A Remarkably Specific List: Companies Inspired by the Activities of Online Communities

This remarkably specific list contains several companies whose founders were smart enough to notice the activities of a certain online community and recognize the potential for a new business. Sometimes the most difficult part of entrepreneurship is recognizing a need when you see one, and all of these founders were able to recognize a very specific one.

This list is definitely not comprehensive. There are probably hundreds of successful businesses that have started this way, and this list is merely a start to the conversation.

In no particular order:

Threadless. The first chapter of Jake Nickell’s book on the founding of Threadless is called “The Accidental Business”. In it, he explains how he was part of a small online design scene, experimenting with computers, code, and art. He posted often on the forums on dreamless.org.  One day, the New Media Underground Festival held a competition on the boards to design a t-shirt for the fest. Jake won the contest, and had an idea. In an IM conversation, he told his friend Jacob DeHart about the idea: start an ongoing competition for t-shirt designers where the best designs would be printed and available for sale. The first competition was posted on the Dreamless forums, and it quickly evolved into an independent business. Threadless was founded in 2000. The term “crowdsourcing” wouldn’t even be coined until six years later.

DailyBooth. Jon Wheatley, one of the founders of DailyBooth, tells the fascinating history behind the startup in one long, excellent blog post. In it, he details his specific inspiration for the site.  Back in 2007, the internet became fascinated by a series of videos uploaded to YouTube in which a person will take a single photograph of themselves every day for several years. They edit the photos together into a video, add some cool music, and the end result is a visual evolution of a single identity. The most famous example of this is probably Noah.  Jon thinks these videos are great, and he thinks more people would want to jump on this trend, if only they had a tool to ease the process. DailyBooth is born. The main idea behind DailyBooth remains the same, but with the parallel success of Twitter, it is now more popularly described as Twitter with images instead of 140 characters, rather than a tool to collect pictures and combine them into a video. As a sidenote, online communities were particularly important to the founding of DailyBooth, as that is where the founders first met.

Flippa and 99Designs. Sitepoint launched in 1999, and its content has become an important resource for web designers and developers. The Sitepoint forums are humming with activity. It is especially interesting to see how closely the founders of Sitepoint have monitored their forums, and how quickly they can recognize a business opportunity when they see one.  When they noticed that their users were downloading and printing their content, they began publishing books. When they noticed that people were using their forums to buy and sell websites and domains, they set up Sitepoint Marketplace, which was eventually spun off as Flippa.com. The story of 99designs begins much the same way as Threadless.  The Sitepoint forum users were throwing impromptu competitions to see who was the best logo designer. Someone would create a fake project, 20 or 30 designers would enter, and a winner would be crowned. This went on for a while until someone who actually need a real logo offered to create a competition, and pay the winner $100. Sitepoint started charging users $20 to post a project in the forums, and in 2007, they spun that section off as 99Designs. Earlier this year, 99Designs announced the first outside investment in any of the Sitepoint properties, for $35 million.

Imgur. Two and a half years ago MrGrim was a reddit user like any other.  Reddit sends massive amounts of traffic across usually to simple, funny pictures.  MrGrim and the rest of the community were tired of photobucket and imageshack. They were tired of bandwidth limits and being forced to compress their files. So MrGrim built a solution: an image host that required none of those restrictions while adding simple things like crop, resize, and rotate. He posted about his new hosting service, Imgur, and that post went on to win reddit’s Best Submission of the Year 2009.  In 2011, reddit is even more popular and it seems like almost every single image post on links to Imgur. As of this writing, Imgur is getting 6,320,064,355 image views per month.

Lesson learned: if you’re searching for a great startup idea, look to see what online activities are already occurring within interesting communities, and think about ways to turn it into a business.
More remarkably specific lists:

Deep Thoughts on the Print-on-Demand Industry

An Introduction

We can split the apparel print-on-demand industry into two groups: those companies that allow users to create and sell custom apparel from a storefront, and those who don’t. In the first group, we have Cafe Press, Zazzle, Spreadshirt, Printfection, Skreened, and a few more. In the second group, we have CustomInk, Customized Girl, Blue Cotton, and many, many more.

All of these companies have one thing in common: they take advantage of the fundamental principles of the long tail. Because they don’t print anything until it is ordered, and because they allow customers to create whatever design they like, their inventory of designs is digital, which means it is essentially infinite. The only physical inventory they need to worry about is the blank apparel, but even that can be reduced to almost nothing by using just-in-time inventory, like we do at Customized Girl.

