Who doesn’t love a t-shirt? They’re comfortable, fun, and accepted by almost everyone, women and men alike. Today the ever-popular t-shirt is a casual wear staple in most closets. Because of the endless artistic options of their blank canvas, the online t-shirt business popularity grows each year.
Entrepreneurs entering the online business world find t-shirts a solid business with little start up costs. Many aggressive entrepreneurs make the t-shirt business a second or third in their list of online companies or another branch of an existing business.
Starting an Online T-Shirt Business
Starting a t-shirt business has a lot of pros, but it comes with some cons too. The startup is quick and inexpensive if you have your design ideas ready to go.
Follow our guide to starting your own t-shirt business for getting your business up and running from design concept to funding:
- Choosing a broad niche then narrowing it down for competing in a saturated market.
- Developing your brand and choosing the right domain name. (We choose: GoDaddy)
- Selecting a webhost to fit your business needs. (We choose: Bluehost)
- Opening your store with the perfect ecommerce platform. (We choose: Shopify)
- Finding funding for your new t-shirt business. (We choose: Kabbage)
Even with the advanced printing technology and tools, building a brand that gets noticed is hard. Add to the competition, the narrow profit margins, and it’s harder than you might think.
When you make good decisions from the beginning, a t-shirt printing business has huge potential. For success, follow these four tips to help you along the way:
- Brand yourself: Brand yourself with a distinctive and unique personality that stands out above the competition.
- Choosing the right niche: Narrow your field to a sub-topic that stands out and attracts a specific audience.
- Over the top designs people want: Buyers want t-shirts with amazing slogans and graphics reflecting their personality, opinions, and interests.
- Quality in the shirt and the design: Quality in both the shirt and design keeps your customers coming back to your storefront.
For a successful t-shirt business, there’s a systematic process of building your online storefront. In this article, we dissect and explain each step to follow for starting your online t-shirt business.
Getting Started with Your T-Shirt Business Online
Getting started with an online t-shirt business is quick and inexpensive. With a crowded market, funny slogans don’t get your t-shirts noticed. Your band and designs must stand out starting out with a specialized niche. Here are four steps for starting a successful and profitable t-shirt business:
1. The Niche
Finding the right niche is the first step in setting up your online t-shirt business. You need effective brainstorming to decide what design to sell in an over-saturated market. We recommend starting with broad topics like the following:
- Popular interests and hobbies: pets, music or musicians, sports, crafts
- Places and cities: national parks, landmarks, city names, buildings
- Clubs and organizations: religious, schools, colleges, politics
- Professions and jobs: farmers, personal trainers, nurses, fireman, policeman
Once you have your list of broad topics, target a specific niche audience or aspect of your broad topic.
Examples of sub-niches:
- German Shepherds instead of pets
- CrossFit trainers instead of trainers
- Pianist instead of musician
- Cardiac nurse and doctor instead of nurses and doctors
- Mountain biking instead of sports
You can narrow choices even more with a specific sub-niche. If you plan to design around a cardiac nurse or doctor why not choose funny designs and slogans for these cardiac specialists?
The directions you can go with sub-niches are almost limitless.
2. The Brand
The most important step to starting a t-shirt business is your branding. This foundation part represents your company and how customers perceive your company.
You need a distinctive and unique brand which combines your niche and personality. Give your brand a strong name and a tagline describing your brand in one sentence. You only have a few seconds to capture a customer’s attention, and your name and tagline tell your story in a few words.
The brand not only caters to your customer, but it represents you and your product. A brand is something you believe in and communicates your personal philosophy.
Having a likable brand helps you stand out in this very competitive industry. It takes a person seeing, reading, or hearing your brand 12 times, before making an impression on them. You must use many strategies for making your brand visible to potential buyers. With so many t-shirt choices available, you must capture and hold the buyer’s attention.
3. The Design
There are three elements to consider when developing your t-shirt designs:
- Connecting with your target audience
- Standing out from other designs
The first road to failure is a store filled with designs found in other t-shirt stores. You don’t need a complex design, but you need one that’s different from all others. Simple designs sell well if they speak to your target audience.
One critical design decision is whether your t-shirt design is slogan-based or an actual artistic graphic. You’ll need slogans and graphics reflecting your target audience’s personality. Some designers have contests for their audience to get an idea of what they want to buy.
If you need niche and design ideas, start with looking for what designs are popular and sell well. For getting ideas of top selling designs, visit these bestsellers and popular pages.
- Zazzle Popular
- Zazzle Bestsellers
- KickStarter T-Shirt Campaigns
- Snorg Bestsellers
- Screened Trending Shirts
If you’re skilled with photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop, you can produce your design. But, if you don’t have the artistic skill, hire a designer. There are many places for finding a designer.
