Threadless’ Synergizing Rainbow Connection With the Muppets

Disney Enterprises Inc.

This week, Threadless unveiled a partnership that even its core demographic -- hirsute hipsters -- had to smile at: To commemorate the Nov. 23 release of The Muppets, the first Muppets theatrical release in a dozen years, the T-shirt company has teamed up with Disney to release a line of shirts bearing Jim Henson's puppet characters in designs created by its artist community. From the outside, it works no differently than any other artist challenge Threadless issues: Submissions were sent and some winners were picked, and the happy consumer can purchase to his or her heart's content.

From the inside, of course, conventional wisdom would suggest that Threadless teaming up with Disney to release some shirts would change that process somewhat. To find out what was involved with buddying up with Disney, I gave Threadless' head of partnerships and business development, Wilson Fong, a call. We weren't able to determine how difficult it is being green, though.

Can you talk a bit about Threadless' history of these types of partnerships with big pop-culture figures?

Wilson Fong: Working with Disney was the first licensed property that we worked with. We've done a few since then.

With Disney, how did this come about?

Wilson Fong: It was a mutual admiration from afar. We had gotten in touch, it took about six months to get the conversation going. And from our perspective it was really about: How can we work with entertainment and branded properties to let our artists community -- of which we're at over 150,000 graphic designers and artists now on the Threadless website -- and give them the opportunity to create legal and contemporary versions of iconic characters and iconic art and properties that would resonate with them, and actually contemporize it. That's where the thinking started. We approached it and the relationship was, from the get go, the chemistry was fantastic. So, really working with their legal folks and their creative folks to come up with giving Threadless a way to allow its artist community a way to allow our artists community to go and remix properties that make sense to our community, demographic, and customer base. That was the essence of our idea.

How did the community submissions for this design challenge differ from any other regular submission process?

Wilson Fong: The process with Disney worked like this: At the beginning of every year or prior to the beginning of every year, and we're a year into the relationship, is look at their release schedule as well as what they want to focus on creatively. We've done three design challenges with them since the relationship started.

The first one was Tron and the second one was Phineas & Ferb and the third one is Muppets. We're in the process of determining what we're working on for 2012, but it has not been agreed on so I can't tell you. I'd love to be able to let you know about that now, but we're still in the process of that.

The original concept was, "How do we drive value to movie properties that are coming out?" Just to give you a little bit of a hint, but instead of not only doing movie properties, how do we look into the archive of iconic Disney characters and properties that resonate with the artists community as well as a customer base that's passionate about those properties. That's what we're thinking as we get deeper into the relationship.

Did you run into much red tape from Disney?

Wilson Fong: [Laughs.] Disney has traditionally been, or can be, very protective of their properties in terms of altering the art.


Wilson Fong: Right. I think the reasons Threadless has been able to garner such a strong artist community, and ironically enough, Disney's creative folks were really supportive of Threadless as a brand as well as our process. So they were very vocal about how we should definitely do this deal from Disney's perspective on how to contemporize and make relevant some of their older properties or some of the properties that have been on the backburners for a while. That's how the conversation started.

When we met with them at the roundtable, they came to the table with a really open mind, so we had a really great time talking through how to actually do something that's completely innovative that no one else has ever done before. In terms of red tape it took us a while to really communicate legally as well as contractually as well as all the other pieces about what we wanted to do and what they were comfortable with, but overall the process has been amazing from our perspective, being a very small company and working with a behemoth like Disney. They've been very liberal and cooperative with the submissions. With the Muppets, we had over 300 designs I think. They did not hold back any of the designs that our community had submitted for view and for voting, which was phenomenal from our perspective. As long as it didn't have any inappropriate content, they were like, "We want people to see these interpretations. We want them to vote on these designs. We want to see what the Threadless and Disney community feels should be the strongest pieces of art to turn into merchandise." So, from that perspective it was fantastic.

Over the course of this particular project, were there any fires that you had to put out? Or fires that they wanted you to put out?

Wilson Fong: Yeah, unfortunately, I'd love to give you some drama...

Oh, no, I'm not asking for or hoping that there was drama, I was just curious.

Wilson Fong: [Laughs.] I've had that question asked before, but, no, it's just been a great working relationship with those guys. We've been given open access to the different levels of their team from really the top folks at the Disney consumer product side to the studio to get all the information that we need to be able to put together a really successful collaboration.

Personally and professionally, what was the most impressive thing you found yourself getting access to?

Wilson Fong: Personally, it's how open they were in terms of being receptive to our suggestions of what would resonate with our community. Normally they would have an agenda, especially with the way the way they want to merchandise their releases, they put their foot down and typically say, "Okay, this is what we're going out with." But from Threadless' perspective it's, "Wow, okay, this really makes sense."

Professionally, there's been a really strong opportunity for us not only from a revenue perspective but from an awareness-building and a growth perspective. We see this as a really important step in our partnership and growth for our business going forward.

You said that roughly 300 designs were submitted and that none were thrown out. Is that typical of that same amount of normal submissions, in terms of none of them being flagged?

Wilson Fong: We normally get from or design challenges anywhere from 150 to 1,000, but when we get to north of 500, that's when we are doing branded Threadless design challenges. Like, "We're going to pay you $10,000 if your design is chosen." When that happens we get an amazing uptake.

But for entertainment properties and branded properties like Disney, we actually got 225 designs that we approved. Now, one thing that people don't know about Threadless is that we actually decline a pretty decent percentage of the submissions. We'll decline them for poor quality. We'll decline them for wrong file types. Oftentimes we'll let the artist or the submitter know why that piece of art has been declined, and oftentimes they'll rework the file or the art and resubmit.

You said it was a "decent percentage." Can you ballpark that figure, or would you rather not say?

Wilson Fong: The reason why it doesn't make sense to give you a ballpark is because the range is so wide from design challenge to design challenge on average. People think, "Oh, well you've got 200 designs approved and shown on Threadless." What people don't know is we'll get 50 or 100 designs that have been declined. Sometimes we'll get 10. Depending on the property and how things are, for instance, a really popular property, people will come out from the woodwork and have artists who are first-time users of Illustrator or Photoshop, put an idea down, and submit it, and the quality or the file may not be right for the way we have our process. We'll let them know that's the case and that's why the decline percentage may be decreased.

Finally, for anyone reading this who might be in a position of pursuing on a major partnership like this, what advice would you offer?

Wilson Fong: I guess the caveat would be it shouldn't be your core focus in terms of what you're going to be doing to drive revenue. Partnerships are a great way to grow the business horizontally in terms of driving more users and more awareness, especially when you're working with a partner that has a lot of brand equity in the marketplace. But at the same time because you are a startup or an entrepreneur, managing these relationships can usurp a lot of bandwidth that may not be your core focus. Focus on building the best product you can that's a standalone product or service for what you're doing, and then if an opportunity like this comes along to work with a really good partner, make sure that you drive or you do the due diligence on that partner just as they're doing the due diligence on you. Make sure that you know the value that you're driving to them. If it's completely one-sided, they're going to eat you up.

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