The t-shirt is a staple in casual wear and has been universally accepted by both men and women the last few decades. Not only are they a classic piece of casual wear, but t-shirts are a blank canvas for artists and entrepreneurs alike. Because of this, selling t-shirts online has become a popular business choice. For many entrepreneurs, starting an online t-shirt brand is a great and inexpensive way to start an online business, whether it’s your first, second, or tenth business.
With the growth in popularity of t-shirts businesses, there's no doubt you'll be facing some stiff competition. To break through, you'll need to have t-shirt designs people love, a brand people cherish and quality people trust. In this guide we will go through the creation process for starting your own t-shirt line and online store. We will look at each of the steps involved and the keys to success to help you get started as a t-shirt entrepreneur.
How to Start an Online T-Shirt Business
Let’s dive in.
Setting Up An Online T-Shirt Store Is Easy...
Here’s the good news. Building and launching a new t-shirt brand is relatively inexpensive and quick. If you already have ideas for the types of designs you want to sell, you can be up and running in as little as a few hours. With the abundance of apps and integrations in the Shopify App store, you can also connect your store to a t-shirt printer/dropshipper in minutes and have a fully functioning store, ready to print and ship to your customers.
But It’s Also Really Hard Work
Although the tools and technology available nowadays for designing, printing and shipping your own t-shirts makes getting going extremely simple, the difficult part is building a brand to stand out from the competition. Combine competition with slim margins and building an online t-shirt company becomes a little harder than it might first appear.
To be successful with your new t-shirt brand, you have to make the right decisions from the get-go.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business
There are several critical elements to starting a successful t-shirt business. Each of these elements need to be considered closely before moving forward:
- Niche: Being more specific will help you stand out as well as better attract and market to the right audience without blowing your budget.
- Design: The majority of people that are purchasing graphic tees are looking for design, graphics and slogans that connect with them and reflect their opinions and personality.
- Quality: The quality of the shirts you use and the prints needs to be top notch.
- Brand: A strong, interesting brand is vital in the t-shirt industry.
Let's take a deeper look at the keys to success.
You hear this term get tossed around a lot, but nowhere is it more important to choose a niche than in the graphic t-shirt industry. One of the most important factors in building a successful t-shirt business is the ability to stand out from the many competitors and one of the best ways to do that is by choosing and catering to a specific niche.
In general, categories like t-shirts with funny slogans are going to be too broad to attack in a very developed market. You’re going to want to tighten it up a little more. An example of a more specific niche would be t-shirts with funny slogans that relate to doctors and nurses.
The last thing a visitor would want is to see in your catalogue is a copy of t-shirt design found elsewhere. Your designs don’t necessarily need to be complex, in fact many of the best selling graphic tees are very simple, however, they do need to connect with your audience and stand out.
Recommended Course on T-Shirt Design: Hey, Cool Shirt: Designing Effective T-shirt Graphics by Chris Delorenzo, Lead Designer for Johnny Cupcakes.
The next most important factor in the success and sustainability of an online t-shirt business is quality. You can fool someone once, but you can’t fool them twice. A pattern that fades and cracks or a t-shirt that shrinks and rips won’t create raving fans that come back and repurchase.
4. Brand: A strong, interesting brand is vital in the t-shirt industry.
Your brand is a promise that will tie together all your choices including your niche, designs and quality. Building a unique and likeable brand is important for businesses in a high competition industry. When customers have more choices, it becomes extremely important for an ecommerce business to have a distinctive presence to capture customers' attention.
Recommended Course on Clothing and Apparel Branding: A Staple of Branding: How to Start Your Fashion Company by Jeff Staple, Founder, Staple Design.
Not all t-shirts are the same and not all print jobs are the same. As we mentioned above, quality is paramount to your brand and its success, so it’s important to educate yourself and choose your blank shirts wisely.
It will always be tempting to sacrifice on quality for higher profit margins but you need to consider how the quality will affect customer’s decisions to share your brand and repurchase in the long run.
Quality t-shirts encompass several factors, including fit, sizing, material, softness, and weight. A great start point for determining which blank t-shirt to use is to check out T-Shirt Magazine Online’s review of some of the most popular blank t-shirts for printing.
Once you narrow down your choices, it’s strongly encouraged to order each of the t-shirts yourself to make an informed final decision.
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T-Shirt Printing Quality
In this day in age, there are three popular methods for printing onto t-shirts. Each method has its pros and cons, and will partially depend on how much time you want to invest into the product creation, as well as the printing partner you choose.
Below, we have outlined all three print methods to give you a better understanding of each process.
Screen printing is an old technique that has stood the test of time. As one of the most popular methods for printing onto t-shirts, screen printing can produce durable and long lasting result. However, a labor intensive initial setup means screen printing is most cost effective when printing in bulk. Screen printing also poses issues when it comes to complex designs or designs with more than four to five colors as each color increases costs and production time.
- Cost effective for large batches.
- Volume discounts.
- Not cost effective for multiple colors.
- Can only print simple images and designs.
Heat transfers have also been around for a long time and exist in several form. You may have seen basic heat transfer paper at your local office supply store. Although these make it easy to print your designs from your home computer and transfer them with an iron, these won’t cut it when it comes to running a business. The more advanced form of heat transfers are called plastisol transfers and are printed by professional printers on special, high quality heat transfer paper. The advantage of this is being able to order a stack of prints from your local printer and transfer them to your t-shirts as you receive orders with a commercial heat press machine.