When you can’t find a designer, you can buy a ready-made design. The downside is others are selling the same designs, making standing out in the t-shirt market difficult.
Two marketplaces for t-shirt graphic designs:
You can also use a general marketplace for finding your design. But, with these sites, you must buy the commercial license if you use it on t-shirts you sell.
After you have the final design, you need mockup images, showing how the design looks on a t-shirt. You have several ways for getting mockup images including buying t-shirt samples and taking the pictures yourself.
If you don’t want to do a sample shirt, you can do a digital mockup with the different online t-shirt templates, like Shopify’s Mockup Generator.
The most popular mockup files come from Adobe Photoshop t-shirt templates. Mockup templates let you review and adjust a digital image of your design on a t-shirt. Photoshop templates have multi-layer ability, letting you check your design against different shirt colors. Check out the following mockup file resources:
If you’re not comfortable with Adobe Photoshop, you can use a web-based mockup software. Mockup software works like Photoshop, but you need not download the program. Try these online mockup generators for free:
If making a mockup is not to your liking, hire a graphic artist from Fiverr. All jobs start at $5.
Before taking your ideas any further, verify there is a market and interest for your design. You have several choices for validating market interest. Here are four validation options:
- Social Networks – Start by posting your designs on different social networks like Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter. Post anywhere you socialize with friends, family, and possible customers. Use careful consideration when receiving feedback from family and friends since their opinions may have an overly-positive
- KickStarter – Crowdfunding platforms make it easy to validate, test, and collect funding money for your business idea. Starting a funding campaign takes work, but when launched, the benefit potential is amazing. This method of market testing helps you get full funding for your project before ever putting out startup money.
- Reddit – This site is huge, with thousands of subreddit categories making it easy to find a target niche. By joining subreddits in your target niche, you can ask the potential customer what they think of your designs before you launch.
- Open a Test Store – E-commerce platforms make setting up an online store to validate your t-shirt designs, quick and easy. Companies like Shopify helps you have an online store ready to test in 2 to 6 hours.
4. The Quality
Quality is the most important step for maintaining your business success. You need branding and design to build your business, and product quality to sustain it. A customer might buy a shirt once, but if you have an inferior quality product, they won’t return. In fact, people love talking about a bad experience and putting out poor quality, means word-of-mouth hurts you.
T-shirt and printing quality varies, and a shirt that shrinks or a design that cracks and fades means losing business. Educating yourself on choosing t-shirt brands is as important as developing your business brand. It’s tempting to pick a lower priced shirt for higher end profits, but the results of choosing the cheaper shirt may backfire. Having poor shirt or design quality means no repeat business and no new business earned from referrals to friends and relatives.
There are several key points for having a quality blank t-shirt, including true-to-size fit, and good material weight and softness. To wade through the hundreds of blank shirts available, visit T-Shirt Magazine’s Picking the Perfect T-Shirt Blank. Their online review covers the top t-shirts available for printing.
When you decide on two or three shirts, order one of each for testing before placing a large order. The more information you have, the better your chances of making a good choice.
As important as the shirt quality is the printing quality. When shirts crack and fade after the first wash, you lose the relationship with your customers for good. You have one chance to get it right, so consider your printing options carefully.
There are three methods for t-shirt printing, but each method comes with a set of pros and cons. Your decision comes down to your printing partner choice and how much time you plan on investing in the printing.
Below we give you a complete outline of the three different printing methods for helping you understand the different print design processes.
Choosing Your Printing Method
Choosing a printing method takes careful consideration and depends on the designs you use. Look at each printing method then pick the one best suited for what you plan to do.
One of the most popular forms of printing onto t-shirts, screen printing first appeared in China during the Song Dynasty, 960-1279 AD. Part of its popularity comes from the long-lasting results when using this method of printing on t-shirts.
The screen print process, formally known as silk printing, involves tightly stretching thin mesh over a frame. A negative of the shirt design gets printed on the screen then the screen gets placed against the t-shirt. The non-print areas of the design get blocked off, and the design area of the fabric acts as a stencil.
Once lined up and set correctly, ink gets rolled over the screen, either by hand or machine. Only the printed area of the design lets the ink transfer to the fabric. The ink gets wiped across the screen and passes through the unblocked design pores. The shirt is set aside until the design dries.
While screen printing produces the best results, the setup takes time. Each color requires a separate screen, and the more colors used increases production time and costs. Screen printing is most cost-effective using a simple design of five colors or less. If you have a one or two color design and a bulk order of shirts, screen printing makes a great choice.
The Good Points
- Better pricing for simple single color designs.
- Volume discounts for larger order amounts.
The Bad Points
- Can only print simple designs or images.
