How to Start a T-shirt Business
Everywhere you look, you see people wearing some awesome t-shirts that express their personalities. Pet lovers, gardeners, groupies, millennials, old schoolers or total geeks, there is a t-shirt design out there that allows you to represent.
If you’re like me, when you see the numerous t-shirt designs, you think, “I bet I could design some cool t-shirts”.
Guess what? You are right! And you can make some serious side hustle money.
It is so easy to start a t-shirt business today. With print-on-demand platforms and at-home screen-printing options, there are very few excuses not to try it. Because there are few limits as to what you can put on a t-shirt, you can let your creativity explode.
To help you start a t-shirt business, I have put together a list of options you have when it comes to creating and selling your products. I have also discussed them in detail, giving you the pros and cons of each platform.
Let’s start with print-on-demand platforms.
Print-on-Demand T-shirt Business
So, how do you start your t-shirt business? Is it even viable to start printing your own t-shirts?
The answer is a resounding, “YES!”
Starting a t-shirt business is now more practical and affordable than ever thanks to print-on-demand services.
Print-on-demand services will print your t-shirts for you as orders come in. Simply upload your design, choose the piece of apparel you want it printed on, set your prices, and start selling.
Before print-on-demand services, starting a t-shirt business was more expensive (and much riskier). You had to make sure every design was a winner, properly forecast the right sizes to order, and order in bulk. It wouldn’t be uncommon to spend $500 to test each design.
With a print-on-demand business, you have zero upfront costs (assuming you create your designs yourself) and you can test as many designs as you’d like.
Let’s take a look at some of the best print-on-demand services. From there, we will discuss ways to increase sales and make your t-shirt business a success.
Merch by Amazon
Amazon seems to be the ruler of all rulers when it comes to eCommerce. They have millions of built-in customers and this is one reason they decided to start a print-on-demand t-shirt platform. This means the t-shirts you design have can immediately be sold on the Amazon marketplace.
This is one of the main advantages of Merch by Amazon – you can utilize the company’s print-on-demand services and tap into their marketplace to start selling.
But first, you must request and be approved by Merch to join their program.
Once approved (and it can take weeks or months to get approved) you can set up your profile.
Your profile is necessary because it allows you to tell your customers more about you and your Merch store. It also allows you to set up how you will get paid and your tax information, both of which are required before you can start selling your designs.
Once your profile is approved, you can begin uploading your designs.
Merch by Amazon lets you place your designs on items like t-shirts, raglan shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, and pop sockets. Yes, you read that right, pop sockets. This may seem like an odd addition, but everyone has a phone, so I get it. That’s a lot of opportunities.
And since Amazon rules e-commerce, if they think pop sockets are a good idea, I believe them.
When you finish designing, submit them for approval. The approval process can take varying times depending on your design. They check for copyright and trademark issues, if the designs are age appropriate and other potential issues.
Once approved, you can start selling and watching the royalties add up. Oh yes, that’s how Amazon makes money. They take a portion of your sales, a pretty large portion. But don’t let that stop you. Small amounts can add up fast. And since they do most of the work, it’s worth it.
Amazon likes to maintain control throughout the process, which is probably why they set the prices, even the royalty amounts, for you.
Amazon likes to take things slow. They have set up tiers that limit the number of designs you can submit at once. They start you in a lower tier, like 25. This means you can sell 25 products at one time. After a while, you will can move to higher tiers, 100 then 500 then 1000 and on up.
Amazon has a lot of resources to help you along the way: forums, support contacts, podcasts, Facebook groups, and blogs are just a few. They also have an advertising program, which can help boost sales.
Let’s recap with some pros and cons.
- Access to millions of Amazon customers around the world
- Easy steps to create and upload designs
- Resources and support
- Not everyone is approved for the program, giving you less competition
- Continually improving the platform
- They do all the printing, shipping, and returns so you don’t have to
- You are on Amazon time, which can be slow
- Royalties are low, but expected since all you must do is design
- Advertising is a must to get more sales
- They don’t provide you the option to share your products on social media outlets
- Need to have a good understanding of SEO to help customers find your products
- Product sizes are limited to Adults and Youth, no infant or toddler sizes
- Product selection is limited when compared to other print-on-demand services
The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages for Merch by Amazon and I highly recommend trying to join this club if you want to start a t-shirt business.
Teespring is a print-on-demand platform that gives you way more options than t-shirts and sweatshirts. Their product line also includes leggings, socks, onesies, coffee mugs, backpacks, iPhone cases, canvases, and much more.
Not only do they have more products for which you can put your designs, they make it simple to start your t-shirt business. They provide step by step instructions, starting with how to sign up.
Teespring pricing is simple. They have a base price for each of their products. You set the selling price above that base price. This allows you to choose the royalty amount you wish to receive. For example, if the cost to print a t-shirt is $10 and you sell it at $20, your profit is $10. If you choose to sell it at $30, your profit is $20.
