Threadless Atrium: Expanding the reach of community-based design

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Tom Ryan, CEO of Threadless, to discuss some exciting new developments that build on their community-design business. Called Atrium, their new platform makes it possible for other businesses to harness the power of community design including causes. Here’s what Tom had to say (apologies for the background noise – it was crazy windy that day!):

SM:  Hi, I’m Simon Mainwaring, and I have the great pleasure of being here with Tom Ryan, the CEO of Threadless.  I’m really excited to talk to Tom because there’s an exciting new development that came out a few weeks ago called Atrium, and I wanted Tom to explain a little bit about that to us. So tell us a little bit about Atrium, and how it’s an extension of the Threadless we already know.

TR: Sure. We started Atrium with the idea that we had come up with this novel model for crowd source design, or what we call community-based design years ago. We feel that this is a huge idea that can benefit lots of organizations and individuals and businesses. We had been using community-based design to build Threadless over the years but what we’re doing with Atrium is creating a platform that enables other organizations and individuals to harness the power of community-based design to further their own missions and businesses.

SM:  So really you’re enabling community-based design to be put into the services of different companies who haven’t had the opportunity that you’ve had at Threadless. So who can take advantage of this? Who can you help?

TR:  We’re focusing on the categories where we see an overlap between real inspiration from the visual art community and those that have an ability to create products that people want to buy. We started Atrium with Threadless Causes, where we started partnering with a variety of cause-based organizations to run design challenges that furthered the causes that they were promoting so we could create t-shirts that would employ the winning designs and sell those to raise profits for non-profits or cause-based organizations. We started with t-shirts because that’s what we know, but we see Atrium as a platform that will enable different organizations that will use artwork that can be used for a variety of different applications.

SM:  What you just said regarding products that people want to buy is so important. It’s so fundamental to how Threadless not only was born, but how it became a success. How would you distinguish that between other products and services out there and other people you’re working with? How do you know if that’s going to be a product that somebody’s going to want? How does that work as a filter?

TR:  With Atrium, we’re in a case of trial right now. We’re experimenting with a variety of different categories, which causes we’ll launch first, but we’ve also got challenges about the creation of consumer products like iPhone cases. We’ve also got an apparel design submission challenge going on with Steven Allan, the fashion designer, where our designers are submitting patterns. We’re even expanding into design challenges with bands, so Threadless Music will be launched where we look to reinvent what band merchandise can be when created by the community. So the answer is that we are coming up with categories that we know the design communities will be excited about, and we think that people will want to buy these designs, but we’re in the early stages, so it’s experimental.

SM:  In your mind’s eye, where would you like to see it go? How could you imagine Atrium in five years time? What is the vision that inspired it in the first place?

TR:  We feel that the idea of community-based design is a very powerful idea, and that, by engaging with the artistic community, really fantastic products that didn’t exist before can be created for many different types of companies, products and organizations. The vision is to have, perhaps, a self-service platform where artists can submit around design challenges that are set up by any number of different organizations. Great new products can be created as a result of the input of the audiences that follow those companies and organizations.

SM:  It’s such a fantastic idea. What is so beautiful about Threadless is that it brings together community engagement, products you want to buy, and now it’s wrapping in causes and all these ideas beyond that. We’ve been following everything you’ve been doing for so long and with so much interest.  It’s a really exciting development. Thanks so much for your time.

Do you think other brands could benefit from community-based design? What about innovation generally?