What Cafe Press and Zazzle Do Well

Cafe Press and Zazzle have done an extraordinary job of recruiting massive armies of storefront owners. Each of these storefront owners bring in tons of sales to their individual stores, but perhaps more importantly, they bring in links. If you were to build a storefront on Zazzle, you would be bombarded with reminders and tools to encourage you to constantly link back to your storefront. This results in excellent organic search rankings. If you’re on Google, and you search “any-word-you-can-think-of” followed by the word “shirt”, Zazzle will almost surely show up as the first or second organic link.

Zazzle, in particular, has also done a great job of cultivating partnerships with major brands such as Disney, DC Comics, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more. These branded t-shirts represent the “head” of the long tail.

My absolute favorite aspect of Zazzle’s business model is their ability to provide their partners with incredibly specific and powerful data about their own customers. For example, let’s say it’s the year 2006 and Disney is about to release a new Pixar movie, Cars. They’ve been promoting the heck out of it with trailers and TV commercials, and because they’re really smart, they’ve had a Cars Zazzle Store open for weeks. No Cars t-shirts have been printed yet, because Zazzle prints everything on demand. Soon, Zazzle is able to report back to Disney: Lightning McQueen t-shirts are the best sellers in New York and Los Angeles. Mater t-shirts are the best sellers in Texas and Ohio.  Disney can take this information and use it to direct inventory to their brick and mortar stores all around the country. (Just to be clear, I completely made up that data. I’m not even sure Zazzle get’s that specific, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t.)

Taking this one step further, imagine it’s your job at Zazzle to recruit new partnerships. How incredible would it be to walk in a room and say “Would you like to have everything you need to know regarding exactly how much inventory you need and where it needs to go?”.  Seems like a pretty easy pitch.

What Cafe Press and Zazzle Don’t Do Well

Cafe Press and Zazzle claim they sell “custom apparel”, and while that is technically true (you can upload a design to blank items), they don’t sell “customizable apparel”.  They have millions of designs in their shops, but almost all of them were uploaded by users creating designs in Photoshop or Illustrator. If you wanted to find a bachelorette t-shirt design that you could customize quickly and easily by adding your own name, you’d find it rather difficult at Cafe Press or Zazzle. If you did find a design you liked, but you wanted to change the colors, or the font, or the text, well… forget it.

That’s where companies like Customized Girl and Bridal Party Tees come in (and to a lesser extent, Custom Ink which offers a somewhat limited variety of designs you can customize) (also, if it is not obvious, I work for eRetailing, the company that owns Customized Girl and Bridal Party Tees, so this post is not without bias).

At Customized Girl, every design you see was created from scratch in our design center.  There are no uploaded images. Every piece of art you see is from our massive library. This means you can customize the design’s colors, scale it up and down, edit all of the text, change fonts, swap out the item, and personalize it pretty much every conceivable way.

The Future

Cafe Press and Zazzle have fantastic business models because they’ve been able to harness the true power of the internet. If Zazzle had wanted, it could have bought a bunch of direct-to-garment digital printers and then built powerful art and marketing departments to fill up their shop with high quality designs. But they realized that if they created a platform, and opened it up to anyone, then they would be able to grow exponentially.  Now their users are able to create a storefront and sell fully designed t-shirts from their bedroom. The user never has to buy inventory, or print anything, or even deal with customer service.

But the next step has yet to be taken. The next step is to take the Zazzle model, and instead of creating static t-shirt stores, the users can create another Zazzle, or at least another Bridal Party Tees. I don’t think this would be possible with the current Zazzle structure and design center, but if there was another platform, a platform with an incredibly easy-to-use design center, and a storefront that made it obvious each design was meant to be fully customized, then maybe… maybe users could build fully fledged custom apparel businesses.  They could sell softball team uniforms, family reunion shirts, and any other item that might benefit from customization.  There are a lot of different ways this platform could become a reality, and at eRetailing, we’re thinking hard about each of them…


Follow Function

In 2005, my friend Steven Schranz and I began discussions regarding a potential business partnership. I had a few ideas about what kind of products I’d like to sell and he had already founded Lighters Direct.

I had earned my BS in Product Design the year before, and I was excited about some of the new, modern designers I had discovered.   Follow Function became an online store for modern goods.  To explain more, I’m going to copy and paste from the “About Us” section I wrote way back in the day:

In the spring of 2005 I (Jeff) was perusing a popular design blog and I saw an article about an incredible product called Automoblox. It was well designed, it was fun, and it was brilliant. Then I read another article, this one about a design firm called Mint. The products erupting from this place were also well designed, fun, and brilliant. I said to myself, “Self, this is the type of stuff you should be spreading across the globe.”

