The Customer Revolution – Why You Need to Make Them Your Most Trusted Business Partners

There’s a revolution brewing…

Not long from now, your customers and clients will be taking over.

You can either choose to be on their side, or you can choose to let your business sink into the oblivion of irrelevance.

This is not an article about better customer service. This is an article about an exciting change that is taking place all over the world.

It’s about re-thinking your relationship with the people you serve.

We are quickly entering a time when the consumer will not only tell companies what it is they really want – they’ll actually make it too.

Someone recently sent me an article from Inc.com about the online t-shirt company Threadless.com. It was actually an older story from back in 2008 – but the title intrigued me – The Customer is the Company.

The story opens with reporter Max Chafkin looking on as Threadless founder Jake Nickell is brought in for a meeting with innovation researchers at MIT. They wanted to pick his brain. At the time, Nickell was just 25, and didn’t even have a college degree.

However, the path he and his partners chose to follow could very well be where the business world is heading.

The Threadless Story

In 2000, Nickell was a struggling young graphic designer who won a t-shirt design competition for the New Media Underground festival. He didn’t get any prize money, or even a free shirt, but the experience sparked a big idea.

Nickell spent a lot of time on a graphic design forum called Dreamless where artists shared ideas and projects. He wondered if the best designs could be printed on t-shirts and sold. Nickell and original partner Jacob DeHart scraped together $1,000 of their own money and set up shop.

The idea behind Threadless.com (then and now) is that designers have the chance to create original artwork for t-shirts. Then the Threadless community votes on their favorites, and the most popular t-shirts get printed and sold, while the winning artists get paid.

It sounds simple. But it’s also revolutionary.

In the Inc.com article, Chafkin interviewed Harvard professor Karim Lakhani who points out this sort of model was already being used in the tech industry with open source software. But this little t-shirt company proved that even the most ordinary products could benefit from user innovation. Lakhani said…

“Threadless completely blurs that line of who is a producer and who is a consumer. The customers end up playing a critical role across all its operations: idea generation, marketing, sales forecasting. All that has been distributed.”

Threadless customers create products, vet ideas, market it to others through social media – employees and customers even model the t-shirts on the website.

Think this is a flash in the pan?

Think again and you’ll start coming up with big brands now doing similar things.

Maybe you’ve noticed friends on Facebook entering a contest to create a new flavor of Lay’s Potato Chips and sharing their recipe. The Do Us a Flavor campaign involves customers in idea generation.

Hallmark is now running contests just like Threadless, and selling greeting cards designed by its customers.

We’re seeing more and more user-generated content online. We have also been creating our own entertainment in places like  YouTube and our own citizen journalism on blog platforms like WordPress and Tumblr.

But that’s just the beginning…

When the Customer Becomes the Manufacturer

Another innovation that has captured my imagination is 3D printing.

This new technology brings the possibility of becoming a manufacturer or an inventor into your home.

Sounds far-fetched doesn’t it?

But Bre Pettis, the founder of a company producing something called a MakerBot  makes an interesting point in the video posted below. At one time everyone thought having an actual computer in your home was far-fetched. Now we carry them around with us wherever we go.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves creating a three-dimensional object from a digital image. It’s almost difficult to envision until you see it happen for yourself (so check out the video). It’s also tough to picture how this could be a useful item in the typical home.

Visit Thingiverse.com, a site that allows people with MakerBots to download blueprints for creating everything from Christmas ornaments to Automatic transmission models. You’ll start to realize the possibilities are huge!

This kind of technology will allow entrepreneurs and innovators to create prototypes for their concepts. Without a doubt, big ideas brought to life with 3D printers will get bought up by big businesses and soon become part of our everyday life.

My favorite use so far is the “Lego Adapter,” which would allow kids to connect Duplos, Megablocks, Lincoln Logs and more. You’re blowing my mind right there MakerBot!

Staying on the topic of toys. A simpler version of customer idea generation comes from a small operation founded by a creative mom named Wendy Tsao.

Just imagine if childhood drawings could go from crayon and marker to something you could actually play with!

That’s what Tsao does at ChildsOwn.com. It started when she noticed her son drawing the same “bug-eyed stick figures over and over again.

She brought them to life in the form of hand-made stuffed toys, and now Child’s Own is doing the same for imaginative kids everywhere.

Why You Can’t Afford to Resist this Change

Change can be rough. Most of us are used to business models where companies and employees come up with ideas or products and then sell them to consumers. We’ll no doubt see some resistance to this change – but you have to make it work.

The music industry resisted the switch to digital, fighting to shut down Napster and similar music-sharing sites until  Apple introduced iTunes and the industry had it’s answer. Right now, the movie and TV industries and services like Netflix and Hulu are in a battle for the future of how we consume that content.

This revolutionary switch in the way things work is going to happen naturally – whether we like it or not.

Jake Nickell didn’t set out to be revolutionary. He said the idea for Threadless was just “common sense,” adding “Why wouldn’t you want to make the products that people want you to make?”

If we don’t adjust the way we do business now, there is an army of young people like Nickell waiting to take over. They are growing up in this world. To them it just makes sense.

Kasey Steinbrinck is a co-founder of Copyjuice specializing in copywriting and content marketing. He loves helping people come up with ideas (maybe a little too much). Contact Copyjuice with your small business marketing questions today. Leave a comment or send us an email.

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    Comments

    1. Great post, Kasey. Your customers are definitely your best form of advertising. If you provide an impeccable service or product, they’ll naturally refer people to you and help you grow your business significantly. I appreciate you sharing your insights with us on BizSugar. :)

      Ti

    2. Kasey,
      Looking at customers as your partners in business gives you a whole new way to look at your market, and, I’d argue, creates more opportunities than problems. Your community can save you time and guess work by letting you know how to serve them better. And when you get it right, they can make you famous by telling the world.

      • Heather – I’m glad you agree. And I think what you explained is just the beginning of a wave of change that will put more influence in the hands of consumers. But I don’t think it’s something to fear. When businesses serve people better – they become better businesses.

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