One of the most popular items for promotional materials or memorabilia is apparel. From custom t-shirts to hoodies to polo shirts and personalized jerseys everyone from large companies to small, from movie and television fan groups to nonprofits and other organizations produce t-shirts and other apparel with logos, slogans, sayings, and more.
T-shirts are not only a staple in everyone’s wardrobe, but they reflect our personalities and interests. There has been a huge growth in t-shirt selling businesses due to their widespread popularity and market size. In fact, according to Grand View Research, the global custom t-shirt printing market size was valued at USD 3.64 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.7% from 2021 to 2028. The fashion industry is experiencing a massive shift toward wearing custom clothing, making it a smart choice for entrepreneurs.
It’s a good industry to dive into, and you can make it profitable nearly from day one if you take the right steps when you’re getting started. Here are the most important steps you need to take to start a successful t-shirt business and more importantly some tips and tricks to accomplish each one.
This is probably the most important step of all the ones we will cover. One of the first things you need to do is determine what kind of shirts you will print and who your customers will be. There are a lot of t-shirt shops out there, due to how popular they are. To make a profit, you will need to stand out from your competition.
You can choose to create apparel for companies, fan groups, or even sports teams, with some requirements we will talk about in a moment. Or you can choose to have a humorous store, or a store for kids, or even a dad humor store or one designed for moms. There are stores for specific holidays or a group of them. Whatever you decide, it is important to note that a focused shop rather than a general one helps you with everything from brand identity to marketing.
It’s also important to choose something you enjoy. A t-shirt business is going to be a lot of work, at least when you are setting it up, and you might as well have fun doing it. It is also easier to market something you are passionate about, so be sure to take that into account.
If you are going to make t-shirts aimed at fans of a certain show, franchise, or even brand, you need to make sure you have the rights to sell apparel with their name and any images that are subject to copyright before you begin. Certain franchises are more protective than others, like Marvel, Star Trek, and Star Wars (owned by Paramount and Disney respectively) and others. The more popular a franchise, the more likely many elements of your design may be subject to copyright.
Some of these rights can be purchased for a one-time fee for commercial use, but this can often come at a steep cost. You can sometimes work out a royalty share deal with the copyright holder, but this means those numbers come right out of your profits (the reason concert t-shirts cost so much).
To start out, you may want to choose a niche where these costs are low or non-existent, and be especially careful with what art you include in your designs. Copyright violations and the fines associated with them will quickly bankrupt almost any t-shirt business, so be aware of these issues before you design your first t-shirt. This is one case where asking permission first is definitely better than trying to beg forgiveness later.
Where you get your materials is more important than ever, as is the material you use in your apparel. Consumers are especially sensitive in this area, and it is often preferable to pay more to source “green” materials sourced in developed countries.
Recent controversies around sourcing cotton and other material from certain regions of China have highlighted this. Decide not only what materials you will use, but where you will get them. A good way to get the word out about what you are doing (and a jumpstart to marketing) is to survey your potential customers to determine their preferences.
Taking the time to do this step will help you when you make your next decision, and that is to find a reputable print partner.
When choosing a print partner for your t-shirt business, there are some things you should definitely look for, and we have already talked about one of them:
Note that although the wholesale cost of goods (what you pay) will play a big role in your retail costs, and is an important factor, it is last in this list. If you find a “cheap” provider who has quality and reliability issues, your customers will not want to hear about it. You are the one who will answer the customer service calls, so you must be the one to ensure quality on the front end.
Don’t fall into the trap that you can “always switch printers if this one doesn’t work out.” If costs go up significantly, it is challenging to pass those on to your customers once you have already set a precedent with the prices you charged up to this point. Changing printers can also create other headaches when it comes to mocking up and validating your designs, which can cost you valuable time where popular items are out of stock.
In short, find a solid, reliable printer from the time you open your shop and keep doing business with them. It will save you hours and potentially thousands of dollars, and your customers will be happier in the long run too.