- Using multiple colors increases the cost.
Like screen printing, heat transfers have a long history in the t-shirt design world. Often confused with iron-on transfers, this professional printing process has big differences over the at-home iron-on transfer.
Heat transfer is a professional long lasting and simple t-shirt design process. When using high-quality printers, the design gets printed on professional grade heat transfer paper. This high-grade paper is one of the differences between iron-on, which uses low-grade home use paper, and heat transfer. Professional grade paper for heat transfer also called plastisol transfer, needs a specialized high-temperature heat press to transfer a design to the t-shirt.
Heat presses used for transferring the design work like a giant iron. The press uses hundreds of pounds of pressure and evenly distributes temperature to transfer the design to the shirt. The heavy pressure and heat melt the transfer paper into the cloth fiber, making it a part of the shirt without hurting the top image. Heat transfer designs last longer than iron-on transfers, sometimes lasting for the life of the t-shirt.
One of the biggest advantages of a heat transfer system is the made-to-order capabilities. You can keep an inventory of design prints and t-shirts then transfer on the designs as you get orders. Heat transfer produces single color and full-color images quickly and easily.
The Good Points
- Quick and easy process.
- Prints full-color designs.
- On-demand printing for one shirt at a time.
The Bad Points
- Lower quality printing.
- Not as durable as direct-to-garment or screen printing.
- The do-it-yourself printing method adds more time to the production of your t-shirts.
Direct-to-Garment or DTG Printing
DTG is as it name implies, you print the design directly onto the garment with a specialized printer. Direct-to-garment uses modified inkjet printing technology and takes a DTG printer with specialty textile inks. The printer uses a transport system and applies the design directly to the fabric where the fibers absorb the ink. The textile printers come from the desktop inkjet printer family and use parts from preexisting inkjet printers.
Direct-to-garment printers produce quality design printing like the screen printing process, and give better results than heat transfer printing. The inkjet style printer doesn’t have set up costs like screen printing does, making them cost effective for smaller orders. DIG offers instant turnaround times, unlike other garment printing methods.
Direct digital printing is preferable to screen printing because it eliminates the messy cleanup and doesn’t have color and quantity limitations.
The biggest disadvantage to ordering direct-to-garment t-shirts is no bulk ordering discount. Printing twenty t-shirts take as much time as printing one t-shirt. DTG also has higher maintenance and ink costs. The continued ink technology developments are improving ink performance and slowly lowering ink cost.
People prefer the DTG because the design graphic feels softer on the garment than other methods. When cured correctly, the design ink adheres to the fabric permanently, lasting for the life of the t-shirt.
The Good Points
- No cost for setup.
- DTG works well for smaller orders or one-at-a-time printing.
- Printed design has high accuracy detail.
- Unlimited color choices.
- The design is softer than with other printing methods.
- Long lasting design life.
- Instant turnaround printing time.
The Bad Points
- No bulk order discounts.
- The cost for large production amounts is the same as a single order.
- Incurrs high costs for maintenance and ink.
Setting Up Your Website
Now comes the easy part, setting up your online t-shirt store. It’s a quick and inexpensive process of turning your t-shirt idea into a working e-commerce store. If you already have the design mockups and have chosen a printing method, opening a store, depending on your skill level, can take 2 to 6 hours.
Choose Your Domain
If you haven’t done it yet, you need a domain name. The domain is your brand, so you want it as or in your domain name. Our domain provider of choice is GoDaddy. Prices start at $11.99 with a sign-up that is quick and easy.
GoDaddy has an easy to use domain selection process letting you easily search for a domain name. If you aren’t sure about the name, type in a keyword phrase and GoDaddy’s search engine delivers domain name suggestions.
Don’t make choosing a domain name complicated. Follow these 5 tips for finding the perfect domain:
- Keep the domain name short.
- Don’t use hyphens or other punctuation.
- Use an easy to spell domain name.
- Don’t use complicated wording. You want it memorable and easy for people to share.
- If all other rules apply, use your brand as your domain name.
If your domain choice isn’t available, GoDaddy offers suggestions for similar domain names.
Sign Up for Hosting
Once you have your domain, head over to BlueHost for your site hosting provider.
BlueHost has a variety of hosting packages to choose from, starting at $2.95 per month for the first year.
A gaudy and ugly site loses business. You need a site that is professional looking, easy to navigate and clearly states your company’s branding. Cheaper doesn’t equate ugly when it comes to building a website.
You can hire a professional to build your online store, but you can have a great website for a small investment if you do it yourself. It’s easier than you might think, and BlueHost offers several building platforms including 1-click WordPress installation. There are thousands of free and premium site templates for a professional look.
