Michelle Hierzer and Sherry Keating of Crank the Earth
Michelle Hierzer and Sherry Keating of Crank the Earth Credit: michael Boyd

If T-shirts, then why not bike jerseys? That’s what cyclist Sherry Keating thought upon reading an article about the Chicago-based T-shirt company Threadless, which runs design contests with cash prizes to determine what shirts it prints and sells. “I just thought, crowdsourcing—how awesome is that?” she says.

Keating, an avid cyclist, had trouble finding jerseys she could stand. “They were all full of logos and very corporate. And the designs I did see were cliche, like pink and purple hearts, just things I wouldn’t wear.”

The crowdsourcing model has been wildly successful for Threadless, which was started in Chicago in 2000 by a pair of college dropouts with about a grand in seed money. Design submissions now exceed 1,500 a week, of which about ten get produced; sales hit $18 million in 2006, with $6 million in profits (the company has since stopped releasing sales numbers, but says sales have continued to grow). Threadless even has a couple of retail outlets, in Wicker Park and Lakeview.

A few weeks after reading the article, in early 2008, Keating mentioned the idea to longtime friend Michelle Hierzer during a bike ride downtown from Andersonville. Hierzer bit, and the two hatched plans for Crank the Earth, an online store for user-designed and user-selected jerseys and T-shirts that officially launched in September.

So far Keating and Hierzer have taken a more expensive route than Threadless, sinking about $25,000 in savings into the fledgling company. They put in about 20 hours a week on top of their day jobs, Hierzer as a Web designer for Sears, Keating as a business development manager for a software company.

Hierzer designed the site, cranktheearth.com, and while it was under construction she designed a couple jerseys so they’d have something to sell before the first contest. Their first sale was last May, the day after they soft-launched with a booth at Bike the Drive. They dedicated the summer to testing the site; a beta contest offering a $250 prize got about 20 submissions.

By the September launch it had grown from a handful of members, mostly friends, to about 80. That more than doubled over the next week, and by late January they’d passed 1,000. Members can vote on designs or submit their own; the winning design from each contest is printed and sold on the site. There are a dozen items currently for sale; jerseys run between $65 and $85, T-shirts $25 and $30.

The screening process for submissions isn’t particularly stringent at this point. Keating and Hierzer check designs for copyright infringement and printability issues before approving them, but they end up posting about 80 percent of the submissions. For the contest coinciding with the launch, though, they upped the prize to $1,000. “You could see the quality of the designs go up,” says Keating, “and at that point we were more picky. Now the contest is $300, and you can see that the designs are . . . not as great.”

So far they’ve had five contests, with a total of around 250 submissions, 100 or so of them for the launch. They’re currently running them quarterly, and in addition have begun hosting contests for organizations that want their logo on a bike jersey. In January the Chainlink, a Chicago-oriented cycling Web site, held one; the winner, out of a dozen-odd submissions, was patterned after the Chicago flag. Next up, starting sometime this spring, will be a contest to design a jersey for Pace of Chicago, David Wallach’s endurance sports blog on ChicagoNow.

Keating says some local bike stores have already expressed interest in advertising on the site, but they’re holding off to build “a really solid community” first. About 10 percent of their sales go to the Active Transportation Alliance and other mostly local pro-cycling organizations, but she admits that so far “it’s not a lot of money because we haven’t sold a whole lot.”

In phase two Keating and Hierzer plan to improve the site; a redesign is in the works and will launch in the next few weeks. Possible additions include discussion forums, a tool that allows people to design jerseys on the site, and bike blogs by users. They’re also planning to increase the prize money for the contest, “to target more sophisticated designers,” says Keating. They might add helmets, hats, or other accessories; Hierzer also fantasizes about doing limited-run designer bike apparel.

And phase three? With any luck it’ll involve profit, but they don’t expect that until at least the middle of 2011. On the plus side, the only investors they have to satisfy are themselves.

Do they plan to follow Threadless in opening a retail outlet? The idea’s come up, but Hierzer’s quick to reject it: “If anything,” she says, “we would create partnerships with different bike shops and sell jerseys there. It’s just not a goal of ours.”