Meet The Coder Who Dropped Out Of Art School To Sell These Clever T-Shirts Online

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Jake Nickell

Jake Nickell

Jake Nickell, founder of Threadless.

If you're a fan of witty t-shirts, you might already be obsessed with Threadless, a site that combines e-commerce with community.

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Here's how Threadless works: Absolutely anyone can submit a shirt design that features absolutely anything. Designs are posted each week and the site's 2.5 million community members vote on which they like best. The most popular shirts get printed and the artist receives $2,000, $500 in Threadless gift cards, and royalties from the sales of their shirt.

"We wanted to give artists an outlet to make the things that they were creating on their computers real," founder Jake Nickell told Business Insider. He and Jacob DeHart founded Threadless back in 2000 as a spin-off of an idea that Nickell had on a now-defunct web forum called Dreamless.

Nickell was working his way through art school at the time, after rejecting a full-ride for a computer engineering program. He was burned out on computers. After all, he had worked as a web developer since he was 15, a job he scored after teaching himself to code.

He discovered his love of art by ditching the glowing computer screen and picking up a paint can. He would create big, colorful graffiti around town in Crown Point, Indiana, where he lived. Once, his own dad called the cops on him.

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He joined the web forum Dreamless because it combined his two passions: Art and technology. He started a thread where he asked fellow members to submit t-shirt designs, so he could print the best ones for the group to wear. Most of those first t-shirts were techie inside jokes and people were getting into it enough that he decided to build a website to host more user-submitted designs. He would sell the t-shirts for under $20.

The site grew bigger and bigger until eventually Nickell and partner DeHart needed to hire their first employee to help keep up with the demand. Nickell was a junior in college.

"I couldn't see myself going to school and not being around to manage my company," he says. So he dropped out.

Today, Threadless sells millions of t-shirts per year. More than 1,000 designs are approved for voting each week. The t-shirts the company prints rarely flop because Nickell and his team have proof that people want them before they're made. The company now has about 80 employees.

"I still create code weekly," Nickell says. "I'm heavily, heavily involved in the design and development of the site."

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The site has been live for 13 years, but Nickell doesn't want to stop innovating. He and his team have a few new features on the horizon and he's working on a way to refine Threadless's royalties model.

"Our road map right now has more going on than it has in a long time," he says.