How to Start a T-Shirt Business

How to Start a T-Shirt Business

Starting a t-shirt business is something that we know a lot about here at Fifth Column. We’ve been printing t-shirts for decades and during that time we’ve dealt with countless clothing brand start-ups. Many have thrived, indeed we’re still inking shirts and embellishing hoodies for them, and some have failed. To be honest, a fair few never even got off the ground. In light of which, we thought it would be helpful to create a beginner’s guide on how to start a t-shirt business. A quick run-through which includes those important, yet easily overlooked, boxes that need ticking in order to turn ideas into reality.

Groundwork for launching a t-shirt brand.

Launching a t-shirt brand might appear relatively straightforward on the surface. However, as with most entrepreneurial endeavours, it isn’t always as simple as it seems. Making a successful business out of selling what amounts to designer t-shirts can be tough. And every bit of preparation you do before embarking on the venture will improve the chances of success. Realising your ambition can be both satisfying and lucrative, but you need to put in a load of legwork long before any screen printer’s ink hits the cotton.

Target - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.



Plan - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


First steps in starting a t-shirt business.

How to start a t-shirt business has much in common with any new commercial enterprise. That is, the basics, those fundamentals for any operation, also apply when it comes to a custom t-shirt brand.

1. Target.

Before you go do anything else, try to identify your target market. You need to have at least an inkling of who is going to want, and be willing to buy, your products. Is it mass appeal or niche? Male or female, young or old? By the way, whilst choosing a unisex base shirt stops gender becoming an issue for the fit of the finished garment, it doesn’t mean your design will have unisex appeal. Here are eight possible factors that will define a target market:

  • Age.
  • Gender.
  • Occupation.
  • Income bracket.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Interest & hobbies.
  • Location.
  • Political leaning.

There are many more, the permutations are numerous, and even the more specialised of them can provide a solid base for sales. Having an idea of who these potential buyers are is incredibly beneficial with how to start your t-shirt business. And will be a useful reference for the future.

2. Structure.

Give some thought to the structure of your business. Who is responsible for what and when that responsibility needs to be fulfilled are crucial aspects at any level of commercial activity. Even if you’re a one-man band, laying off what you can’t do to third parties, there is still a critical path that must be followed. Every project has squeeze-points where a decision needs to have been made or a bill paid if you’re going to make things work.

3. Plan.

Closely allied to structure, a business plan helps define vital elements of your endeavour. It will include your company goals and the resources required to achieve those goals. In some instances it will be an internal document used for financial and organisational reference. In others, it will be your method of proving to external bodies (such as investors) that the idea has legs. Below are seven components commonly found in a business plan:

  • Executive summary.
  • Business description.
  • Industry outline.
  • Market analysis.
  • Ownership/Management.
  • Sales and marketing strategy.
  • Financial breakdown.

Not everyone will see the formal business plan as a prerequisite to trading. After all, circumstances vary and no two businesses are ever exactly the same. But, some sort of plan is a necessity and it will contain elements of the above. A basic grasp of the area in which you intend to operate, how you will sell your merchandise, and the costings involved.

This directly relates to your embryonic designer tee. What you expect to charge for that freshly printed t-shirt will dictate what you can afford to pay for the blank shirts and the costs incurred creating them. Always assuming you want to make a profit, that is. For example, you may well start a t-shirt brand for promotional purposes allied to an existing and totally separate type of business.

Design - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


Brand - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


Price & Profit - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.

Price & Profit

Specifics with how to start t-shirt business.

Having touched on the purely business side of things, let’s take a look at some stuff that is more t-shirt and clothing orientated.

4. Design.

Once the commercial foundations are in place, it’s design time! There’s a pretty good chance you have a creative nature if a t-shirt business appeals to you. So, coming up with the design for a t-shirt should be a genuinely enjoyable part of the process. That said, designing great t-shirts requires more than artistic flair. Ideally, you need to be familiar with the market and your specific focus within it. Then let that intelligence inform your artwork. We’ve listed 4 tips below:

  • Simple designs have proved unbelievably popular in the past. The Rolling Stones tongue and lips shirt was minimal and striking. Choose Life was just text without an image. I love New York consists of four characters and two colours.
  • Each colour used in screen printing requires a separate screen so using fewer colours will minimise production costs. As mentioned above, it also has plenty of iconic examples to recommend it.
  • Make sure your design does not breach intellectual property rights. Infringing things like copyright, patent and trademarks can be a costly mistake. You’ll probably only do it once because once will be more than enough. By the way, we have a Resources article on copyright and trademark.
  • Get feedback on your designs before finalising and printing them. And by that we don’t mean asking your best friend over a glass of red. Do your best to test the reaction with the type of people that you want to buy them.

