By  on November 3, 2010

The success of crowdsourcing shows that people want to express themselves, said Jake Nickell, the founder of Threadless.

He started the company in 2000 as a hobby, and it now generates more than $38 million in annual revenue by curating, producing and selling T-shirts printed with designs submitted and voted upon by the public online. After a decade in business, the company that is often called the “poster child for crowdsourcing” has received about 300,000 designs and produced about 3,000 of them, or 1 percent. Artists are paid $2,500 if their design is chosen, and they retain copyright.

Threadless runs two stores in Chicago and is growing internationally. It also is expanding into other products and services, such as allowing charities, musicians and design collaborations to use its platform.

“We’d like to be the platform of artists we can bring to a partner to design for whatever purpose they need,” Nickell said.

Dozens of companies are dabbling in crowdsourcing, from Nike to ModCloth. Last week, crowdsourcing moved to the designer level when Derek Lam said he will do an exclusive crowdsourced collaboration with eBay.

“What we’re about is celebrating people’s passions and giving them something productive to do with their hobby,” Nickell said. “I’m able to separate the hawking T-shirts on the Internet from the real art community behind there, and I understand the art community is what drives T-shirt sales.”

Not every brand or retailer necessarily needs to crowd source, but fashion companies should listen to their customers, he said.

“You need to recognize this shift in our culture toward individuality,” Nickell said. “We’re coming out of a time where you were told what to like by whatever it is, what music to like by the big labels, and now music is much more distributed. Or even by fashion brands. I think people want to be able to express themselves more individually. Or at least it’s not even that they want to be creating it. They want a say, they want to be heard. People want to talk about what they’re into and they want people to listen to them.”

Threadless doesn’t produce everything its community approves. It curates their selections so the range is balanced, Nickell said. That way, the company does not become known only for, say, T-shirts spoofing “Star Wars,” but rather has a wide variety of designs.

In 2005, retailers such as Target and Urban Outfitters began to approach Threadless about selling its wares, but “it never really felt right,” Nickell said. “I think the main thing is when we get that 300-page contract that says we pay a quarter if we use the wrong tape on our box,” he joked, referring to chargebacks.

“But really it was that we couldn’t tell the story about where these designs were coming from in a retail setting,” he continued. “If you look at all our shirts on a rack, they don’t have the story of how this 15-year-old girl from Japan designed this and submitted it and won, and all these people helped her on her design.”

The company is still looking for a suitable retail partner. It is also considering selling via vending machine.

A spin-off site called Naked & Angry produced high-end designs for a variety of products from ties to wallpaper to bags, but the production was too complex to be practical for the company, which is also searching for partners to expand its range of merchandise.

As for the quality of crowdsourced design, if the company gives the community a strong representation of what it is looking for, it will get high-quality designs in return, as Naked & Angry and a recent collaborations with Disney showed, he said.

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