I called up Steven and said “Steven, look at this here stuff. It’s pretty awesome. We should sell it.” Steven was already the proprietor of a successful online store and he said to me: “Jeff, that’s a good idea. Lets put together a massive spreadsheet detailing every product we would like to bring to the people of Earth, and then narrow that list down to a few of our favorites.” So we did.

With my discerning eye and Steven’s business sense, we combined our powers like Voltron and gave birth to Follow Function LLC.

Our criteria for selecting quality products was threefold:

  • Is it well designed? And by “well”, we mean “very, very well”. Can you see the imprint of that designer’s personality on each product? Is it clever? Is that designer exploding with talent?
  • Does it separate itself from others like it? Maybe its because the product ships flat and blossoms into an unbelievable lamp (see MIO culture’s ‘Bendant’). Maybe its because the geometry of the objects interact in such a way that you just have to reach out and touch it (see Mint’s ‘Hug Salt and Pepper Shaker’).
  • Is it reasonably priced? We love good design, but we have a problem paying a ridiculous amount of money for it. We also don’t really like shelling out the dough for shipping charges. If you look around you can find stuff that ships flat, stacks, or is small enough to fit in a reasonably sized box.

But wait, there’s more! As a professional industrial designer, I found that virtually no one outside the design world had any clue what defined the term “industrial design”. Usually, this meant that few people knew what good design was or how to look for it.

So part of our duty here is to educate folks on what exactly is good design. Therefore, it is our pleasure to bring you the story behind each product we sell. We interviewed or studied each designer and their products in order to gain a better understanding of what it is that lives in our homes.

In 2009, we decided Follow Function would have a better chance for growth in someone else’s hands.  This is code for “it was still a side project and we just didn’t have the time to dedicate to it anymore”.  We were happy to sell the company to Wholesale Furniture Brokers.

This is the Follow Function home page as I designed it back in 2005.

I changed out the bottom banner frequently, depending on the season and whatever special offers we were promoting. I eventually developed a style using images of our actual products as repeating graphical elements.


A Remarkably Specific List: Surprise, I’m a Monster!

I’m a big fan of beautiful concept art. Some of the best concept art in the world is being produced, for free, within the forums of ConceptArt.org. If you want to hone your skills as a creature concept artist, consider entering the Creature of the Week contest. I was recently perusing the list of Creature of the Week winners and I started to notice a pattern. And then I noticed the pattern in other places, such as t-shirt designs on Threadless.

This version of a Remarkably Specific List contains art featuring creatures who are, aboveground (or above water), seemingly inviting or harmless and at the same time terrible, terrible monsters just below the surface.

[Sidenote: This is in no way a commentary on each artists’ originality. As far as I know, they each came up with their ideas independently. Even if they didn’t, there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other work that impresses one’s self.]

Mockfish by Peppi

Ye Pirate Muncher by Duddlebug

The Earth Grasshopper by Carlos Cabrera

Angler by Stephan Royer

Icebergs Just Wanna Have Fun by Mathijs Vissers

The Stepping Stone by Brian Cook

Flower Feast by Brian Cook


A Remarkably Specific List: Harrison Ford Character Names

I have a theory that states: If you are writing a screenplay, and you’re hoping to land Harrison Ford for a part, your odds of getting him increase up to 400% if you name the character Jack or Henry.  Please see the evidence below.

  • Henry Jones Jr. – The Kingdom of the Crystall Skull – 2008
  • Jack Stanfield – Firewall – 2006
  • Jack Ryan – Clear and Present Danger – 1994
  • Jack Ryan – Patriot Games – 1992
  • Henry Turner – Regarding Henry – 1991
  • Henry Jones Jr – The Last Crusade – 1991
  • Jack Trainer – Working Girl – 1988
  • Henry Jones Jr. – Temple of Doom – 1984
  • Henry Jones Jr. – Raiders of the Lost Ark – 1981

Banner Advertising: Why Fansites Work and Facebook Fails

This is my first post on banner ads, and as such it is also going to serve as a bit of an introduction into how we use banner ads at eRetailing.  (At eRetailing, customers use our design centers to add text and art to apparel and other products, which we then print on demand. To learn more, ready my post on our flagship site, Customized Girl.)  If you want to skip to the Facebook vs Fansite argument, scroll down a bit.


