It’s easy to start a t-shirt business–you don’t need prior experience and it has a low cost to get started.
Many would-be entrepreneurs start selling t-shirts as a side business because it’s easy to start making a profit quickly. T-shirt selling is also low-risk, so it’s a good option for new entrepreneurs hoping to learn the ins and outs of running a business. These steps will show you how to get started.
Why Starting a T-Shirt Business Is Worth It
There are few businesses that are easier to spin up than selling t-shirts. Even if you have nothing but an idea, you could have shirts you designed for sale online within a few hours with a service like Printful.
And if your designer tees catch on, there’s no telling how much you stand to make. Once you build a brand that resonates with consumers, you can sell a lot more than clothing.
Of course, it takes a lot of hard work to see this kind of success, but that’s no reason not to try.
A t-shirt business is excellent for gaining real-world experience as an entrepreneur. It does not cost a lot to get started, but you’ll actually be able to build a brand–not just talk about it. Instantly you’ll have feedback from the market. Are people buying? Why or why not? It’s a low stakes way to sharpen your business sense with the potential for profit.
The Investment Needed To Start a T-Shirt Business
The cost to start a t-shirt business can run anywhere from $26 to $20,000. Most of the investment is the work you will put in. First, decide whether your goal is launching a successful t-shirt empire or starting a side business.
Investing your time
The biggest investment for most new businesses is time. While it’s possible to launch a t-shirt business in a day, it will take a month or more of dedicated effort to start a reliably profitable one.
If you begin your t-shirt business as a side hustle, sit down and figure out how much time you can make for this new business each week. Next, decide how much time you would like to spend long-term running the business. There are many options for automation if you want to streamline some parts of your operations.
Investing your money
The funds you have on hand can help you decide on the max budget for your startup costs. Your idea and target audience, the resources you already have available, and your goals for the future are all factors that will impact how much it costs to start your business.
When deciding your t-shirt biz budget, you’ll need to make an important first decision– do you want to screen print your t-shirts? Or do you want to do print-on-demand? This initial decision and investment will have a big impact on your earnings later on.
For example, you can purchase supplies, silkscreen shirts by hand, and sell them in your neighborhood for about $200 in materials costs. At the same time, you can create a website and use a dropshipping or print-on-demand service to start selling shirts for about $40. A good design press for heat transfers, on the other hand, can cost around $2000.
The typical price point for t-shirts in your niche can help with this decision too. Some audiences won’t spend more than $9 on a t-shirt, while the most expensive t-shirts can sell for thousands of dollars.
10 Steps To Start a T-Shirt Business
These steps will help make sure you have all the information you need to start a thriving t-shirt business.
1. Find a specific audience to make t-shirts for
Because t-shirt businesses are so popular, the industry is also very competitive. The best way to develop a strong foundation and grow your t-shirt business is to create shirts for a very specific niche.
T-shirts with cool designs aren’t enough to build a business that attracts not just an audience, but a loyal following. You want buyers who will tell their friends about your t-shirts and come back to buy more. Finding the right audience and niche desires will take some online research, but even in this competitive market, there are a lot of unfulfilled t-shirt wishes.
As you select a niche, think about how well you know that group of people. You might have watched every episode of The Mandalorian or The Queen’s Gambit, but how well do you remember quotes and scenes from specific episodes? Superfans are looking for great merchandise, but they are also wary of outsiders and they pay attention to tiny details.
Spend time in communities online to make sure you’re creating t-shirts that fans will love. You’ll also want to look at how big your fan base is. Tools like Google Trends can help you figure out how big the audience is for your niche and how big your audience could become.
Some niches may seem very small but they grow quickly. Other niches stay small but have fans whose interests cross over into other areas. For example, Animal Crossing is a video game that got very popular in 2020. Animal Crossing is a game on the Nintendo Switch console, so if you create Animal Crossing t-shirts and gain a good following for your t-shirt business with Animal Crossing fans, you can expand to t-shirts for other Nintendo Switch games to grow your business.
