Exclusive Interview: Threadless CTO Harper Reed Heads to Rackspace [What’s A Nepholologist?]

image [Editor’s Note: This afternoon at about lunch time, I got pinged on the new hire of Harper Reed, former CTO at Threadless, as something called a Nepholologist at the Rackspace cloud division. In fact, I was pinged about six times from several different people, which was why it was pretty serendipitous that our own Kristen Nicole got a chance to sit down with him yesterday just to chat about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Incidentally, I asked our friends at Rackspace what a Nepholologist was, and they said he’d be, amongst other things, working on cool technology for customers, evangelizing the Rackspace Cloud, and serving as an all around technical expert.

Proper Disclosure: Rackspace is a sponsor of SiliconANGLE, as well as an individual sponsor of Robert Scoble’s Building43, a contributor to this blog. –mrh]

Chief Technology Officer of Threadless, Harper Reed, has decided to resign from the popular startup. As one of the company’s earliest employees, Reed had a hand in shaping Threadless into what it has become today.  Notable for its revolutionary concept, democratization of design and ability to monetize the long tail, Threadless has become one of the most referenced web startups in the U.S. 

I interviewed the radical Reed to hear his thoughts on leaving Threadless, find out what he’s learned from working with the startup, and what lies in store for his future projects.

Kristen Nicole: What did you really do at Threadless?

Harper Reed:  Mostly ran around and wore bright colors. Sometimes I managed technology and worked with an awesome group of people to make threadless go. I liked to say that my job was to ensure that we sold shirts. I did a good job at that. I think that in the time I spent at threadless we sold something like 5M shirts – that is awesome. 

Kristen Nicole:  After all these years watching threadless grow and being a central team member with the popular startup, why are you resigning?

Harper Reed:  There are a bunch of reasons. The biggest is that the goals i had set for myself were all accomplished. I was done. We had accomplished a lot and since threadless image was in a great place – i was able to exit without feeling like there was more to do.

The next reason is that I want to focus building and working with startups. I have a lot of ideas and want to see where they take me. It will be fun and crazy – which is totally my scene.

Kristen Nicole:  What kind of startups do you prefer working with?

Harper Reed:  There are two things that really catch my eye when looking at startups.

The first are startups that are social and have a revenue generating product. Threadless taught me that products and users are king. I am really excited about startups like Freshbooks, 23andme, Meraki, twip.es and other companies that are engaging users with solid revenue generating products.

The second are startups that generically pass the mom test (or as Aza Raskin [of Mozilla] puts it the phone test: http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/phone-test/). One of my own weaknesses is creating technology that my mom doesn’t care about and doesn’t understand.

I am excited about companies that are solving products that are simple and easy to consume. A lot of iPhone developers are doing great solving this problem. Creating a simple app that solves a simple problem that I could explain to my mom over the phone.  Some examples of these startups are Mint, Twitter, Everyblock, Facebook, Spotify and of course Threadless.


Kristen Nicole:  With Jeffrey Kalmikoff leaving Threadless as well, what’s going on behind the scenes at threadless?

Harper Reed:  Threadless is actually in a better place then ever before. The core team (execs, design, etc) are great. We have a really awesome tech team (I am super bummed to be leaving them). All together they  are  an awesome group that will be doing some really neat stuff.

Having these very supportive people in place made the decision to leave much easier. I knew that things would go on (probably better) without me. Although that was rough to realize – it is also awesome to know that the thing you helped build is self sufficient enough to survive without you. ;)

Kristen Nicole:  What is your biggest lesson learned from your time with Threadless?

Harper Reed:  I think the single biggest lesson I learned from Threadless was to trust your user.

Our entire business is built on top of our users. They create our product, vote and curate our products, help facilitate the word of mouth buzz surrounding our product and finally buy our product. Before Threadless, I loved users but didn’t trust them.

However, having users be such a large part of the Threadless ecosphere made me realize how much power they really have and how they can and want to wield that power for good. You just need to facilitate that wielding and you will be fine. Crowdsourcing is the future – however if you don’t trust your users to build/create/upload awesome work – they won’t trust you with their crowd capital.

They are also an amazing canary. They have told us more about usability and bugs than any other single source. We have always used our forums and blogs to find out and vet problems. There are businesses built around this idea (the awesome people at getsatisfaction.com and uservoice.com) and it has totally helped us out.

I am a user advocate.


Kristen Nicole:  So what’s next for you?

Harper Reed:  The goal is to incubate some ideas and see what sticks.

The first thing I am going to do is spend some time detoxifying my head. I want to get back into the scrappy startup way of thinking.  It is amazing what happens when you have resources – you forget how to be scrappy and how to make things happen with nothing. I want to get back into that groove.

I plan on working on similar thing as i have been launching in my spare time – however with a bit more focus and resources. I would like to concentrate on the real time web (excla.im and excla.im track) and social-political software (like chicagopayments.org and the CTA API). It will be exciting to see what happens when these 12 hour projects get a whole load of attention. I imagine amazing things will happen ;)

I plan to travel and meet up with lots of people (Hawaii, Boulder, [CO] and San Francisco).  I will also be working closely with Rackspace helping them out with their Cloud Computing stuff. It will be awesome.

Kristen Nicole:  There’s a lot going on with cloud computing right now. What about this space attracted you and where do you see it going?

Harper Reed:  I am an infrastructure guy and spent years paying for and fighting servers. It seems that cloud computing has democratized servers and hosting. It is making writing, launching and having a successful webapp brainless and cheap. I built exclaimtrack in a couple days and launched it for zero dollars using Google App Engine. I have a bunch of dev servers that I use for various things that cost dollars a month. This is very different from 3 years ago when a dedicated box to test XMPP servers and what not cost me 99 bucks a month.

Making hosting and server technology cheap and accessible will hopefully get more people building better products and launching them without losing their shirts.   I am into that.