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skinnyCorp, 6 Questions

by Ami Kealoha in Design on 01 September 2005

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Chicago-based skinnyCorp is the parent company of the ever-popular Threadless, the t-shirt company that produces winning designs chosen by online reader polls. Fusing interactivity, cutting-edge design, and entrepreneurial savvy, the site has made college dropouts out of the core team, president Jake Nickell, 25, vice-president Jacob Dehart, 23, and creative director, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, 26, (pictured above, from L-R). With seven active urls, four in development, and one slated for resurrection, the prolific team just doesn't quit. Here, in edition number four of our interviews with Semi-Permanent speakers, the trio discusses the future skinnyCorp helicopter, being nice to designers, and the perfect tee.

How did you get here? Jake: We started about five years ago. Jacob and I met each other online in a design forum called Dreamless. There was a t-shirt contest and I actually won, so we ended up meeting each other on the forum and started skinnyCorp as an umbrella company.

Jacob: When I met Jake I was in my first year of college, going to Purdue for engineering. I was very tech-based, I had a programming background, but I also had an art background.

Jeffrey: I worked at a large ad agency, called Draft Worldwide, as a senior designer and art director. Before that I was kind of co-art directing a small lifestyle magazine in Chicago, Velocity. I had gotten laid off from the ad agency so I started my own company called Information Design Lab. We knew each other because we were throwing design events together and then I needed a place to work, so I started working in skinnyCorp’s offices and then we just all started working together in late 2001.

We’re all dropouts. I think I had the most active dropout rate. I was kicked out of one school, petitioned to get back in and then dropped out and then I dropped out of another school - and then I taught a class there!

Jake: All three of us have taught college classes and we're all dropouts.

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What are you doing now? Jeffrey: At the beginning of this year we made the decision that we’re not going to take on client work anymore. We’re doing really well with client work, but we all became really busy and stressed and had a bunch of internal projects brewing and Threadless was doing really well.

Jake: We started a few other sites that are kind of like Threadless, where users submit content that gets voted on. We did Naked and Angry where users create patterns and we made five ties from that. Also, there's 15 Megs of Fame where the best-scoring artists get airtime on radio stations, recording time, and stuff like that.

Jake: We also sell bumper stickers in 20 packs that say "I park like an idiot." Everything we do is community-based, even with the stickers. We allow people to submit photos [of cars with the stickers on them] and they're printed on low-tac paper, so they come off really easy. That was important. We just want to give people the opportunity to speak their mind with blogs and stuff like that.

Jake: Some aren’t for money, like the forum Yay Hooray or the argument forum called Poopface. And there's a lunchtime photo forum.

Jake: With OMG Clothing, instead of submitting designs, people submit slogans that are voted on and then we handpick designers to design the winning slogan. It allows designers to flip the tables a little bit. People submit concepts for shirts and then we hand that off. We're very lenient. Rarely do we send designs back to designers.

What are your current obsessions? Jacob: I just browse through everyone’s iTunes. There's this new guy, Harper, and I've been going through his. He's got a lot of electronic, a lot of metal. I mostly get ideas from brainstorming with my friends, coworkers, Jake, and Jeffrey.

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Jake: My favorite all-time video game is Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. The last thing I googled was when I trying to figure out how to get text to wrap in html like columns in a newspaper. I'm trying to learn Spanish. I have this Rosetta Stone program on my computer. My wife is into music so I kind of just listen to what she's listening to. We went to the Jack Johnson show yesterday. Oh, and I'm taking helicopter flying lessons. My wife got me free introductory courses for my birthday.

Jeffrey: Which means it's only a matter of time before skinnyCorp owns a helicopter. Musically, my tastes are pretty different. I mostly listen to metal. The best thing I heard recently is the Darkest Hours' new CD. I’ve been listening to that non-stop. The last thing I read was a book called Stiff. The subtitle is "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," but its not as morbid as it sounds. It's by this Salon writer and its really weird and interesting. When I'm not working I'm in front of the TV watching horror movies. I saw Land of the Dead and was really disappointed by it. I watched In Hell and it was really good.

I image google a lot, so the last thing was a straight-on shot of a portable DVD player. I've gotten pretty good. I can find pretty much anything.

What's next? Jeffrey: We have spin-off of 15 Megs called Mixblox. It's like 15 Megs, only it's for djs, so each get an account and they have more storage space.

Jacob: And there's Faq This, which is basically a site that will help with customer service for small businesses.

Jeffrey: And there's another called Extra Tasty, which is an interesting story. The url's been handed down a lot. I had a friend who owned it and he owed me a bunch of money and I really wanted that domain name, so he gave it to me in exchange. I almost sold it to McDonald's and to Playboy, but what it turned into now is a drink site. It's another really simple, slap yourself on the forehead kind of idea. You can go onto the site, input what alcohol you have, and it will tell you what you can make with it. And then anyone can upload a recipe. Once you have a big enough database of recipes you can lease keywords, like vodka will come up as Absolut Vodka and you have a revenue stream built-in.

Also we'll be printing Threadless tees on our own line of shirts. They'll have a unique cut and fabrics, based on feedback over the years. We're looking at enzyme washes, that kind of thing. We're trying to find the perfect t-shirt and we're about 80% there. It'll happen in the near future.

What role does democracy play in what you do? Jake: Threadless is not like a 20 person crit. Literally thousands of people from all over the world are saying what they like and giving direction. It nurtures the idea that you shouldn’t be a one-man show.

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Any advice? Jeffrey: School’s a really good idea. We all learned by tripping over our feet and a lot of it was luck and being in the right place at the right time. There are no guarantees. And with school you at least have a guarantee.

Also I tell design students, because I do a lot of portfolio reviews, school is only 10 percent of education. Independent study and all those sort of things are super-important. Whatever class plan says, "Read this book," you have to read at the end of book and see what reference books it used and read those. There's plenty of time to drink beer when you're 30.

For people who are good at design and know how to do it, going to art school can be a waste. Maybe better use of time is to go to business school. You can be the best artist but if you are a nervous wreck in front if a client, you're never going to survive. You can't just put on headphones and rock out in front of illustrator.

Jake: It's really important how much time you spend on your own learning, teaching yourself things.

Jacob: I went to college for one year and then I went to community college. I was frustrated because I knew more than the teachers did.

Jeffrey: It's pretty safe to say we're all self -taught.

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