Heat transfers can produce full-colour images onto t-shirts relatively easily and quickly.
- You can “print” each shirt on demand.
- Lower quality and less durable than direct-to-garment and screen printing.
- Large upfront investment into a heat press machine (Few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars).
- Do-it-yourself approach means additional time input from yourself.
The direct-to-garment printing process operates much like a ink-jet printer you would have at home. DTG prints ink directly onto the t-shirt and can produce full color images with accuracy.
Direct-to-garment printing produces quality printing on par with screen printing and better than heat transfers. Because it operates just like an ink-jet printer, there are no setup costs, unlike screen printing. This means that it's easy and cost effective to print small orders.
The major disadvantage of direct-to-garment printing is the lack of volume discount for large orders, as it takes the same amount of time to print each shirt.
- Unlimited color options.
- High detail accuracy in printed design.
- Great for small orders or one-offs.
- No set-up costs.
- Not cost effective for large production runs.
- Generally no volume discounts.
Creating Your Designs
Find The Best Selling Designs And Niches
If you’re stuck for t-shirt niche ideas and designs, a great start is to look at what else is popular and currently selling well.
Below is a list of several popular and bestseller pages for some of the top graphic t-shirt marketplaces that just might help you get a better idea of your next niche or t-shirt design.
- Zazzle Bestsellers & Zazzle Popular
- Redbubble Popular
- Skreened Trending Shirts
- Snorg Bestsellers
- Kickstarter T-Shirt Campaigns
Hire A Designer
Once you have an idea for some t-shirt designs. You’re going to have to get your ideas actually designed. If you have Adobe Photoshop or similar programs you can likely produce some simple designs by yourself. However, if you’re like most people, you will likely need to enlist some help.
There are a wide variety of tools and market places you can use to find a suitable graphic designer to help you with your designs.
Dribbble - Dribbble is a great designer community with lots of unique talent. Search for the style you’re looking for and message the designers you like to see if they're available for freelance projects.
Behance - Behance is another great designer community to check out for your next t-shirt designer.
If you’re stuck for a designer, there are also options to purchase pre-made designs. You’ll want to keep in mind that if you choose to go this route, there’s high likelihood that other people are already selling the design, making it harder for you and your brand to stand out.
Check out t-shirt graphic marketplaces like:
You may also want to check out general graphic design marketplaces but keep in mind if you plan to sell your t-shirts, you’ll need to purchase a commercial license.
Mocking Up Your Designs
Once you have some final designs, your next step will be to get some mockup images of them on actual t-shirts. Your customers are going to want to actually see what the final design will look like printed on a shirt.
There are a few ways you can get images of your final designs on t-shirts including ordering samples and taking product photography yourself, or with the abundance of t-shirt templates online, you can opt to create a 100% digital mockup like the one below.
Adobe Photoshop (Free Trial) t-shirt templates are the most common types of mockup files. They allow you to quickly preview how your designs will look printed on a t-shirt. Most Photoshop templates comes with multiple layers that allow you to change the colour of the shirt and apply your own design that will blend with the creases, folds and contours of the shirt.
Below, we have compiled several resources to help you find the best possible mockup file for your next project:
- GraphicRiver T-Shirt Mockups
- Design Inspiration Magazine - 40 T-Shirt Mockups
- Design Bolts - 50 T-Shirt Mockups
If Adobe Photoshop isn't right for you, you can also use web-based mockup software that will allow you to do the same thing without having to download and figure out Photoshop.
Validating Your Designs
Before you spend a lot of money on your new business idea, you should first verify that there is a market and interest for your designs. There are many ways you can go about validating the market for your design ideas.
Some of the popular and more common methods for validating your ideas include:
Personal Social Networks - Post some of your designs to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks your friends and potential customers are a part of. Be careful asking friends however, their opinions will usually be tainted with an over-positive tint.
Reddit - Reddit is huge and we have discussed it thoroughly in past posts. With the massive number of subreddits it’s possible to easily find a highly targeted niche of potential customers and ask them first hand their thoughts on your designs before launching.
Example: Bitcoin T-Shirt Validation
Kickstarter - Kickstarter and other crowd-funding websites have made it much easier to test, validate, and collect money upfront for your new business idea. Launching a crowdfunding campaign can be time consuming and requires a good deal of preparation, however, the benefits can be huge, which include fully funding your project before you have spent a dime.
Open Test Store - Finally, with ecommerce platforms like Shopify, it’s never been easier to set up a fully functional online store in the matter of few hours to validate your business idea. Sign up for a free 14-day trial and check out some of the free themes to get started.
Setting Up Shop
Now that you have your t-shirt designs, made your mockups and validated your idea, it’s time to build your store. As mentioned in the validation section, getting set up on Shopify is quick and easy.
There are a handful of t-shirt print-on-demand dropshippers that directly integrate with your Shopify store, allowing you to get up and running in no time. These printer/dropshippers will print and ship your t-shirts to your customers on your behalf every time you receive an order, automatically.
Check out the following Shopify printer/dropshipper apps:
It's never been easier to express your creativity and start your own online t-shirt business. Start a free trial and watch the following course to help you get your shop setup.
Bonus: For marketing tactics to market your new tshirt business, check out the “How to Sell Online” section of the Shopify blog.
About The Author
Richard Lazazzera is an ecommerce entrepreneur and Content Strategist at Shopify. Get more from Richard on Twitter.