Once you have a niche and have made decisions about your materials and your printer, it is time to mock up your designs. By now, potential copyright issues have been handled, and you are ready to start printing your designs. Or are you?
First you need to mock up your designs, and study them carefully, including the placement of any logos and text. Make sure all of the text is legible even from a distance, and that fonts do not result in unintended visuals. Show your design to someone in junior high--if they giggle, look for the possibly offensive error in your design.
The good news is that many printers will have templates you can use to get yourself started. They are a good way to ensure that your design will actually work on a t-shirt or other piece of apparel. Even if you change many things about the template, keep placement and other design elements in mind.
In addition, ensure that your art is created at a high enough resolution. Your print provider will often have guidelines for you. Sometimes art that is too dense or high of resolution will not upload and print well, and it creates unnecessary work on your part. But art that is not high enough resolution will be pixelated and blurry, and this will result in a low-quality print on your apparel.
Often your print partner can warn you about these issues before you even print a proof of any sort, but you will save yourself time if all of the art you present them with meets requirements before you upload it.
You should order at least one proof of every design you upload. When you get it, inspect the art, the design, and the placement on the apparel to make sure everything looks the way you want it before you start shipping items to customers. This is a very important step. Your print partner will do their best to get it right before items are printed, but you will be the final judge and may notice things they do not.
Remember, quality control is of utmost importance to preserve your reputation. You have already selected great materials from a reputable supplier and partnered with a reliable print provider. Don’t skip this vital final approval step. A single poor design can kill the profits in your store.
Even if you have a physical store, online sales will likely be a huge part of your business. It is of vital importance that you set up your online store properly. There are some key considerations to keep in mind.
The very first one is to pick the name of your site. It should be related to your speciality, be easy to remember and easy for someone to type into their favorite browser. You can find out if names are available by going to a site like GoDaddy.com and conducting a search. If you do find something, you may want to purchase it fairly quickly. If your name is potentially popular, someone could snatch it up and ask a premium for it.
Also, consider buying extra extensions in addition to .com, like .net, .org, .store, and others. This helps protect your name, and it gives you other options for marketing purposes.
Once you have your name, when you are choosing a platform to build your store on and a way to host your site, keep these things in mind:
This is far from a complete list. If you are not a web designer, it is definitely worth your while to employ one to help you with your initial setup. Getting this wrong can send your customers running for your competition, and that is not something you want at all.
There are several ways to set up hosting and several platforms you can build a store on. Usually wherever you purchase your domain name from can host your site, and without going into too much detail, there are three general types of hosting:
From there, you can build your site using Shopify, quite common for ecommerce websites, or you can choose WooCommerce, which some will argue is more powerful, but also more complex to set up. There are also other options for web and ecommerce builders that are less common, but no less viable.
Part of choosing this is choosing what is familiar to you. What do you like to use, and what do you know how to use? Also, the cost of having a pro set this up can vary a lot from platform to platform, so keep that in mind as well.
Once you have designed and set up your site, you are done, right? Well, not really. You have the key ingredients for a t-shirt business. But for it to be successful you will need one final element.
The number one challenge for any small business is discoverability. As we said, there are a lot of t-shirt shops online. To stand out, you will have to put some work in. To get noticed, you will need three types of digital marketing. You should start with at least one of them, probably two, and then expand your marketing efforts as you have more working capital to do so.
While we won’t cover those in detail here, the three categories are:
As a part of all of these efforts, you should also be building an email list and working to keep the customers you already have while you work to gain more. This customer retention will increase the LIfetime Value (LV) of your customers and help you remain profitable for years to come.
Starting a t-shirt business can be a great move for you, whether it is your primary business or an add on to what you already do. Getting off to a good start is vital to your overall success. Use this guide to take your idea and make it into a profitable and thriving business. And if you need some help figuring out the pricing, take a peek at our breakdown of custom t-shirt pricing!