You can start designing right away. The enrollment processing can be completed by providing your PayPal account, tax information, and profile information. Teespring provides a launching tool to help you design and upload your designs to the products of your choice.
Teespring is the perfect platform for you Fundraisers out there. You set a sales goal and then promote your products to help you reach that goal. Teespring provides promotion tools that allow you to connect with all social media outlets.
Advertising helps sell any product, and Teespring t-shirts are no different. To help you start your t-shirt business the right way, Teespring provides you with advertising help through programs they developed called YouTube Shelf and Google Shopping.
As every good t-shirt design platform does, they print and ship the items, either to you in bulk, or to the individual customers.
Here’s the highlights:
- You set your royalties
- Start designing right away
- Great for Fundraisers
- Many tools and resources to help you succeed
- Great variety of products
- You need to advertise and do a lot of promoting to boost sales
- Product prices can be higher due to base price set by Teespring
- If you don’t meet your sales goal, they don’t ship any items
- No marketplace to tap into
If you thought Teespring has a good variety of products, let me introduce you to Zazzle. The main categories from which you can choose products include invitations and stationery; home, sports and games; clothing and accessories; arts, crafts and party supplies; electronics; babies and kids; office and school; and weddings.
To start your t-shirt business, Zazzle makes it easy and free. You can choose to use their design tools and ready-made templates or upload your own design.
Before you start designing, though, you must still complete the basic steps of signing up, providing your profile, bank, and tax information.
Zazzle has a slightly different pricing and royalty system than other platforms. Like Teespring, Zazzle sets a base price for each of its products. Then, you set a percentage for your royalties. The lowest percentage you can choose is 5%. Those two numbers together equal what your customers will be asked to pay.
Before we move on to screen printing options, let’s review the pros and cons of Zazzle.
- Easy to sign up
- Easy to design using their templates or upload your own
- Can choose your own royalties
- Start designing right away
- Massive variety of products to place your design
- Easy to promote designs on social media
- Advertising is a must to get good sales
- Products can cost more depending on base price
- You must know SEO to help customers find your products
If these don’t meet your needs, there are other print-on-demand platforms to check out to start your t-shirt business. These include Redbubble, Printful, Spreadshirt, Teepublic, Café press, and Society6.
And if print-on-demand is not your thing, try screen printing.
Screen-Printing Your T-Shirts
Screen printing is an alternative to print-on-demand.
Screen printing is ideal for established brands and t-shirt businesses that order in quantities of 25+ at a time.
Screen printing is also great for those of you who want to get your hands dirty and be a part of every step of the t-shirt design process. It is a stenciling technique that applies ink to a surface using a mesh screen. T-shirts aren’t the only products you can print on either. Glass, wood, textiles, electronics, and signs are a few examples.
Screen Printing vs. Print-On-Demand
There are three main benefits of screen printing over print-on-demand.
The first is quality. Most print-on-demand services use digital printers to print your designs onto apparel (or whatever you are selling). The printing tends to be lower quality and may fade with time.
Screen printed t-shirts are much higher quality. The designs are more vivid and tend to last longer.
Screen printing also gives you control over the t-shirts you print on. When you choose a print-on-demand printer, you are limited to the t-shirt brands and styles provided by that service. Many of these printers only offer a few different t-shirt options.
Screen printers generally have more options. This is particularly beneficial if you want to print on a very specific t-shirt (Next Level 2610 is my favorite!). While this may seem like an afterthought to some, it can actually be very important. T-shirt quality can vary across companies and a great t-shirt can make or break the success of your business. If you’re anything like me, you have certain printed t-shirts you wear simply because of how comfortable they are.
Screen printers are also a more cost-effective solution if you are producing higher quantities of shirts. Print-on-demand companies don’t usually provide volume discounts since orders are printed on demand.
Screen printers generally provide volume discounts based on how many pieces you order.
For example, if you order 25 t-shirts, the cost may be $7 per-shirt. If you order 100, the cost may be $6 per-shirt.
This makes screen printing a preferable option for any t-shirt business that is able to sell in volume.
Of course, there are some downsides to screen printing as well. These include:
- Order Minimums
- Setup Fees
- Lack of Fulfillment
While screen printers are great for business owners looking for volume discounts, they can be prohibitive for new business owners. Most screen printers have a minimum order quantity (generally 25 pieces), meaning an upfront investment is required.
They also have one-time setup fees since they need to create “screens” for your prints. Screens generally cost $40+ per-color.
So, if you wanted to create a three-color design with screen-printing, here’s a quick look at the costs:
- $120 for Screens (3 colors at $40 Each)
- $175 for Shirts (25 shirts at $7 each)
The startup cost for a single design is $295. Compare that to print-on-demand which has zero startup costs.
