Threadless

In Professor von Hippel's class on Friday, we had Kareem Lakhani as a guest lecturer. He received his PhD from MIT working with Professor von Hippel and now teaches up the river at HBS. HBS has a very different teaching style from Sloan — much more focused on case studies which you must have read in advance and then the class is driven by discussion of the case. The professor sort of “leads” the discussion to some extent, but things are mostly driven by the students.

On Friday, we were looking at a business case around Threadless, an online site for t-shirt sales that also incorporates an aspect of user-driven design creation and selection. The quick overview is that users submit their own designs for the shirts, these are then voted on by the community and a small subset is then selected for printing on a regular basis. The model has some similarities to the open source world, which is kind of cool.

A lot of the discussion in class focused around diving into the business model to fully understand what the benefits are to all the members of the community as well as why a company is important. One of the big reasons for the company is, as with open source, that the bits to develop infrastructure are not exciting and thus don't attract a lot of community. Fedora Infrastructure is, to some extent, an exception to this rule but even so, there are a lot of pieces there driven by people being paid to work on it. One interesting thing that came out is just how few designs actually “win” and are turned into shirts… of the 1400 designs submitted per week, only 7 are selected for printing. And of the 43000 designers that have submitted designs over the life of the site, only 500 have had winning designs. So the chances of a successful design are extremely low and yet it continues to be a vibrant community.

As far as the case method vs the more normal method in Sloan of a professor lecturing, I actually somewhat enjoyed the case method. It ensured that everyone was sort of “on the same page” from the beginning and also led to increased amounts of participation from everyone, and thus, increased amounts of learning (IMHO). It was definitely worthwhile to experience and it increases my thinking about taking an HBS course at some point during my time at SDM.

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