T-Shirt Maker's Style, Drawn From Web Users

From left, Jacob DeHart, Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff are the brains behind the T-shirt business
From left, Jacob DeHart, Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff are the brains behind the T-shirt business "Threadless," which uses "crowdsourcing" to create their products, meaning the firm sells shirts that Internet users design and vote on. The competition for a winning design is so fierce that even famous designers have had their designs rejected. (By E. Jason Wambsgans -- Chicago Tribune)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

The two teenagers were short of nearly everything when they kick-started their Chicago T-shirt business seven years ago. Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart each chipped in $500. They ran it out of Nickell's apartment since DeHart still lived with his mother. For shipping, they enlisted friends to carry the shirts to the post office.

But they had a killer design team: the Web. They solicited designs from thousands of Internet users and then had them vote on which to manufacture. Outsourcing design work to the Web's mass audience has built the company, now called Threadless, into one of the country's hottest T-shirt retailers, with estimated annual revenue of about $15 million.

In a similar fashion, Fortune 500 companies such as Procter & Gamble, Dow AgroSciences and General Mills now turn to the Internet to solve some of their thorniest research problems. They post them on a Web site called InnoCentive, which links up companies and scientists, promising a reward often worth tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for the best answer.

From quirky Internet start-ups to industrial titans, companies are increasingly outsourcing segments of their business to sources in cyberspace -- much as they began shifting production overseas a generation earlier. This process, known as crowdsourcing, means that work once done in-house, from design and research to information-related services and customer support, can now be farmed out, tapping new expertise, cutting costs and freeing company employees to do what they do best.

The trend is gaining pace as corporate executives embrace the openness of the Web. Analysts said the promising gains in productivity will ultimately benefit the wider economy.

"It's a way to access the distributed knowledge that is out there on the Web," said Karim R. Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the trend. "You can now basically focus on your core business."

This approach exploits the vast human wisdom and expertise available via the Internet. But crowdsourcing is less of a collaborative endeavor than a means of finding individuals with the right skills for the right price.

Companies are still sorting through a raft of new challenges. While executives worry about sharing too much proprietary information with outside contractors, lawyers wrestle with concerns over who owns the rights to contributions from the crowd. Managers are also evaluating how to assure quality control and are assessing which tasks are best suited for outsourcing to the Web.

Publishers that once hired their own photographers are turning to sites like iStockphoto, which offers nearly 1.8 million images shot by thousands of amateurs and are available royalty-free for as little as a dollar per picture or $5 for a video clip. Elance.com offering freelance services, said its writers complete about 300 jobs a week for an average $500 each. Feedback for the writers is posted on the Elance site along with their credentials, which in some cases are verified by an outside company.

One of the Web's premier sellers, Amazon.com, has become a broker for the Internet labor force. Amazon's Mechanical Turk service enables "requesters" to post tasks online and facilitates payment once they're finished.

Using Amazon's two-year-old service, PriceGrabber.com finds Internet users to collect images of products and related information for its catalogue, according to Peter Cohen, director of Mechanical Turk. (The program is named for the ploy of an 18th-century Hungarian nobleman who built a turbaned mannequin and claimed it was a mechanical automaton capable of beating anyone in chess. Hidden inside was an actual chess master.) Another company, which makes games, turned to Amazon to hire people who can write trivia questions and then verify the answers. Cohen said more than 100,000 people have performed work through Mechanical Turk since it was introduced in late 2005.

For Threadless, the Internet has been part of the company's fiber from its founding.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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