How to Start an Online T-Shirt Business: Everything You Need to Know

3 months ago 92

T-shirts aren’t just a staple of casual wear—they’re articles of clothing that often reflect our personalities, interests, and identities.

Because of this, selling t-shirts online has become a popular choice, especially for entrepreneurs and artists looking for a relatively inexpensive way to start a business. Plus, the global market for the custom t-shirt printing industry is expected to eclipse $10 billion by 2025.

With the growth in popularity of selling t-shirts, there’s no doubt you’ll face some stiff competition. But by building a brand for a specific target audience and creating t-shirt designs your customers want, you can find your own success.

In this guide, we’ll go through each step of starting an online t-shirt business that brings in extra income month over month.

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How to start an online t-shirt business, step-by-step

Choose a niche Source quality material and t-shirt printing options Create your own t-shirt designs Mock up your t-shirts Validate your designs Set up your online store

1. Choose a niche

A niche will help your online t-shirt business stand out and better attract the right target audience without blowing your budget.

You hear the term “niche” tossed around a lot, but it’s important to choose one when looking for t-shirt business opportunities. One of the most important parts of building a successful t-shirt business is the ability to stand out, and one of the best ways to do that is by catering to a specific target audience or interest group.

Generally, categories like “t-shirts for people who like funny slogans” are going to be too broad to get noticed 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, or to dog owners, as pictured below.

t-shirt niche example Photo courtesy of: ThinkPup

There are many ways to find and evaluate a niche, but here are a few:

Visit your prospective niche’s subreddits and evaluate the subscriber count and level of engagement. Use Facebook’s Audience Insights tool to gauge the size of your niche on the platform. Scan this list of popular hobbies on Wikipedia for inspiration. Consider your own interests and the communities you belong to—sometimes it’s OK to trust your gut.

Once you narrow down your niche, create a business plan for your t-shirt company that covers your goals and different opportunities to sell custom t-shirts, then figure out how you’ll execute that plan.

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2. Source quality material and t-shirt printing options

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 might be tempting to sacrifice quality for higher profit margins, but you need to consider how the quality will affect a customer’s decision to share your brand and purchase from you again.

Choosing a quality t-shirt encompasses several factors, including fit, sizing, material, softness, and weight. A great starting point for determining which blank t-shirt to use is to check out T-Shirt Magazine’s review of some of the most popular blank t-shirts for printing.

Once you narrow down your choices, it’s strongly recommended to order samples so you can make an informed final decision.

3. Create your own t-shirt designs

Here are a few ways you can get a head start on your t-shirt business designs.

Find the best selling designs and niches

If you’re stuck for t-shirt niche ideas and designs, a great start is looking at what else is popular and currently selling well.

Below is a list of pages for some of the top graphic t-shirt marketplaces. You can use them to search the “best sellers” and “most popular” sections to help you get a better idea of your next niche or t-shirt design. 

Zazzle Redbubble SnorgTees Kickstarter t-shirt campaigns

You may also want to consider checking out Google Trends to get a sense of the topics people are currently interested in.

Hire a designer

Once you have an idea for some t-shirt designs, you’re going to have to actually design them. If you have Adobe Photoshop or a similar program, you likely can produce some great designs by yourself. However, if you’re like most people, you’ll need to enlist some help.

There are a wide variety of tools and marketplaces you can use to find a suitable graphic designer to help you.

Design communities

DribbbleDribbble is a 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.

Dribbble screenshot of t-shirt search query

BehanceBehance is a cool platform to check out. You can see portfolios from different creators around the world who specialize in illustrations, niches, and styles and more. If you end up liking a designer, you can reach out to them and get a quote on your custom t-shirt designs.

T-shirt search query in Behance

Freelance networks 

Some other options you may want to try are the popular freelance networks like Freelancer and Upwork. You can find qualified t-shirt designers, fast, and check out their past job successes and portfolio. If you like someone, you can reach out in right in the platform and hire them on the spot. 

T-shirt designers for hire on Upwork

Buy t-shirt designs

If you’re stuck finding a designer, you can always purchase pre-made designs. Keep in mind that if you choose to go this route, there’s a high likelihood that other people are already selling whatever design you pick, making it harder for you and your brand to stand out.

Check out the following t-shirt graphic marketplaces:

Designious: which sells vector packs and PNG t-shirt designs, also clip art to create your own products.  Tshirt Factory: which offers a variety of vector images — from old school to punk rave and urban styles — for t-shirt printing businesses.  Creative Market: which doesn’t focus exclusively on t-shirts, but you can find over 3 million unique fonts, graphics, themes, photos, and templates designed by independent creators from around the world. Graphic River: where you can buy and sell royalty-free, Photoshop files, vectors, and icon packs for your t-shirt designs. 

Keep in mind, if you plan to sell t-shirts online, you may need to purchase a commercial license. 

4. Mock up your t-shirts

Once you have some final designs, your next step will be to get some mockup images made so your customers can 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, opting to create a 100% digital mockup, like the one below.

