q&A session was great though there were some intense questions.

Q: “How are you going to stay innovative while the pressures ‘real businesses’ feel from the outside start to constrain you?” (paraphrased).
A: We’ll find out when we get there.

Ian, Bob, Matt

Ian, Bob, Matt in a picture from Threadless' free photo booth

Bob and I talked at length about this question afterward and came to the conclusion that the it doesn’t matter if Threadless goes on forever or fails tomorrow. What Threadless is doing is bigger than success or failure, it’s innovation and breaking the mold and daring to try no matter the consequences. While it would be great for Threadless to keep growing and staying awesome, what really matters is that they’ve demonstrated “crowdsourcing techniques” and that a business doesn’t need to be stuffed full of assholes to be successful and I think that’s an exceptionally valuable takeaway.

Every person at Threadless has already won a huge battle by being part of such an innovative, exceptional company. Most of the folks will be (and probably are already) able to parlay their experience at Threadless into their own businesses, consulting gigs, or whatever thereby spreading the message of awesomeness and propagating a culture of innovation.

In short, Threadless doesn’t need to continue on to be a success. Threadless is already awesome and has not only birthed a new business-model but has done so without being jerks.

The overall feel of the crowd was good though it felt “off” that there were so many questions about the business model (c’mon, you’re gonna have an MBA, at least pre-game and learn about the business). It’s very cool to see MBAs trying to get their innovative flow on but it’s also odd to hear some of the pointed “show me your magic bullet” questions. There’s no magic bullet or “secret” to being innovative and some folks appeared to be looking for that “a-ha, I found the one key I’ve been missing!”

It seems to me the most important thing is to care more about your culture than your profits, to find people who care a lot and let them try, fail, try, succeed, try, and repeat and not be a jerk to them.

And in the words of the panelists, “make the world more awesome.”

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