It’s also worth mentioning that most screen printers simply print your t-shirts for you. They do not fulfill your orders. This means that you will be responsible for creating an online store, packaging orders, and shipping them.
To sum things up, screen printers are a great option for established brands or t-shirt businesses that know they can sell a lot of volume. Print-on-demand is ideal for new t-shirt businesses that want to keep costs low and have another company fulfill orders. Of course, you can always start with print-on-demand and graduate to screen printing as your business grows.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the screen-printing options.
Screen Printing Services
The best way to start working with a screen printer is to find one locally. This allows you to be involved in the process (if you choose). It also saves money on shipping as you can pick up your t-shirts instead of paying to have them shipped.
To find a good screen printer locally, start with a Google search. Call up some companies and share your needs, shop around for the best prices, and get started with a small order. If you like the company, you can discuss volume discounts and start planning future projects.
Screen Printing Kits
If you are very serious about your t-shirt business, you may consider buying your own screen printing kit. This can be a great option for business owners who want to be more involved in the printing process.
That said, this adds a lot of work and could compromise the quality of your t-shirts if you don’t know what you are doing.
Here are some options you may consider.
Merchmakr All-in-One Screen-Printing Kit
The Merchmakr is a great unit to help you start your t-shirt business. It is an all-in-one machine that even comes with a unit to make stencils. The makers created this machine to change designs quickly and allow you to use multiple colors on each design.
Merchmakr is great for beginners and more advanced screen printers.
DIY Print Shop Tabletop Screen Printing Kit
This is a compact screen-printing system that can fit in small spaces but produce big results. It comes with everything you need to get started designing and printing quality t-shirts. It even gives you the hinges and screws you will need to create your transfer board.
It is just a starter kit, so once you get comfortable using it, you will need to purchase additional colors and supplies that can help you produce advanced products.
YUDU Personal Screen-Printing Machine
If you think screen printing is done by using ink only, you will be happy to learn there are digital ways to screen print. That’s right, you can create your design on your computer and print it using your inkjet printer. Then, use the screen-printing machine to apply the design to your product.
The YUDU is easy, clean and has a low price, all of which help you start a t-shirt business quickly.
Running a Successful T-Shirt Business
I’ve played around with many formats to start a t-shirt business. Some worked out, some didn’t. With all of my efforts, I learned a lot of good lessons. I’m sharing them with you because I want you to be a rock star in this field.
Choose the Right Niche
There are hundreds of thousands of different t-shirts out there. If you want to set yourself up for success, you need to take a unique approach.
You need to have a niche that will separate you from all the other t-shirt designers. Finding a niche means taking a broad topic and narrowing it down to a smaller, more specific category. For instance, instead of choosing animals, choose farm animals. Then, choose chickens.
People search online for specific things. Therefore; you need to be specific in your designs and your target audience.
Try tapping into a passionate audience. For example, it may be difficult to sell generic flower designs, but if you create t-shirts related to at-home gardening, you are now tapping into a niche audience.
Here are some more examples of passionate audiences vs. generic audiences.
- Generic: Music
- Passionate: Mandolin Players
- Generic: Movie Lovers
- Passionate: Star Wars Fans
- Generic: Parents
- Passionate: Stay-at-Home Soccer Moms
- Generic: Motivational Quotes
- Passionate: Stoic Philosophy Quotes
Finding a niche audience means you can appeal to more passionate customers AND compete in a less competitive space.
Be honest with yourself. If you stink at designing, don’t try to do it.
Your designs can make or break your business, especially when selling online. While you may be able to sell subpar designs to friends and family who want to support you, your goal is to start a business. Quality is important.
You can still start a t-shirt business even if you can’t create the designs yourself. You can hire a designer to produce an illustration or graphic.
On places like Fiverr, you can hire designers for little cost too.
If you don’t have any design skills, it makes sense to spend $50-$100 for a design that sells vs. trying to design a t-shirt yourself that doesn’t sell.
Remember the movie quote, “if you build it they will come”?
It doesn’t apply to business…
You can’t expect to launch an online store, sit back, and watch the sales roll in. Trust me, it won’t happen.
The t-shirt business is just like any other business. You need to have a marketing plan if you want to generate sales.
Use social media to promote your work. Place ads on social media. Join Facebook groups and forums. When you are not finding customers online, find them in person. Set up booths at markets and festivals. Approach local stores and offer them a small percentage of the sales if you can place your products on their shelves.
A marketing plan will separate you from the thousands of other people who try to start a t-shirt business this year. A great marketing plan and a decent design will generate more sales than an outstanding design without a marketing plan.
Go Start Your T-Shirt Business
You’re ready to go start your t-shirt business! To recap, you need to:
- Identify a passionate niche audience
- Create (or outsource) designs that appeal to this audience
- Choose your print-on-demand supplier or screen printer
- Create a marketing plan
- Start selling!
Best of luck on your new endeavor!