This post was prompted by one from Steve over at Startup Blog. He suggested that surfwear (in particular board shorts) might be a fertile product market for a Threadless-like innovation.
For those of you unfamiliar with Threadless, it is a crowd-sourcing community where designers load up prospective t-shirt designs which are voted upon by the public with the most popular then made available for sale through the same website. There is an excellent discussion of its growth and appeal here. The firm has been a huge success. Based on the numbers mentioned in that article, the site is selling upwards of 5000 t-shirts a day, at a margin of 33% or more.
The business model makes an enormous amount of sense. Each new design has a limited run and has already been tested with the likely consumers (i.e. they have voted for them). The basic inputs and production processes are very standardised (blank t-shirts, screenprinting) while the more costly input (designs) have been sourced out to providers who are prepared to do the hard work on spec (presumably because the exposure to consumers, or community, happens whether or not their designs are winners).
As with e-commerce generally, the firm saves big bucks by not needing/supporting a “bricks and mortar” retail and distribution network. It also avoid most marketing costs through that wonder of community-based websites – word of mouth.
Here’s a video explaining more about Threadless: Vodpod videos no longer available.
So turning to boardshorts, could a similar model work?
It certainly would need a lot of tweaking. I have no doubt that folks could come up some great and innovative designs and outperform the folks at Ripcurl, Billabong etc. But the issue is more to do with the business model.
Boardies are typically made from a microfibre polyester which is much more difficult to screenprint onto than cotton. Any design competition would probably need to be for the fabric print itself.
Now this is not impossible. There is at least one site that runs such a poll – Bonbonkakku. And Spoonflower offers custom printing. But, again, both are onto cotton, not polyester, and neither seem overly cost effective.
Running with new fabric designs as part of the model seems highly problematic, as this would necessitate large product runs, meaning the site would need to bare the risk of excess stock (and thus push up prices to protect against this risk). It would require a certain level of scale (in terms of consumer awareness, exposure) to be viable too. This contrasts with the much more scalable Threadless model.
Alternatively, the model could work around a palette of available fabrics and generating innovative patchwork style designs. This would require the firm to have access to good assembly (i.e. sewing) facilities. And the pool of prospective designers would presumably drop now (requiring a more specialised set of skills), and site would need to develop some capacity to communicate candidate designs effectively (3D rendering?, rotating images?). The big danger is that the market for these patchworked shorts might be much smaller too (surfers don’t usually want seams that rub).
As you can see, I am intrigued by the prospect of adapting the Threadless model, but I am not certain boardshorts are the right product. I am keen to hear your feedback. What have I missed in my discussion? How could this work more effectively?