T-shirt mock up

Adobe Photoshop 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 come with multiple layers that let you change the color of the shirt and apply your own design that will blend with the shirt’s creases, folds, and contours.

Here are several resources to help you find the best mockup file for your next project:

GraphicRiver t-shirt mockups MockupWorld 19 awesome t-shirt templates

If Adobe Photoshop isn’t right for you, you can also use web-based mockup software that will let you do the same thing without having to download and figure out Photoshop.

Printful mockup generator Printify mockup generator Placeit

Another great option for tasks like this is to enlist help from someone on Fiverr. Just search for t-shirt mockups.

5. Validate your designs

Before you invest a lot of money on your new business idea, you should verify that there is a market for and interest in your designs. There are many ways you can go about validating the market and sell t-shirts online.

Some of the most popular and more common methods for validating your design ideas include:

Personal social networks. Post some of your designs to your Facebook profile, niche Facebook groups, Twitter, and other social networks your friends and potential customers frequent. Be careful when asking friends and family, however—their opinions are prone to kindness.

Reddit. Despite the community’s general aversion to marketing, Reddit is still one of the best places to get honest feedback on your designs (which can even translate into sales after you launch). With countless subreddits, it’s easy to find a highly targeted niche of potential customers and ask them directly for their thoughts on your designs before launching.

Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding sites 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, including fully funding your project before you launch it. If you have a particularly novel t-shirt business idea (say, matching t-shirts for dogs and dog owners), crowdfunding might be for you.

Print on demand. Finally, with ecommerce platforms like Shopify, it’s never been easier to set up a fully functional online store (domain name included) in a matter of hours to validate your business idea. Start a 14-day free trial and integrate a print-on-demand service to validate your t-shirts by trying to sell them online.

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6. Set up your online store

Now that you have your t-shirt designs in hand, have made your mockups, and validated your idea, it’s time to build your store. 

There are a handful of t-shirt print-on-demand services that directly integrate with your Shopify store, allowing you to start taking orders in no time. These services will print and ship your t-shirts to your customers on your behalf every time you receive an order. 

There’s no need to purchase or hold any inventory upfront, making it a great way to get started. Best of all, if you want to use your design on other printable products, such as mugs and tote bags, you have that option as well.

There are a variety of t-shirts available through the following print-on-demand companies:

Printful Teelaunch Printify Gooten

Once your store is set up, you’ll be ready to start selling t-shirts online. 

5 considerations for starting a t-shirt business

Although the tools and technology available for designing, printing, and shipping custom t-shirts makes starting up relatively simple, the difficult part is building a brand to stand out from the competition. Combine competition with slim profit margins and building an online t-shirt company becomes a little harder than it might first appear.

If you want to design and sell t-shirts online, you have to make the right decisions from the get-go.

There are several critical elements involved in starting a successful t-shirt business. Each of these elements needs to be considered closely before moving forward:

T-shirt printing techniques. There are many different ways to print designs on a t-shirt. Choosing the right one can help you save money and make smarter business decisions.  Design. The majority of people purchasing graphic tees are looking for designs, graphics, and slogans that connect with them and reflect their opinions and personality. Quality. The quality of the shirts you use and of the print job need to be top notch to build a sustainable business. Brand, A strong, interesting brand is vital in the t-shirt industry. Inventory, Will you manage your own inventory to take advantage of volume discounts or use a print-on-demand service to save time and effort.

Let's take a deeper look at each one.

1. T-shirt printing techniques

There are three popular methods for printing onto t-shirts. Each method has its pros and cons and deciding which one to use will partially depend on how much time you want to invest in the product creation and which printing partner you choose.

Below, we have outlined all three t-shirt printing options, to give you a better understanding of each process. Whether you invest in your own printer or use a local supplier, it’s worth knowing how each printing technique works.

Screen printing

Screen printing for t-shirt printing business Photo courtesy of: Printful

Screen printing is an old technique that has stood the test of time for business owners who design and sell t-shirts online and in-store. 

As one of the most popular methods for printing onto t-shirts, screen printing can produce durable and long-lasting results. It also lets you print on products like canvas items, mugs, hats, and other things to make and sell, if you want to expand your product line. 

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.

Pros

Cost effective for large batches Volume discounts

Cons

Not cost effective for multiple colors Can only print simple images and designs

Heat transfer

Heat transfer screen printing example Photo courtesy of: Transfer Express

Heat transfers have also been around for a long time and exist in several forms. You may have seen basic heat-transfer paper at your local office supply store.

Although this method makes it easy to print designs from your home computer and transfer them with an iron, it won’t cut it when it comes to running a small 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 heat transfers is the ability to order a stack of prints from your local printer and transfer them to your t-shirts with a commercial heat press machine as you receive orders.

Heat transfers can produce full-color images onto t-shirts relatively easily and quickly.