2. Decide how you want to produce your t-shirts
We already talked about this in the investment section, but let’s get into the details. Now that you know who you’re making t-shirts for, it’s time to make some decisions about the t-shirts you want to sell. Audience research will be important as you choose
How your t-shirts should fit
Sizing is important. Some audiences will prefer oversized t-shirts, while others like fitted tees. Also consider male vs. female sizing and fit options.
Fabric quality and weight
Your target audience should also guide the kind of t-shirts you print on. For example, if your t-shirts are for nature lovers, organic cotton tees are a must.
Digital or screen printing processes
Screen printing is simple to do yourself at home and it’s also easy to outsource. If you have a popular screenprint design you can often use the same screen to print your design on aprons, canvas bags, and more if you decide to expand your t-shirt business.
But it takes to set up a single silkscreen and each color requires its own screen for printing. There’s also an upfront investment in supplies and storage, so you may want to look at another printing process.
Direct to garment printers are a tool used by popular print-on-demand companies like Printful and Printify. This process prints shirt designs with many colors at the same time, like an inkjet printer. This process is great for small orders but it is less cost-effective to scale.
Heat transfer, embroidery, and dye-sublimation are other popular options.
If you’re less interested in the creative parts of the t-shirt business, think about dropshipping or buying pre-made t-shirts. Keep in mind that if the t-shirts you’re selling aren’t original, your marketing will have to be.
If you’ve never done dropshipping before check out 4 Easy Steps to Start a Dropshipping Business to understand the full process as well as its benefits and pitfalls.
It’s important to nail down printing process details before you start designing because you’ll need specs from your printer to make sure you’re making your designs at the right size and resolution. This isn’t a big deal for most vector graphics, but there’s nothing worse than creating a killer design that is too small or low resolution to print the way you pictured it.
3. Decide how to handle inventory
In addition to the cost of printing, screen-printed t-shirts will need storage space. While some t-shirt businesses will have space at home to store boxes of unsold t-shirts, others will need to pay for a storage unit or other off-site space to store the shirts for your business.
When you use a print-on-demand you don’t need to worry about inventory because a vendor prints each shirt individually and you never have to store the printed shirt. Instead, they ship it directly to your customer. This sounds like an ideal solution, but it will be more difficult to grow the business.
Many physical product businesses increase profits by increasing the rate of production, which lowers their production cost per unit and allows them to make more on each unit sold. If you choose to manage your own t-shirt printing or use a process like screen printing or heat transfer, you can control these parts of your business.
But if you decide to use a print-on-demand service, the cost per t-shirt will usually stay the same whether you sell one t-shirt or 20. This means that the only way to increase profits with print-on-demand is to sell a lot more t-shirts.
4. Set the right price
The easiest way to choose a price for your shirts is to double the cost of materials and production. For example, say you spent $200 to make 20 t-shirts. The cost of production per shirt is $10. Double it, and the price for each t-shirt is $20. This approach is easy, but it may not be the best pricing approach.
Before you set a price, look at other t-shirts in your niche. This will help you get an idea of what customers are willing to pay. There is often a difference between a person’s willingness to pay and their ability to pay, so don’t just look at how much your target audience makes or what industries they work in to determine the price range of your t-shirts.
Many startups experiment with prices over time, so don’t forget to track your pricing decisions against your sales to test your pricing ideas and whether your price is right for your audience.
5. Decide where you will sell your t-shirts
Many new t-shirt businesses get their start selling online. Ecommerce is hot and it makes it easier than ever before to start a t-shirt business.
Don’t forget that the internet isn’t the only place to sell t-shirts. The most effective way to connect with customers is to meet them where they already are. This might be a local farmer’s market, events like comic cons or maker fairs, or partnering with a local retail store.
If you’re starting a business while you’re still in college, campuses are a great spot to start selling T-shirts. You may even be able to save money using print services on campus!
6. Figure out your marketing plan and branding
The magic of t-shirts is that every customer is also a walking ad for your business. Your brand is what will set your business apart and help you develop a reputation for great t-shirts.
Before you get into the rush of selling t-shirts, it’s important to figure out how you will spread the word about your t-shirt business. A solid content marketing strategy is a necessity for any new business.
