Invest in Your Customers by Making the Product Awesome

LochNess Imposter

The most memorable part of our conversation at the NYT Small Business Summit last week was how four professionals who marry marketing with technology provided the same advice to business owners: make your product awesome.

All panelists from Marissa Evans to Luther Lowe, Jack Abraham, and Jake Nickell weaved the concept in their responses and success stories:

  • was founded on a simple concept: Help people find products before going to stores and conversely help merchants get their inventory seen and attract buyers
  • local offering a free business account to start posting information about your product and location proactively
  • "Go try it on" an app that helps solve the age-old problem of: What do I wear tonight? by crowd sourcing the answer to "how do I look… in this outfit?"
  • borne of the question: What if the best art/designs were printed on T-shirts and sold in the real world?

Most of the questions on building community went to Threadless founder Jake Nickell who began what became the company as a side design project. To give 3,000 artists a way to spread their work beyond the community, he started a tiny online T-shirt design popularity contest.

He didn't make any money for two years. The company grew for eight years without advertising. Fast forward ten years, the site has become the hub for DIY clothing design. Threadless community counts 1.2 million participants and millions more customers.

They are all bound by a common thread — the idea that art should be seen and shared; t-shirts as a canvas. As Jake explained, the way it works is artists put their T-shirt designs up to a vote of thousands. The most popular get printed. A cash reward goes to the winning designer.

How many businesses are out there where the customer is literally the company?

People are connecting to Threadless because it's a community. Hundreds of thousands of people use the site as a kind of community center. They blog, chat about the designs, and socialize with their fellow enthusiasts.

A natural extension of getting to know each other and hanging out is that people buy a ton of shirts at $15 each. Low overhead and zero inventory — after all, customers decided the products they wanted to order by voting on them — made revenue growth a very healthy 500 percent a year.

In this case, the answer to do customers really want to co-create your product? is a resounding yes. This is also a really good example of how a just-in-time niche business that is born to serve its community works.


Your turn. Say you have $10,000 to invest, where do you put the money?


[that is the T-shirt design that was in my NYT SMB Summit grab bag = awesome]

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