Pros

You can “print” each shirt on demand More affordable for small batches No limit in number of colors you can use in a print

Cons

Lower quality and less durable than direct-to-garment and screen printing Large upfront investment in a heat press machine (from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand) The do-it-yourself approach means additional time input for you

Direct-to-garment (DTG)

Direct to garment t-shirt printing Photo courtesy of: Anajet

The direct-to-garment printing process operates much like an ink-jet printer you might have at home. It’s a common type of t-shirt printing business equipment because it 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 like an ink-jet printer, there are no setup costs, unlike screen printing. This means 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.

Pros

Unlimited color options High detail accuracy in printed design Great for small orders or one-offs No set-up costs

Cons

Not cost effective for large production runs Generally no volume discounts

2. Design

The last thing a visitor would want is to see in your catalog is a copy of a 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.

To ensure a quality print, your design files should generally be at least 300 pixels per inch (dpi or ppi), have a transparent background, and be large enough to cover the actual print area of the t-shirt. Just note that your exact specifications will vary depending on the printer and printing technique used (more on that later).

3. Quality

The next most important factor in the success and sustainability of an online t-shirt business is quality. You can disappoint someone once, but they won't let you disappoint 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.

Higher quality t-shirts might cost more to produce but can also command higher prices. The final quality of your t-shirt will depend on the material of the blank t-shirt, printing technique used, and correct preparation of your design file.

Quality t-shirt example for business Photo courtesy of: Nuvango

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. From your t-shirt business name to the logo you use, building a unique and likable brand is important 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 their attention.

If you’ve chosen a niche that embodies a certain lifestyle, you can incorporate it into your marketing and website to speak to these customers, like in the anime/streetwear example from Imouri, below.

Imoguri t-shirt business example

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5. Inventory

When starting a t-shirt business, most people either opt to buy and hold inventory, taking advantage of bulk pricing and local printers, or use a print-on-demand service to take inventory management and shipping off your plate. You can also opt for a mix of both.

By holding your own inventory, you can more easily sell in-person and potentially improve your profit margins, whereas with print-on-demand, you take on a lot less risk. Weigh the pros and cons before you start. If you’re unsure, print-on-demand is always one of the best low investment business ideas.

Dropshipping is an easy t-shirt business model for small business owners to wrap their heads around. With services like Printful, it’s incredibly easy to start and test your t-shirt designs.

Of course, if you have the budget for it, you can also invest in your own printer and set up a base of operations.

Online t-shirt business success stories

Many entrepreneurs have been successful starting an online t-shirt company. One in particular, Ryan McCarthy, founder of Imouri (formerly known as Sugoi Shirts), has used Shopify to run his anime-inspired t-shirt printing business since 2016. 

Imouri online store

Ryan decided to create his t-shirt business when he couldn’t find anime-style clothing that fit his personal style. He quietly launched what he thought would be a small clothing line, which has since turned into a six-figure print-on-demand apparel business selling streetwear inspired by Japanese pop culture and anime. His secret? Identifying winning designs early on by using Reddit and paid ads to test products. Hear his best t-shirt business tips on our Shopify Masters podcast.

Start your t-shirt business today

It's never been easier to express your creativity and sell t-shirts online. Whatever niche you choose to serve or however ambitious you decide to be with your quality and designs, a t-shirt store makes for a great first online business for new entrepreneurs.

Here’s the good news: Building and launching a new t-shirt brand on Shopify is relatively inexpensive and quick. If you already have 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 quickly have a fully functioning store, ready to print and ship to your customers.


Ready to create your first business? Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required.

How to start a t shirt business FAQ

Is a t-shirt business profitable?

T-shirts are a staple for men, women, and children around the world, with global retail sales reaching $1.9 trillion in recent years. Creating an online t-shirt business is profitable and has low startup costs compared to other business opportunities. While t-shirt business profit varies depending on your niche and marketing costs, you can set up a profitable additional revenue stream in as little as 30 days.

How much does it cost to start a t-shirt business?

Starting a t-shirt business from home can cost you a minimum of $260, according to one Shopify store owner Tucker Schreiber, which is a small investment compared to opening a brick-and-mortar t-shirt store and buying your own t-shirt printing business equipment and embroidery machines. 

How do I start a t-shirt business?

Do market research and find a passionate community. Come up with a t-shirt company name. Make a business logo and set up an online shop. Create your own t-shirt designs. Set up your social media accounts. Run paid ads for your online t-shirt business site. Do blog outreach and free promotions with influencers. 

How much can you make selling t-shirts? 

The amount you make selling t-shirts depends on how much time you put into your business. There have been many accounts of business owners making $100,000 selling and dropshipping t-shirts online.

How can I start my own t-shirt business with no money? 

If you want to start a t-shirt business fast with no money, add products to your store using print-on-demand dropshippers like Printful. Go to the Shopify App Store, search for Printful, and click “Add app.”

Do you need a business license to sell t-shirts online?

Typically, you do not need a business license to sell t-shirts online. You may want to get a resale license to buy clothing from a distributor free from sales tax. Check with your local county revenue or finance department to learn more.

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