Even if you plan to sell online, don’t forget about local sales. Reach out to your personal network first, then connect with the right people in your community and niche. Word of mouth is still the most effective advertising.
7. Draft a business plan
A business plan is essential to bring all the different parts of your t-shirt business together and to keep it organized. A great business plan will pull together the decisions that you’re making about marketing, budget, and timing that make it easier for you to move forward. You can also use your business plan to remind you of easy-to-forget details like required fees and licenses.
A quick outline with the following sections will be enough to kickstart your business:
- Company name
- Vision and mission statement
- Product description
- Pricing strategy and startup expenses
- Marketing plan
- Action plan
- Rough timeline
How to Start a Business for Less Than $100 includes more helpful tips as you organize your t-shirt startup.
8. Start designing your t-shirts
Once you really know the who, what, where, and when of your t-shirt business, it’s time to create your t-shirts. There are a few different approaches you can take to designing great t-shirts. We’ve already talked about dropshipping, but there are more popular options below.
Hire a designer
You can find great designers who can create designs for a price that works with your budget on sites like Upwork and Fiverr.
Design t-shirts on your own
Creating your own t-shirts is another great option. If you go the route of designing your own t-shirts, look for ways to test your graphics and ideas with a handful of friends or fans before you invest in printing. Social media surveys are a good way to gauge interest in your designs.
Copyright is another factor to consider, especially if your t-shirt designs rely on another popular product or brand to get attention. Get to know the basics of copyright law before you get too attached to a specific design. Once you have a clear picture of your rights, get wildly creative with your inspiration.
Visualize the final product
As you design be sure to think about how each final design will look on your t-shirts and how that design will work with different body types. Most t-shirts have some stretch, so the person wearing your t-shirts will stretch your design in a way that distorts it. You’ll want every person who purchases your t-shirts to have a positive experience, so design with multiple body types in mind.
9. Prep for great customer service
One of the most time-consuming but important parts of running a t-shirt business is customer service. No matter how gorgeous your t-shirts are, your new customers will still have questions and concerns and you’ll want to have the right answers ready.
Create an easy-to-use website
Whether you’re using your website for promotion or selling online, a great website is essential for your business. If you’re selling online for the first time, How to Start an Online Store and Make Your First Sale will show you everything you need to know.
Write all your copy
Write your ideal FAQs and buying instructions for your customers before you start building your website. This way you can be sure that the language on your site is in your unique brand voice.
If you wait and write your copy last minute, other tasks could distract you from creating a great customer experience. And don’t forget to write scripts for online chat. Whether you plan to handle customer chat questions or use a friendly bot, a script will ensure that your customers are getting consistent helpful information.
Another important note– be sure to include detailed sizing information on your website. This will limit the number of returns due to incorrect sizes, which will cut into your profits.
Test your buying experience
Customer reviews and social proof can make or break your t-shirt business. Nailing down your buyer journey early on will make it easier to pinpoint spots in the purchase process where customers drop off.
To test out the buying experience, grab some friends and go through the entire buying process step by step. Take careful notes and make whatever changes you can before launch while noting bigger changes you may want to make later.
Make it easy to buy
To maximize impulse purchases and ensure that people aren’t abandoning their online shopping carts, set up the best buying experience for customers. Make it as easy as possible to shop on your site.
One way to do this is to choose an ecommerce platform with a large range of payment gateways to make it easier for smartphone buyers to make one-click purchases.
10. Launch your business
Once you’ve followed these steps you’ll know how each t-shirt goes from idea to design to the final product. You’ll have a solid marketing plan to remind you what platforms to post and advertise on, and you’ll be ready to talk to your customers about how to buy your t-shirts.
You’ve prepared in every way that you can and you’ve made your decisions, now it’s time to act on them. Start selling on sidewalks, your new website, or from a local store and get the word out, then watch your t-shirt profits grow.
Now that your t-shirt business is live, you’ll need to find innovative ways to push past the first rush of sales. This article, The 13 Most Effective Ways to Increase your Conversion Rate has some techniques that will create a steady flow of profit. Another smart technique is adding customer testimonials to your site to show off your great buying experience.