How to Start a T-Shirt Business: 7-Step Plan to Success

Today, t-shirts are an essential part of American and even international culture, with many different types available – some with clever sayings and messages of personal expression, others emblazoned with logos or graphic designs. With the rapid advance of technology, both screen printing and more individualized printing processes continue to become easier and more affordable, making opening one’s own company less expensive.

The ubiquitous popularity of this wardrobe staple makes starting a t-shirt business a potentially lucrative venture. Many businesses are operated on the internet these days; e-commerce t-shirt businesses can do quite well as the cost to set up a website is low but can help businesses bring in revenue.

To be successful in the industry, one must operate smartly and assess the market, make sure to research one’s target market, grow the business over time and engage in effective marketing strategies, such as by utilizing social media. As with starting any new business, you’ll first need to choose a business name, pick your business structure, and register the business with relevant state or local authorities

7 Steps to Starting a T-Shirt Business

Ready to start a t-shirt business? Here is a step-by-step guide on how aspiring entrepreneurs can get started in this thriving industry: 

1. Decide what type of t-shirt business you will start.

In the initial stages of formulating your business idea and plan, you will need to consider questions such as the following: 

  • What type of shirts will you sell? This question relates to the type of product you will sell, but it will be helpful to keep in mind your target market as you set out to answer it. If you will sell a product worn while exercising, you may want to choose a thicker, lower-quality material, or opt for a shirt made of a tech type fabric. If you are developing a line for a more upscale market, you may want to choose high-quality fabrics that look stylish when worn.

  • Where will you sell your products? If you are seeking to open a boutique shop, you may choose to sell online as well as in smaller brick-and-mortar stores. You may instead opt for the retail route, selling to large retailers such as JCPenney. You can also choose to sell online exclusively and set up an e-commerce business. E-commerce platforms such as Etsy and Shopify are popular among small business owners who seek to sell their goods online.

Remember that whatever you decide for the initial stages of your t-shirt startup can change as you take concrete steps towards launching your business. Be flexible in the implementation of your ideas and use them as a starting point rather than an endpoint.

2. Determine your target market.

The t-shirt industry is a competitive market, so you will need to establish a niche for your business. What type of designs will you sell, and what is your overall concept or strategy? For example, you may want to start a business which features shirts with catchy or sassy slogans, or t-shirts for important political events or sports events. You will want to select a specific market – for example, a product designed for customers who want to wear catchy sayings about life, or items designed for democrats or republicans tuned into the day’s political happenings. Make sure that your designs are unique, fit within a specific niche and will be received well by the marketplace. One way that you can determine whether your designs will be popular is to talk to your friends and family and do research on similar types of t-shirts already available in the industry.

3. Develop a design.

Once you have an idea of your business plan and target market, work on developing your designs to make them a reality. This step may also rely on your available funds, as you will need to determine the best way for you to obtain and print your shirts with your available budget – and if you don’t have enough startup capital, you may need to look into obtaining a business loan from a bank or the Small Business Administration. 

If you have a design vision but no artistic skills, consider hiring a freelancer to do the graphic design work for your t-shirts. Sites such as Fiverr and Upwork can help entrepreneurs connect with graphic designers quickly and in a hassle-free way. You can also purchase graphic designs online. Make sure to ask for feedback along the way from trusted friends and family members. The discussion and social media aggregator site Reddit can be a great place to ask for feedback on your potential designs.

As a new, small business owner, you will want to ensure that no other companies or organizations can use your designs for their own profit. Think of your designs as your own intellectual property. You may want to investigate copyrighting or trademarking your designs so that no other companies can use the logos and concepts you have conceived. 

4. Determine how you will print your designs.

Once you have templates for your graphic designs, determine how you will print your products. T-shirt printing and production technology are advanced these days and there are several options including heat transfers, screen printing, and direct-to-garment designs.

Using heat transfers is a simple solution which involves fusing a heat transfer to the fabric. In do-it-yourself designs, heat transfers are typically applied with an iron; however, for commercial purposes, you will need to invest in a heat press, which will require significant capital. Heat transfers are great for print-on-demand designs, but the final products can be poorer quality overall.

