Simon Sinek started the Start With Why movement with his incredible TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action“. Every once in a while I see a great example of why “the why” is so critical. Today I came across one of those examples that I felt compelled to write about in an article “What Happened to the Internet’s Favorite T-Shirt Company?” on Racked.com. The article takes a look at the Threadless T-Shirt company, their rise to fame, and their current struggles to remain relevant.
Sinek’s premise is that most organizations (and individuals) start by defining what they do, then move on to how they do it, and if they have time (infrequently), define why they do it. The what-how-why approach results in an undifferentiated company that has difficulty creating an emotional connection with their customers. Instead, Sinek pushes a why-first approach which connects to the emotional side of the customer by starting from the purpose of the company. Only after the why do you then consider the various hows and what’s which might support that mission.
Start With Why
Great companies like Apple (under Steve Jobs) have defined themselves by their purpose. If you consider how Apple communicated in the early days it went something like what Sinek highlights in his talk:
Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo.
We believe in thinking differently…
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers
Want to buy one?
Apple highlighted their purpose of thinking differently, challenging the status quo, and beautiful and simple design. Their “why” didn’t define the products they could or would sell or how they would distribute them. Understanding their why and sticking with it allowed them to extend the brand into music players, smartphones, TV boxes, and more while retaining their emotional connection to their core customer base.
Threadless – A Great Why Story
When Threadless started with their screen-printed graphic T-shirts, they connected with designers by offering them an opportunity to showcase their work to the masses. Winning designers would receive a small award for their design and the pride of being featured on a Threadless T-Shirt. Threadless built a large community of designers who loved the opportunity to compete with their designs. They built an equally active community of customers who loved the exclusive nature of their T-Shirts and the unique designs.
Designers loved Threadless because it spoke to their sense of design, allowed them to take chances, and validated their work with awards as “winners” on the site. In addition, they were able to see their designs manifest in real life with customers from around the world. Customers loved the unique designs and “limited” nature of the shirts which created a feeling of exclusivity and “cool” in their fashion.
Threadless had created a unique why that could be defined by:
We believe in providing a canvas for great design.
Our community is focused on celebrating our individual uniqueness.
We create an opportunity to express our unique personalities with a level of exclusivity so we can be ourselves, not a mass-market brand.
At its heart, Threadless as a user-centric design company that celebrated the community of great design and individualized expression. It just happened to sell T-Shirts. Want to buy one?
Cracks in the Why
When Threadless started, the prize for a winning design was $750 cash and $250 in free shirts from the site. In 2007 Threadless bowed to pressure from a segment of the design community and increased the reward to $2,500. It was at that point that Threadless started to unravel their why. When they started, only a few designs were selected and printed each week. Over 1,000 designs were submitted for each one that it printed. The non-monetary reward of pride for winning was powerful when a designer knew that they had out-designed 1,000 or more other designers to be selected.
Naturally, there were designers who felt that they should share more of the financial rewards from T-Shirt sales. But those designers weren’t the ones that aligned to the why that Threadless had built. By changing their rewards model, Threadless started down a slippery slope which eroded the why of their business and alienated the community of exclusivity and individuality that made them successful.
The End of the Community
From 2007 to 2014, Threadless tried to walk the line between their original why and the desires of the profit-driven segment of their designers. In the process, they continued to erode their dedicated community base. Finally, in 2014, they completely shifted their reward system to focus on the monetary aspects of the competition. Instead of giving up rights to a winning design in exchange for being featured for a unique and individual customer group, designers now retained ownership and share in the profits from the sales of their winning designs. Designers were now motivated purely by the opportunity for financial reward. Those designers that loved the exclusivity that came from winning moved on from the platform.
In 2015, Threadless hammered another nail in their community coffin by introducing Artist Shops. Artist Shops allowed designers to create and sell their designs directly to consumers, eliminating the exclusive nature of the Threadless design brand entirely. Designs were no longer viewed as being winners. The T-Shirts became less exclusive as the stores flooded the market with average designs bearing the Threadless name.
What Happened To The Why?
What Threadless didn’t see when they started to shift their rewards mechanism was that they were acting against their purpose. They eliminated the exclusivity and pride of being a winning Threadless designer. They reduced the exclusivity of owning a Threadless T-Shirt. Now, Threadless designs can be made by anyone, and the Threadless brand on a shirt doesn’t highlight the uniqueness of the person wearing it. They have become just another T-Shirt brand that is flooding Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with a multitude of average designs. Anyone can make their own shirt design in small quantities, and it isn’t unique or exclusive.
Perhaps the comment from designer “sonmi” on the Threadless forum highlights it best:
Changing how artists are paid makes it feel less like a community. Less special.
Threadless was once the crowning example of success in the crowdsourcing businesses. They were highlighted in major national media as a company that had created a buzz that never seems to fade. But now they have lost that buzz and seem destined for relegation to business case studies.
Start With Why and Remember It
Threadless build a tremendous buzz, a community of over 1 million users, and a business that grossed enormous profits on a why that highlighted great design, individualism, and exclusivity. While that why may have limited their growth and total potential if they remained limited to the T-Shirt category, it had the potential to provide significant scale in other markets if they retained that core purpose.
But Threadless never recognized the purpose they created. When they attempted side ventures in other markets, they leveraged the crowd-sourcing aspect of their success, but not the community and exclusivity aspects that made them successful. Cocktail recipes, song-scoring, and other ventures attempted to create a crowd platform but didn’t have the same distinctive community aspects that their designers highlighted as core to their success at Threadless.
Threadless provides a great example of starting with why which created tremendous success. They also offer a great example of what happens if you either don’t recognize your why or forget it along the way. Losing touch with the purpose that created the success of their community has resulted in losing the community that built their success. Threadless may still be a viable company, but the evidence of significant job cuts in 2014 would indicate that they are no longer growing with the same profits as they were in the past.
Take the time to start with why. Document it and test it to make sure that you have it right. Then plaster it everywhere you can and hold everyone accountable to it in every decision. If something doesn’t align with your purpose, then don’t do it. Long-term success comes from building a loyal brand following. Start with why thinking is how you will create that brand loyalty.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.