Courtesy of Devon Giddon
One Ohio State computer science class project has turned into a $50 million business.
In 2007, Jason Ross, CEO and co-founder of Jackthreads, approached Rajiv Ramnath, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at OSU, about having his computer science class build the brand’s website.
The site, jackthreads.com, is a “flash-sale” site, meaning something different is available for purchase every 24 hours. The merchandise is focused on men’s streetwear and niche clothing.
“I don’t have a technology background and I had no idea how to build a website,” Ross said. “It was a great way … to get the project kicked off, learn from these students without spending a lot of money and get some momentum going.”
After the quarter’s end, Ross hired two of Ramnath’s students to finish building the site until it was ready to launch in 2010.
“I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t found that class,” he said.
Since then, Jackthreads has grown, bringing in record-level revenue, working with more than 500 brands and hosting more than 2 million members.
“A significant amount of our business comes from New York, Southern California, Chicago, Miami, some of the bigger metropolitan areas. What excites me is that there are guys who don’t live in those areas but who care about what we do,” Ross said. He added the majority of Jackthread customers are urban-dwelling males 18-to-35 years old.
The website is based on an “invite-only” marketing strategy. One gives the site his or her email address, zip code and a possible password, after which the person receives a “Welcome to Jackthreads” email.
Jackthreads paved the way for “invite-only” flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe and Rue La La that focus more on women’s clothing.
“By having it as ‘invite only,’ that really gave the brands comfort that what we were doing was helping them move merchandise but also doing it in a way that protected them,” Ross said. “From a marketing standpoint, we’re also incentivizing our audience to spread the word for us through this model.”
The turning point for Jackthreads was when Thrillist bought it, a website focused on urban lifestyle for men, in 2010. Jackthreads’ revenue grew from $5 million to $50 million in a year-and-a-half.
“The Jackthreads-Thrillist partnership was a no-brainer for both companies. Combining the supplier/brand relationships and infrastructure of Jackthreads with the elusive audience of Thrillist created a game-changing new business model – and the growth has been incredible,” said
Ben Lerer, CEO and co-founder of Thrillist Media Group, in an email.
Ross said working under the Thrillist umbrella had prevented him from making many business mistakes that Thrillist has already made during periods of high growth.
Ross does not attribute the success of the company to working under Thrillist, however.
“I think we’ve gotten much better at knowing our customers,” Ross said. “Providing a shopping experience that just gets better and better every day and most consistently puts product in front of our customers that they care about.”
Ross graduated from OSU with a degree in finance in 2003 and has kept his business based in Columbus.
Students such as Daniel Espinosa, who graduated from OSU in 2011 with a degree in strategic communication, have given Ross a hiring base.
“I was in an entrepreneurship course and a girl came in and she said that Jackthreads was looking for people to help them out and I said I could, and I’ve been there ever since,” Espinosa said.
Espinosa is a buying assistant for Jackthreads.
Despite using OSU as a hiring base in Columbus, Ross said it’s harder to break into the fashion business from Ohio than it is from somewhere like New York.
“The suppliers that we work with are basically all based in New York, and so not being able to sit in front of them face-to-face and build relationships was challenging, but we overcame that through a lot of phone work and traveling to trade shows,” Ross said.
For this reason, Ross hired a team of freelance buyers in New York to find upcoming brands he would have no way of knowing about.
“Being able to build a buying team of talented merchants who also have relationships with these suppliers that we’re working with that are located in other parts of the country – that’s not exactly easy to find in Columbus,” Ross said.
By targeting a younger audience, social media has helped the growth of the Jackthreads brand.
“(Social media is) more so for us to build brand loyalty and affinity with our customers through social channels,” Ross said. “We’re able to have an open dialogue with our customers, and they are so engaged.”
CNN cited Jackthreads March 27 as one of the few companies that responds to customers’ Facebook wall posts and did not delete questions customers left on their walls.
Jackthreads launched its mobile shopping app in February and has seen success with more than 150,000 downloads within the first month, Ross said.
Although he is the co-founder of a company that features new clothing options every 24 hours, Ross said he does stick to what he knows will work.
“I have a pair of APC raw denim … but unfortunately there’s a hole in the crotch,” Ross said laughing. “It’s been two years and it’s a real bummer. I’ve got to get them sewn up.”