I do a lot of banner advertising on the Google Display Network. I’ve used all kinds of networks over the years, including AdBrite, Chitiqa, and others, but Google has always been the best.  This is because Google has the largest inventory (thanks to Adsense) and the best method of targeting: keyword (aka contextual).

At eRetailing we make sure every ad dollar we spend results in a direct Return On Investment.  Maybe someday we’ll engage in more “brand” advertising, and we’ll use TV or billboards or Yahoo to try to sink into the public subconsciousness, but right now it’s all about making the most money possible with each individual dollar. Luckily for us, the internet exists which makes this super easy.

[Briefly: we’ve tried other forms of targeting. Network targeting (bidding on specific domains) can be just as good as keyword when used correctly. Retargeting is ok.  Not surprisingly, it works better the more specific you get, such as targeting visitors who added something to the shopping cart but never checked out. But beware, retargeting is a terrible idea if you’re paying per conversion and the ad network is counting “view-through” conversions.  In this case, you are essentially paying a third party simply because your company has repeat customers. Behavioral targeting, like the kind Yahoo uses for banners, is simply for not us.  Yahoo wants you to spend a huge sum of money up front so that you can “back in” to your targeting goals. Even once the “backing in” occurs, the ROI probably won’t match up to keyword targeting.]

The key, for us anyway, is using image ads to plant a very clear idea in our viewers’ minds. We prepare our users so that they have a very specific set of expectations and when they click on one of our ads we immediately satisfy these expectations on the landing page.  We do this by featuring the design on the item (often a t-shirt) as largely as possible on the banner. The design (like “Matt’s Tight End” on a pair of hot shorts or “Welcome Home Soldier” on an army wife t-shirt) needs to be simple with big block letters and high contrast.  It needs to be “immediately readable”, which is to say, if someone glances at it out of the corner of their eye, they should immediately understand what it is.

[Briefly, again: in my experience, this is not achievable with text ads on Google’s Display Network. We’ve run many tests with display text ads and have earned a (nearly) zero percent conversion rate. Text ads simply can’t build the perfect expectations in our users’ minds the way an image ad can. I also suspect most clicks on text ads from the display network are accidental.]

Our best results using keyword targeted banner ads, without question, have come from fansites.  By fansites, I mean any site that was built to serve the fans of one particular concept, from fans of running, to fans of the latest video game, to fans of young adult novels about vampires.

[Briefly, for the last time: if we ever decide to advertise on a particular piece of pop culture, we go out of our way to avoid copyright infringement.  We only cater to fan-created ideas, like Team Edward or Team Jacob.  No one owns the copy right to a first name like Edward, right? Right. Unfortunately someone did eventually purchase a “Team Edward” trademark, and at that time we immediately stopped all advertising related to vampires.  I think it’s pretty silly to stop your fans from showing their support for you, but that’s a post for another day.]

It’s great to advertise on fansites because fans go there to completely geek out about a certain topic.  While they are there, they are devouring everything they can about whatever interests them.  If your ad is relevant, it essentially becomes part of the site content. Fans are willing to look at your ad and think “Hey, that’s something I want!”

Interestingly, Facebook offers a similar targeting system. When you create your ad on Facebook, you can say “Okay, I want this to show up for anyone who is interested in running, or the latest video game, or young adult novels about vampires.”  We can reach the same people who are devouring our ads on fansites! It’s great! Except it isn’t.

It’s easy to think that the same surfers would be happy to see your ad wherever they are on the web, but that’s not the case.  People are on Facebook (and formerly MySpace – yes, we tried that too) to communicate with their friends.  They’re planning trips. They’re wishing you a happy birthday.  But they are not geeking out over one of their passions.  And they certainly aren’t shopping.

Here are some examples of banner ads and their corresponding landing pages:


Update: June 15, 2016. Well, in May of 2011, this post was pretty accurate. Of course, things have changed since then. Facebook has rolled out all kinds of great tools for advertisers, especially their remarketing pixel and their lookalike audiences. I do a lot more advertising on Facebook these days, but I don’t always enjoy it. There are some major issues with the way they report conversion metrics. Specifically, I think Facebook knows exactly who is about to checkout on your site (because they visited a page with “cart” or “checkout” in the URL) and then they display an ad to that user, and claim “credit” for the view-through conversion. But alas, that’s a post for another day…