Screen printing is the most popular type of printing for t-shirts today. The benefit of professional screen printing is that it enables your company to mass produce product quickly so that there can be a large inventory and, potentially, a large profit margin. With screen-printed tees, the more items you print, the less each item costs, offering entrepreneurs the potential for a large profit margin (with a significant upfront investment, of course).

The main downside of screen printing, from the design perspective, is that only one color can be applied at a time, which means that more complicated designs with many colors cannot be printed using screen printing. Also, only one design is allowed per batch, so multiple batches may become costlier, as they require not only more runs of the screen printer but also smaller (and therefore, more expensive) batches.

Direct-to-garment printing involves printing ink directly onto the fabric. It’s a great idea for producing small batches of product with detailed designs and many colors. Direct-to-garment printing offers both many options for colors and the ability to print in significant detail. However, it is not recommended for mass production due to the complex nature of the printing process. Another downside of direct-to-garment printing is that design placement can be limited. For startups in their initial stages, direct-to-garment printing can be an excellent way to minimize upfront costs while offering a quality product in smaller quantities.

5. Determine how you’ll source for your materials.

You will need to consider sourcing for the t-shirts themselves. In general, you will want to use the best quality possible. For larger orders, consider purchasing product in bulk from a warehouse. Check out our article on how to start a consumer products business for more information about selecting a warehouse. For smaller orders, you may want to opt for more premium clothing suppliers with high-quality shirts, which will be costlier.

6. Choose a selling platform – a physical store, an online store, or both.

For a person wanting to start their own online business, there are several web resources available for starting one’s own e-commerce website. Thanks to websites such as Etsy, starting your online store is as simple as a few clicks of a button. Shopify is another great option. Both Shopify and Etsy offer a variety of services such as payment processing, shipping, and marketing to help small businesses more easily sell their products online. Shopify also offers apps in their App Store which are e-commerce plugins, available for free or for an additional fee, which can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

In creating a plan for how you will deliver your products, you may want to consider drop shipping, which is a form of retail fulfillment in which a store does not keep an inventory, and instead, purchases the product from a separate entity, and has the product shipped to the consumer.

7. Figure out a production strategy and set a retail price for your product.

Figure out how you will obtain and print your t-shirts in a way that works for your business and, importantly, your budget. Throughout the process of deciding on how your product will be made, make sure to communicate with your potential contractors about templates and mockups and ask them to create samples with graphics for you. You should also obtain samples to ensure that the fit and sizing is correct for the desired look and style of your finished product.

Once you have done all the research and talked to potential printers and suppliers, determine which contractors are most cost-effective while still being able to deliver on your overall design idea. 

Work with your potential vendors to find an affordable price to produce your t-shirts. Production prices will vary based on several factors such as the complexity of your design, the quality of the fabric, and the quantity, as well as overhead and marketing costs. You will need to consider the production costs, as well as labor and overhead costs, in setting your retail price.

Bottom Line

There’s never been a better time to start your own t-shirt business and tap into an apparel market with a value of approximately $230 billion. Designing your own line and starting a new business is made increasingly possible thanks to e-commerce, with some careful and strategic planning beforehand. T-shirts are universally popular, and business-minded people seeking to get in on this trend have a variety of resources to choose from.

E-commerce entrepreneurs may seek to establish an online business, while other small business owners may seek to go the brick-and-mortar route or combine an online boutique with a physical store. Entrepreneurs strapped for cash who have a business vision may want to start an online-only business printing small batches of customized items, while those with more startup capital may want to minimize their overall costs and produce in bulk for a lower unit price.

Whatever you choose for your business plan and overall strategy, make sure to be flexible and adjust as needed. The most successful businesses start out small with a limited product line and expand slowly over time. Being attuned to your customers’ and potential customers’ preferences and needs, and asking for feedback – that is, doing market research – can help you thrive in the early stages of your new business and avoid the failure that so many startups experience.

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The Gro Team