The custom t-shirt printing market is expected to grow at a rate of 11% per year through 2030. And with online store builders and print-on-demand companies, there’s never been a better time to start a t-shirt business.
This guide explains how to start an online shirt business that brings in extra monthly income.
1. Choose a niche
A niche can help your online shirt business attract a target audience without blowing your budget.
Successful online t-shirt businesses have to stand out, and one of the best strategies for separating your products from competitors’ is by catering to a specific audience or interest group.
Generally, categories like “t-shirts for people who like funny slogans” are too broad to get noticed. Instead, look for sub-niches and use keyword research tools to find words and phrases for which your target audience could be searching. For example, sub-niches within the wider trend for funny t-shirts might be “t-shirts with slogans about doctors” or “funny t-shirts for dog owners.”
Evaluating niches is a key part of the playbook for how to start a business. Here are a few ways to estimate the value of entering a niche:
- 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.
- Visit a niche’s subreddits and check the subscriber count and level of engagement.
- Use the Facebook IQ Audience Insights tool to gauge the size of your niche on social media.
Once you narrow down your niche, create a business plan for your shirt selling business that covers your goals and different opportunities to sell custom t-shirts, then figure out how you’ll execute.
2. Source quality material and t-shirt printing options
The next step in starting an online t-shirt business is to find suppliers. Not all t-shirts are the same. Different printing methods produce different results. Because quality is paramount to your brand reputation, educating yourself and picking your shirt stock wisely is essential.
It can be tempting to partner with budget dropshipping suppliers and sacrifice quality for higher profit margins. But consider how product quality impacts a customer’s decision to share your clothing brand and purchase from you again.
Choosing a quality t-shirt encompasses several factors, including fit, sizing, material, softness, and weight. Once you narrow down your choices, order samples so you can make an informed final decision.
3. Create t-shirt designs
After selecting a shirt supplier, you can develop your designs. Here are a few ways you can get a head start:
Find the bestselling designs and niches
If you’re struggling to come up with t-shirt design ideas, look at what’s popular and currently selling well. Check out the top-selling items on these graphic t-shirt marketplaces:
Look at Google Trends for a sense of the topics people are currently interested in. Use trending subjects as inspiration for your t-shirts. If you are specifically interested in creating a logo for your business, Shopify has a free tool for making custom logos.
Hire a designer
Once you have a general idea for t-shirt designs, start sketching some drafts. If you know how to use graphic design software, you likely can produce great designs yourself. However, it might make more sense 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.
Dribbble is a designer community that’s home to lots of unique talent. Search for the style you’re looking for on Dribbble and message the designers you like to see if they’re available for freelance projects.
Behance hosts portfolios from different creators around the world who specialize in illustrations, graphic design, and other disciplines. If you like a designer on Behance, you can reach out to them and get a quote on your custom t-shirts.
General freelance networks like Upwork also contain listings of artists and illustrators. Find a qualified t-shirt designer, then check their past job successes and portfolio to see if they’re a match for your project. If you like someone, you can reach out through the platform and hire them on the spot.
Buy t-shirt designs
You can purchase pre-made designs if you don’t find an artist for your t-shirt business. If you choose to go this route, it’s likely other people are already selling whatever design you pick, making it harder for you and your online shirt-selling business to stand out.
Check out the following t-shirt graphic marketplaces:
- Designious sells vector packs and PNG t-shirt designs.
- Tshirt Factory offers a variety of vector images, from old school to punk rave designs.
- Creative Market has more than three million graphics and templates.
- Graphic River lets you buy and sell royalty-free Photoshop vectors and icon packs.
Keep in mind, you may need to purchase a commercial license for your images before you sell t-shirts featuring them.
4. Mock up your t-shirts
Once you have final designs, the next step for your t-shirt business will be to produce mock-up images. They help you and your customers see what the final design will look like when printed on a shirt.
There are a few ways to get images of your final designs on t-shirts. You might order samples and take pictures. You can also create a digital preview using t-shirt templates and generators.
Adobe Photoshop t-shirt templates are a common type of mock-up file. They allow you to 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.
If Adobe Photoshop isn’t right for you, you can also use web-based mock-up software that will let you do the same thing without having to download Photoshop.
5. Validate your t-shirt designs
Before you invest in your new business idea, try to test the popularity of your designs. There are many ways to validate the market before you sell your t-shirts online.
Common methods for validating your design ideas include:
Personal social networks
Post a preview of your designs to your social media accounts and on feeds that your potential customers frequent. Be careful when asking the thoughts of friends and family, however. Their opinions can come with a favorable bias.
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 for their thoughts before launching.
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 include getting funding for your project before you launch it. If you have a particularly novel t-shirt business idea, crowdfunding might be for you.
