6 companies where customers come first

Surveys show that more consumers than ever are fed up with bad service. Meet six entrepreneurs who profit by bucking the trend.

Chicago, IL

Type of firm: T-shirt manufacturer

Customer-service strategy: Using its website and various company-sponsored blogs, Threadless has built a fervent online community dedicated to underground T-shirt design. Threadless.com now has 500,000 registered members, up from 350,000 in 2005. Members submit T-shirt designs. Then the community votes on its favorites à la American Idol. Each week, Threadless executives choose a few winning T-shirt designs. Those styles are produced, then sold back to the very people who conceived and voted on them in the first place. To encourage members to submit designs, winners are paid $1,500 plus a $300 merchandise credit. The odds are long: Over the company's seven-year history, 200,000 designs have been submitted, but only 1,000 have been chosen as winners. Recently Threadless added a critique section to its site, meant to keep repeat losers from growing discouraged and taking their T-shirt business elsewhere. With the critique section, it's possible to submit a work in progress and get feedback. Now someone can participate in the Threadless community without having to enter the bruising competition.
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