Emptees R.I.P Questions with Matt Wigham

In 2007 the guys over at Indie Labs started a side project: “a place for people who design and love tee-shirts to show off their work, hang out, and talk shop with their peers”. This side project soon became the monster known as Emptees.com. Between 2007 – 2011 the site had grown to 40,000 members and had become an extremely vast resource for inspiration and resources. I remember the first time I landed on the site I was taken back. Some of the most talented designers, illustrators, and artists were posting some of the most beautiful t-shirt designs to be seen.

As a designer and not as much an illustrator I never became part of the site, but spent time lurking on the site for inspiration and resources. Some of the zombie style artwork that was prevalent on Emptees was never a style that I was into, but there was no way around not being able to appreciate the work from composition, to line work, to colors.

I was even privileged enough to have my portfolio brought up on the site. Unfortunately, it was in a random post that really had nothing good to say about myself and a few other designers. That’s when I experienced the negativity that had grown on the site. Regardless, I had too much respect for the talent and work on the site so i just stayed in the background enjoying all of the beautiful designs that were being released.

Without being a part of the site I know I will miss everything the site had to offer. That’s not to mention the impact it has had on its loyal community. Much respect goes out to the guys at Indie Labs for everything they did with Emptees and everything the site accomplished in a little over three years. The good news is Rob Dobi is carrying the torch with a new site knows as Mintees.

A few days before the site shut down, I hit Matt up over at Indie Labs to get some insight on Emptees. Thanks to Matt for getting back to me. Enjoy.

Let’s go back to day one. What was the initial concept of starting the site? When Emptees was started, did you ever plan on the site becoming as big as it did? What were the initial goals with Emptees?

The concept has always been simple – a place for people who design and love tee-shirts to show off their work, hang out, and talk shop with their peers.
Originally we started Emptees because we wanted a little side-project away from spending all of our time on Big Cartel. We didn’t have any goals for the site really, we just wanted it to be a fun place to visit and fun for us to work on, but we really did underestimate how big it would eventually become.

At what point did you guys realize that you had created a monster with Emptees? The community created from the site in only three years is absolutely huge. How did you guys handle the rapid growth of the site?

It was only a few months in that the community started to take on a life of its own. At that point we were just along for the ride. The growth required some additional moderation tools, as well as some optimizations to the site and additional server resources. Luckily we already had a lot of experience with scaling a website to handle a large amount of traffic, but Emptees certainly posed a few unique issues we had to figure out.

The Emptees community was made up of a ton of talented designers and artist, including the creator of Threadless, Jake Nickell and Johnny Cupcakes. Who are some of the biggest names that have been part of the Emptees community?

Yeah, Jake and Jeffrey (back in his Threadless days) were there early on, and it was cool to meet those guys. Johnny Cupcakes came later and hung around until the very end, and his interactions with the community were always fun to watch. More than big names though, I just enjoyed how many smaller names were on the site. They were the up-­and-coming brands, and we watched many of them really make a name for themselves throughout their time on Emptees.

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Knowing what you know now. How would you have approached the project of starting Emptees? What things would you have done differently?

I don’t think we would do much differently, other than perhaps give our moderators better tools right from the get go. But those are things you only learn along the way.

You mentioned the site had grown increasingly negative over time. Why do you think that happened? How did you guys moderate the negativity? How do you think the negativity affects the design community as a whole?

As Rob Dobi (our most active moderator) put it, the inmates were running the asylum. Everyone knows that internet forums are often a very negative and hostile place, especially ones full of young, passionate artists with strong opinions, but the problem with Emptees was that we just didn’t have the time and resources to keep it under control while staying focused on our core business. Because of that, chaos would reign on the site and our moderators would do their best to keep things civil.



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Indie Labs is responsible for Big Cartel and Pulley along with Emptees. Was there ever a time in Emptees growth that took away from the development of BC and Pulley?

Sure. If we’re working on Emptees, then that’s time away from our other projects. I don’t think it slowed our other projects down really, but it certainly was distracting for us.

What was it like at Indie Labs leading up to the decision to shut the site down?

For the last few months we knew that we had to do something with Emptees. We weighed all of our options, did our due diligence to explore each route, and ultimately made the very difficult decision to shut it down. It wasn’t fun.

You mentioned the opportunity for someone else to do it right and learn from your mistakes.What mistakes do you feel were made along the way with Emptees?

Moderation and curation are the biggest things we could have done better, and I think the new projects out there are already doing some things that should really help in those areas.

What parts of the site will remain once it is shut down in terms of the vast amount of knowledge and resources on the site?

Now that we’ve shut down, we have a simple thank you note up at emptees.com. However, many of the new communities that have popped up have given users the ability to migrate their Emptees content over to their site, so all of those resources should still be available somewhere.

With Emptees and other sites, the design community is coming together as a whole more than it ever has. With over 40,000 members, how do you feel that the site had an impact in inspiring the birth of new designers? How do you see this affecting the future of design?

I think Emptees showed new designers where the bar was, and pushed them to reach it. I hope it also helped to inspire and motivate them to make a real career out of their love for design.

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A lot of friendships were started with Emptees. What things would you like to see people to take with them from the Emptees community? What things would you like to see left behind?

I suppose, like any funeral, we’d hope they’d remember the good times. After we announced the site was closing, we heard from so many people that were so grateful for the inspiration, friendships, and work they received because of Emptees. I’ll always be proud of what we built with Emptees, and the amazing people we met, and I’m excited to see what comes next for everyone.

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What are your thoughts?