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One size does not fit all

The digital revolution has created a vibrant new marketplace, the likes of which the world has never seen before. Mike Walsh shares his experience on tapping the markets of one wellspring.

HOW DO YOU GIVE ONE INDIVIDUAL EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT without it costing you more than something that is ready-made for most? Amazingly, the next generation of internet services is doing just that and taking it one step further.

Letting your customers design your products is one thing, but what if they could also sell them for you?

I met Jacob DeHart and Jeffrey Kalmikoff earlier this year on a trip to the US. They had started their online business Threadless ( with just $1000 startup money, after entering an internet T-shirt design contest.

They weren’t a start-up for long. At the time of our conversation, they were selling 80,000 T-shirts a month. Selling so many T-Shirts is one thing, but the really interesting part is how they did it.

Threadless is a bit like fashion design reality TV program Project Runway, for T-shirts. Unlike almost any other manufacturing business, the customers, not designers, create the product. People upload possible designs to the website, where visitors and other community members rate them.

Of the 700 or so designs submitted each week, the top ones are then selected for production. The winning designers receive a cash bonus and store credit for their efforts. Threadless customers are passionate about the service, even submitting pictures of themselves in their favorite shirts to help sell their preferred designs.

User-generated content is fast becoming an unexpected boon for enterprising small companies. Through the use of camera phones or digital video cameras, consumers are sharing more content from their lives than ever before.

And all that material is the perfect starting point to create highly personalized products designed for ‘markets of one. Jump on to the photo-sharing site Flickr (, and you will not only find millions of photos and vibrant communities of interest around them, but also a host of new companies that allow you to automatically transform your photos into a range of personalized products from miniature calling cards (Moo) to professionally bound books (Blurb), calendars and mugs (Qoop) and even custom designed postage stamps (Zazzle).

It’s not just a gimmick. Like Threadless, customers are genuinely passionate about being involved in the production process. Do a search for ‘Moo cards’ on Flickr and you will find hundreds of photos of consumers showing off their newly created products. Now that was never a Hallmark occasion.

The next big opportunity for smart small businesses will be to tap the fast-growing community networks being created on Facebook. In the past six months, since Facebook has allowed third-party developers to create applications on the network, more than 6000 new applications have been developed and installed more than 380 million times. That makes Facebook one of the most viral platforms in history, and fertile ground for experimenting with new business ideas.

Creating Facebook applications is a lot easier than building an entire website. Better still, you have millions of customers at your fingertips. If you don’t know what to sell, just ask them. And while you’re are at it, see if they can help you sell your product to people they know. You might just be surprised.

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