5. Change.

It’s worth remembering that only you and a selected few will have seen your design. Making changes during the actual production process is fine. Amendments such as losing a colour to make printing cheaper or slightly enlarging parts of the artwork for better results doesn’t hurt. Most people haven’t seen the earlier drafts and therefore have no basis for comparison. Being adaptable is something you have to embrace early when it comes to how to start a t-shirt business.

A knowledge of the available printing options and which is appropriate for your design will also make life easier. Again, research the subject. Screen printing and DTG (direct to garment) printing are two of the most widely used techniques. Read our comparison of the two for more information (click the title to visit that page): DTG and Screen Printing – What’s the Difference?

As a quick precis of that article, screen printing is the most cost effective road to take for larger volumes. DTG is often chosen for small print runs and those which incorporate more than 11 or 12 colours (for dark and white base shirts respectively). DTF (Direct to Film) printing is an excellent choice for smaller print runs.

6. Brand.

Defining your brand goes hand in hand with identifying your target market and designing your tee shirts. It’s who you are, what you stand for, the principles that underpin your business. Companies have been known to spend thousands working up a brand ID, but you can make an easy start with your brand name. Pick one that reflects your designs and will resonate with buyers. If you’re struggling, something like a company name generator may spark ideas.

Online sellers will want to pay particular attention to naming their brand. Choosing a name which includes words that users may search can really help with where you appear in search engine results. By the way, check out our blog and Resources library for further reading on brand architecture, image file types for printing and so on.

7. Price & Profit.

Getting the price point right is a make or break bit of any business. What you charge for your shirts makes a big difference to how many you sell. Aiming at the more expensive end of the spectrum obviously gives you more leeway on the quality of the blank tee shirts and production costs. It also increases the likelihood that you’ll need some unique selling points beyond an irresistible graphic.

This is where your brand identity may come into play. Higher price could signify an ethical stance, your investment in the environment or fair trade, or a commitment to the quality and longevity of the product. Cheaper prices are an undeniably effective tool in driving sales, but they do normally bring with them the need to shift greater volumes.

Channels - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


Printing - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


Sales - How to Start a T-Shirt Business.


Final steps in starting a t-shirt business.

Whilst we’ve called these the final steps in starting a t-shirt brand, to paraphrase a famous man, all it really amounts to is the end of the beginning.

8. Channels.

Scope out your sales channels in good time. Exactly when will depend on where you’re going to sell your apparel, but most will require advance preparation. Stands at conventions and shows need to be booked prior to the event. Premises need to be rented and there has to be a vacancy before you can nab a market stall. Online shops don’t happen overnight, even if you’ve opted for a marketplace like Amazon or eBay. Standalone websites can chew up weeks and months in development. Nothing will give you greater disappointment than a big delay. That is, opening those boxes of crisp, stunningly printed t-shirts and then discovering that it’s going to be an eternity before you can begin selling them.

Establishing a presence on social media is a great example of something that is best done well ahead of schedule. Connecting with relevant people on social platforms, both supporters and potential customers, can give you a big boost. But it takes time and effort. Because you can’t just flick a switch and have lots of genuine friends and followers.

9. Printing.

Surprised to see printing near the bottom of the list? Don’t worry, we’re not downplaying our place in the grand scheme of things. High quality, professional printing and excellent customer service from your garment decorator are cornerstones of setting up any t-shirt business. Choosing the right printing partner, someone who understands your objectives and can supply outstanding merchandise, is central to success. However, you’ll most easily develop a productive relationship with a printer if you already have a firm idea of what you want when you contact them. Good printers will do their utmost to help, but they won’t be able to make core business decisions for you. Besides which, you need to have nailed down the essentials to get an accurate quotation!

10. Sales.

All of the effort expended to get to this point and it’s still only the beginning! Selling your shirts is the ultimate goal and selling is rarely without challenges. Generating sales can be a hard slog but seeing those shirts fly off the shelves is a satisfying reward for your effort.

Try to be imaginative in your thinking and keep your chin up if things don’t always go your way. Starting a t-shirt business is like a lot of the worthwhile things in life. Turning a good idea into a winning proposition takes oodles of creativity and even more hard work.

Hopefully the above will have helped to some degree. Click HERE to visit our frequently asked questions page where you’ll find more detailed answers to specific questions about the printing process. As mentioned, our BLOG also contains a number of informative articles on printing, embroidery and related topics.

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