Riskless business model, Threadless t-shirts

I was at an entrepreneurship and innovation workshop earlier this week held at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School. There I was lucky enough to see a presentation by the guys from SkinnyCorp who built Threadless.com. Theirs is a beautiful story of falling into the product that the market wants you to make. If they had been more willful and goal-directed (as we’re taught to be if we want to amount to anything) I feel certain they would have failed. But they didn’t fail. They succeeded wildly. This “about us” statement gives you an sense of their approach to life and business.

What did they do? They made a t-shirt company in which visitors to the site upload designs, which visitors to the site then vote on, which visitors to the site then buy. And their business is booming. It’s mostly a slacker-hacker-ironical-snowboard-cooldude kind of groove they’ve got going, but who can argue with the numbers? They assume almost no risk, spend no money on advertising, and the money pours in. Not to make it all sound easy; they worked hard to build a very loyal community, and their site design is highly tuned to the needs of the community.

The t-shirt designs are contributed for free by aspiring designers. These guys might win cash prizes, but the real prize is getting a reputation that will lead to more design work. In certain design circles, Threadless has become the hot place to scout for talent. If you need a cover for your band’s new CD, this is the place to go. Here are some of my favorite shirt designs. Look around and waste some time.

SkinnyCorp isn’t resting on its skateboard, though. They’ve recently expanded from cooldude t-shirts into dapperdude neckties. Even snowboarders grow up, and their wallets grow up with them. If you’re feeling too grown up, you can still buy an I Park Like an Idiot bumper sticker.