Threadless Founder Jake Nickell Reminds Us To “Never Stop Making”

A few years ago, our Founder & CEO Jake Nickell traveled over to Boulder, CO to deliver a pretty darn inspiring Ted Talk. His message? Never stop making. In celebration of “Inspire Your Heart with Art Day”, we figured we’d share it; mainly because we think his presentation is pretty rad (we may be a bit biased…), but also, because, for realz - this is an idea worth spreading. Check out the full presentation below (as well as the video of Jake’s actual Ted Talk!). Then, seriously dude - start making.

It’s been 13 years now since starting Threadless. It began as a hobby. I was attending art school and I just wanted to make cool things together with my friends. I started a thread on an art forum that I participated on asking for people to post some ideas for t-shirt designs and I’d print the best ones. For the first two years I didn’t take a penny for myself, every dollar was spent on printing more shirts. The next two years Threadless graduated from hobby to side project for a small web consultancy I started called skinnyCorp. Finally after those four years in, it became our real business, what we did every day. “Making cool things together with friends” is still what Threadless does today. The group of friends is a bit bigger with millions of people involved in some way and over a hundred thousand artists having submitted designs, but the spirit remains. Threadless exists as a place for artists and designers who make things to have a productive way to show and benefit from those things. We make products from their art and distribute them to the world.

Jeff Howe, the guy who coined the term “crowdsourcing,” wrote an amazing piece in our book last year. He wrote about following Warped Tour one year, how he witnessed all these creative kids making tattoos, poetry, videos, music, etc. But they weren’t doing it because they wanted to be filmmakers or poets. And they weren’t doing it to make money. The way Jeff puts it is because “making stuff is the most joyful occupation in which we ever engage. It’s the closest we come to God.” This really struck me. I believe that we all have a need to create.

Being mostly self-taught myself, I find great value in learning how to do something on your own. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to ask for help or go to a class to learn something. But I love the discovery process of learning, it gives you your own point of view about a subject. I learned HTML by clicking view->source in a web browser and reading it line by line. I learned Photoshop by clicking every button in the program until I figured out what it does. I learned how to build a tree fort by nailing a board into a tree, standing on that board and nailing the next one in. There is so much value to be had in figuring something out on your own. It teaches you to have confidence when you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. You must rely on your own, new ideas. You learn to be innovative.

When you don’t know how to do something, so long as you have the confidence to try, that’s when you’re the most creative & innovative. Be good at something, comfortable with it, but realize that when you are doing something that you’re an expert at, something you’ve already mastered, you aren’t really adding anything new to the world. That was a lot of commas. So uncomfortable. Step outside of your comfort zone and approach a situation with fresh eyes. Offer a new perspective. You’ll either learn something new or you’ll teach someone else a new way of thinking about things!

Make something and put it out into the world. It’s impossible to predict what will happen, what you’ll learn, how people will react, how it could snowball out of control. One thing’s for sure, more will happen than if you do nothing. My hobby turned into what I’ve done for a living for over a decade. It turned into a multi-million dollar business that supports artists all around the world. That was certainly unintended. Thousands of years ago we divided our lives into “work” and “play” and I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be like that. But let it happen organically. The best, most fun things to work on were results of the Joy of Creation. At first you’re just having fun with no real purpose. You want to learn to cook. The next thing you know you own a restaurant or you’re making a killing selling bread on the internet.

Do it for yourself. Scratch the itch. Give yourself a creative release from your work, your wife, your kids. Have something in your life that you do and do well, that you’re proud of. And you do it simply because it’s something you are craving to do with your life. In today’s culture it’s far too easy to just become a passive viewer of the world. It’s up to you to define your legacy. When your children ask what kind of people their parents were, you don’t want them to say “he was really good at watching funny youtube videos.” This weird state of our culture is exactly why we need to make stuff more than ever.

The other day I went out in my backyard in Chicago and built an outdoor fire pit from brick and mortar. It may have been illegal. That was my first time mortaring anything and it turned out quite ugly. But it got the job done, I learned something (don’t use too much water), and best of all, I built something with my bare hands. It felt good. I made that fire pit! And now I cook marshmallows over it with my wife and kids. Every once in a while you just need to build something. Stretch your own canvas and paint on it. Dig a hole in the ground. Or, one of my favorites, go camping without a tent and build your own shelter :) It reminds you what we’re here for.

You have ideas you want to bring to life, I’m sure! Maybe you’ve had them for years. A lot of times they are so big that they are overwhelming. You think you’ll never do it and you never start. Well, start small. You don’t need to know the master plan for the great american novel or the next Facebook or mona lisa before you being. Simply start sketching it out a bit, write out how it would work, build a prototype. The simple, physical act of touching a pen to a piece of paper is so powerful. I also find that this is the best way to stop a bad idea from haunting you. As soon as you start to see it’s physical representation as a doodle, just give it it’s moment - it’ll show you right away that it may not work. Also, try doing this when your ‘supposed’ to be doing something else. Try it at work.

This is something that a lot of artists do within the Threadless community. It’s a fantastic challenge to give yourself. Commit to making something. Every. Single. Day. I’m trying to do this with my wife and kids. We skip a day here and there but the goal is to actually do a project, no matter how small, every day. It can (should) be silly! One of the things we want to do is build a visitor center for this mysterious “shoe corner” in our home town. It’s a corner in the middle of a bunch of corn fields where shoes just appear on the side of the road. Every week they have to clean it up and ever week more shoes appear. We’ll make up a story for why and celebrate it with the visitor center.

This is so important! Don’t forget the power of collaboration. If you’re an entrepreneur looking for a co-founder, a musician who wants to start a band, a writer looking for an illustrator, whatever the case may be, here’s my suggestion to you. Make friends. Then make things with your friends. I first met my co-founder by getting into weird, experimental javascript battles with him on an artsy-fartsy forum on the internet. He figured out how to make the whole browser window move with some code. So I made it move in a circle. Then he made it move in a star shape. Then we started Threadless! You may think you’re just goofing around. And maybe you are, but embrace it. That’s how great things begin!

Watch less TV. Always have a project. I don’t know about you but once I get going on something, I can’t put it down. Making things is the best fuel there is for making more things. Get into that cycle. Any waking moment you have, try to use that precious time to create something!

The internet is so empowering for people who make things. They no longer just collect dust in the basement. They live on in ones and zeros. At the very least, take a picture of it and post it up. Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, wherever! Just let people see and react to what you’ve made. Maybe they will make it better, get inspired, who knows. Take it a step further by using services like Etsy to sell your crafts. Or set up shop on Foodzie. Post your design to Threadless! As powerful as simply making something is, it’s that much more powerful when you let the world have it.

Basically, making things is the best medicine there is for anyone feeling stagnant, lost, in a rut, caught in a routine, too comfortable, whatever it is. Grow and learn by making stuff. It could be the beginning of something amazing.

14. Watch Jake’s Ted Talk here!

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