Print on demand
With an ecommerce platform like Shopify, it’s never been easier to set up an online store in a matter of hours. You can use a basic storefront to validate your business idea. Start a store and integrate a print-on-demand service to begin selling online.
Listen to the Shopify Masters podcast
Why (and how) you should test before you invest in a t-shirt design
6. Set up your online shirt store
With t-shirt designs commissioned, mock-ups created, and feedback acquired, 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 whenever you receive an order.
With dropshipping and print-on-demand partners, there’s no need to purchase or hold inventory upfront, making it a great way to get started. 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:
Once your store is set up, you’ll be ready to start selling t-shirts online.
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5 considerations for starting a t-shirt business
Although the tools and technology available for designing, printing, and shipping custom t-shirts eases your start, it’s more difficult to build a brand that stands out from the competition. When you combine a competitive market with slim profit margins, building a successful online t-shirt company can be a challenge, but not impossible.
There are several critical elements involved in starting a successful online shirt selling business. Each of these elements needs to be considered closely before moving forward to the next step:
1. T-shirt printing techniques
There are three popular methods for printing t-shirts. Deciding which one to use will partially depend on how much time you want to invest in product creation and which printing partner you choose. Whether you invest in your own printer or use a local supplier, it’s worth knowing how each printing technique works.
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 stores.
As one of the most popular methods for printing, 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.
Heat transfers exist in several forms. For example, 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, a more complicated process is needed when running a small business. The more advanced form of heat transfer is called plastisol transfer and is 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, helping to make them an affordable option for small batches.
Though affordable in the long run, a heat press machine can be a large upfront cost. Also, the do-it-yourself approach requires you to invest more time making the t-shirts and the final result can be lower quality and less durable than shirts that use other forms of printing.
The direct-to-garment printing process operates like an ink-jet printer you might have at home. It’s common in t-shirt printing businesses because it prints ink directly onto the t-shirt and can produce full-color images with accuracy.
DTG 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.
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 bestselling graphic tees are simple. However, they do need to connect with your audience and stand out.
To ensure quality prints for your shirt-selling business, 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.
The next most important factor in starting an online t-shirt business that is set up for long-term success 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 loyal customers 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 the preparation of your design file.
A strong, interesting brand is vital for starting a shirt business online. Your brand 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 more important for an ecommerce business to have a distinctive presence to capture their attention. If you’ve chosen a niche for your online t-shirt business that embodies a certain lifestyle, you can incorporate it into your marketing and website to speak to these customers.
T-shirt businesses can 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 their plate. You also can opt for a mix of both.
By holding your own inventory for your online shirt selling business, you can sell in-person, which could help improve your profit margins. With print-on-demand, you take on a lot less risk because your production depends on your orders. Weigh the pros and cons before you start. If you’re unsure, print-on-demand can be one of the best small business ideas for when you start.
Dropshipping is an easy online t-shirt business model for small business owners. With services like Printful, it’s incredibly easy to start testing and producing 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 in starting a shirt-selling business. For example, Ryan McCarthy, founder of Imouri (formerly Sugoi), has used Shopify to run his anime-inspired t-shirt printing business since 2016.
Ryan decided to create his t-shirt business when he couldn’t find anime-themed clothing that fit his personal style. He quietly launched what he thought would be a small clothing business, which has since turned into a six-figure print-on-demand apparel company selling streetwear inspired by Japanese pop culture and anime.
His secret to successfully starting a clothing line? Identifying winning designs early on by using Reddit and paid ads to test products.
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 can be a great first ecommerce business for new entrepreneurs.
Shopify can help you control your costs and start selling soon. 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 or dropshipper in minutes and launch a fully functioning store, with items that are ready to print and ship to your customers.
Illustration by Alice Mollon
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Starting a t-shirt business FAQ
Is a t-shirt business profitable?
T-shirts are a staple for people around the world, with global apparel sales reaching $1.74 trillion in 2023. 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 is an incredibly small investment compared to opening a brick-and-mortar t-shirt store and buying your own t-shirt printing business equipment and embroidery machines.
If you use print-on-demand services to manufacture and ship your products, you can keep costs extremely low since you don’t pay for products until they’re sold. That means no overhead on products, since there’s almost no risk of overstocking.
The only fees you’d need to pay would be for the use of your ecommerce platform, domain hosting, and any digital advertising campaigns you’d like to run.
What should I do before selling t-shirts?
- Conduct market research on a niche 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 factors including your niche, production quality, marketing, and more.
How can I start my own t-shirt business with few upfront costs?
If you want to start a t-shirt business without much initial investment, add products to your store using print-on-demand dropshippers like Printful, which you can integrate using the Shopify App Store.
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.