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The Self-Made Man: Thinkgeek

The rise of geek culture over the past ten years or so has been fueled, at least in TSB’s opinion, by a lot of entrepreneurial energy. How many of today’s big, profitable companies started because someone wanted to monetize their nerdy hobby/obsession/skill? How many thirtysomething millionaires were writing code and listening to Rush while their classmates were playing sports and trying to have sex with each other? The answer to both questions is ?a lot.?

Thinkgeek is a company that celebrates this community of people whose jobs or interests require a certain amount of obsession by selling them things?t-shirts, toys, office supplies, even tools and survivor equipment?that reflect their shared cultural idioms. To put it another way, they sell nerdy stuff to nerds.

Willie Vadnais is one of the four co-founders of Thinkgeek, and is the most vocal about its origins, so he is this week’s Self Made Man. Or sasquatch, by the look of him.

Back in the primitive 1990s, Willie and his three business partners were running a dial-up Internet service in northern Virginia. Since nothing about that previous sentence sounds fun or worthwhile at all, they started a goofy little side project where they made shirts with goofy IT jokes on them (?Got Root?? was their first offering?again, it was the 1990s), since theirs was still a community that advertisers hadn’t singled out yet.

The shirts sold well; better than expected, in fact. Willie and his Thinkgeek crew came up with more slogans and put them on more stuff. They went to toy conventions to find more weird crap to sell. They also got into the business of selling heavily-caffeinated energy drinks to coders who were going to be up all night anyway. Willie made it a point to test a lot of those drinks himself in the early days, and told Wired that ?some of the ingredients are now unlawful.? He doesn’t do that anymore, thankfully.

Willie is also proudly steeped in nerd culture, and so is his company. The pride in his voice is evident from quotes like ?we have been around since the early days,? and ?we understand the people we’re marketing to.?

You have to understand, most IT work sucks. You’re more or less a computer janitor in a boring, sad little cubicle, and then here comes Thinkgeek with products to spruce it up and make it an agreeable place to work, and to prove that other people on this planet understand you.

And, as Slashdot’s Rob Malda pointed out back in 1999, Thinkgeek’s stuff is pretty clever. The Tauntaun sleeping bag started as an April Fool’s joke, but customer feedback was so positive that they went and actually made the damn thing. Same with the canned unicorn meat.

Budding entrepreneurs can learn from this. Be a part of the community you’re reaching out to, and be authentic. If you’re just some guy trying to leech money from a profitable consumer base, it won’t take long for them to figure this out and reject you.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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