Whether you use BlueHost or another webhosting company, consider these host features when making your decision:
- Data storage and website space
- The number of websites links they allow
- Scalability capacity
- Security and backup options provided
- Product support
- Marketing options available
We consider BlueHost a great choice because of their feature rich services and their experience. With over 2 million hosted websites, they are the perfect choice for both new and seasoned entrepreneurs.
Choosing an E-Commerce Storefront
Once your site is set up, you need an e-commerce platform. Shopify is our favorite platform for e-commerce shopping sites. Setup is easy with a large selection of both free and premium plugins and themes.
Shopify’s large app and integration selection make connecting to your storefront a breeze. You can control the look and feel while maintaining your brand integrity.
You have several packages to choose from, and we recommend starting with the Basic Shopify at $29 per month. Once your business increases, you have two other plan upgrade options: the Shopify plan at $79 per month and the Advanced Shopify for $299 per month. Sign up for a Shopify free 14-day trial and check out the free storefront themes.
Once connected to Shopify, your store you have a functioning store, ready for printing and shipping shirts to customers. Some t-shirt drop shippers and print-on-demand companies integrate with Shopify stores. These companies print and ship your products directly to the customers using your company information. Shipping is automatic each time someone places an order. With a Shopify account, it only takes minutes to connect your storefront to t-shirt drop shippers or printers.
Here are five printer and drop shipping apps from Shopify:
It doesn’t take a flashy site loaded with complicated scripting that tries to impress your customers. You need your products highlighted in a way that keeps them in line with your branding. The website should flow smoothly while representing what you and your company are.
Finding Startup Funds
Once your store is up and running, finding funding comes next. You need working capital for startup expenses and expansion money. It’s time for a complete financial data analysis to see what you need for starting and growing your business. But, what you need and what you qualify for when it comes to getting a loan is not necessarily the same.
If you’re new to the business world, getting a loan is stressful and many times, you must depend on credit cards and friends and family. If you can’t get traditional funding, you have other options.
Kabbage, an alternative lending company, offers single line of credit loans to businesses that don’t qualify for standard small business loans.
Once you qualify for a set amount, like $10,000, you only get charged interest on the loan portion you use. The amount available for use increases with each payment you make just like a credit card.
Kabbage caters to small businesses by providing straightforward payments and no hidden costs.
The best successful marketing comes from word-of-mouth advertising. It’s not only free, but it has a huge customer reach potential. When someone likes your product, they recommend you to friends and family.
Besides referrals, there are several other ways to market your new business.
Start by working with t-shirt blogs. These sites have thousands of followers. T-shirt blogs give your shirt designs exposure to a large subscriber base when they list your brand. Some of the better-known t-shirt blogs are:
Market your t-shirt line through social media by targeting those users relating to your t-shirt themes. Post your animal designs to the Facebook walls of dog and cat lovers and tweet product images of your new designs as they become available.
Set up a Facebook page for your business, separate from your personal Facebook account and link it to your website.
Facebook also makes a great place for polling. Post potential designs on your page and let your followers vote on the designs they like best. The designs with the most votes go on your next shirts.
Pinterest and Instagram are great places to show off pictures of your designs and announce new designs.
Giveaways and Contests
Everyone loves giveaways and contests and are a great way to reach new customers while keeping current customers engaged. The customer’s interest peaks for your brand as the value you offer increases.
Facebook, for example, works well for giveaways. Have a contest for giving away your product after you receive a certain number of new likes. This contest brings people to your page and gets them engaged with your brand.
Build a Blog
Start a blog as part of your website. A blog not only builds your brand, but it drives traffic and helps you build an email list for marketing. Write unique and creative content for your target customers. When readers find value in posts that are useful, helpful, and entertaining, your visitor traffic and sales grow.
Good blog content helps promote you and your brand identity and lends legitimacy to your business. Throw in SEO with your content, and it helps you with search engine ranking.
People buy from people, so letting your personality show in your marketing helps others see your passion for your product.
Start an Online T-Shirt Business: Our Final Review
We’ve shown you the steps for getting started with an online t-shirt business. The quickest and easiest way to start is using an on-demand and fulfillment t-shirt printing services. No expensive equipment or special skills needed with this business. As business picks up, you might consider setting up your own printing equipment.
Once you complete your designs, there’s a minimal time commitment if using an on-demand printer service. The small amount of work and investment involved makes an online t-shirt company a great part-time business. You can keep your full-time job while you build your business, and you won’t go into debt doing it.
Don’t get discouraged if your business starts out slow. It takes time and patience to build the most important aspect of the online business, which is your brand. The t-shirt industry is very competitive, making properly branding yourself the most important aspect of starting this business. If you have a memorable brand that shows your passion for your designs and you have the right niche, you’re on the road to success.