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How do you start an online t-shirt business?

Brian Van Buren

“Somebody should put that on a t-shirt and sell it!” I bet you’ve heard someone say that a few times in your life.  Maybe it’s a catch phrase, a play on words, a cultural touchstone, or a cute design scribbled on a notebook. Whatever the idea, a clever entrepreneur can take that idea and start their own t-shirt business around it. And that t-shirt business can use the internet to sell t-shirts all over the world.

I got this great idea for a t-shirt. Now what?

Going from idea to product to profit takes a bit of work. The online t-shirt business market is very crowded; there are lots of people trying to sell their own t-shirt designs. It may seem daunting at first, but there are many success stories out there, as well as more than a few failures. With a little research, you can decide if your idea is ready for the storefront and get started.

Firstly, you need to take your t-shirt from the idea stage to the design stage. If your design is text only, you’ll need to choose the font, give it the spacing you want, then convert it into a format you can take to a printer. If it’s an image, you’ll need to do the same, though you might want to do some image manipulation first. There are many online image editors, like Pixlr and Fotor, you can use for this. Some ecommerce sites provide tools help you with design, with templates and fonts for you to use – no previous design experience needed!

At this stage, you probably want to think about branding. Many entrepreneurs find that creating a unique image or style, consistently reinforced across all platforms, can lead to greater success than having a non-existent image. The more specific your brand, the greater the chance like-minded people will identify with your company. Ask yourself; what does your t-shirt design say about your brand? If the design is a cute image, then your brand should be built around cuteness. If it’s a clever saying, then cleverness should be your focus. Defining your brand early can help you later when you are promoting and selling your t-shirts.

Next, you’ll need to decide if you want to do all the work of printing, selling and shipping your shirts yourself, or sell through an existing online store. Websites like Teespring or Shopify will take care of the ecommerce side, and may also handle printing and shipping. They will take a cut of the profits, and some charge monthly fees, so make sure to do your research before signing up for a plan. These ecommerce sites can be a good place to get your t-shirt business started, especially if this is your first online business.

If you are the type of entrepreneur who wants to handle everything yourself, you’ll need to set up your own ecommerce website, find a print shop for t-shirt printing, and ship the t-shirts – you’ll keep more of the money, but the start-up costs are higher. By sourcing yourself, you can sell custom t-shirts more easily, if that is your plan.

There are plenty of companies to help you build an ecommerce website, with Squarespace and Wix being among the most popular. Different companies have different features and different pricing plans; do some research before choosing.

You can find t-shirt printing companies online, but you may also have local options. Sourcing from a local print shop can help save money on shipping, allow you to check the materials in person, and form a personal relationship with the owners. There are plenty of online printers, like Custom Ink and, that can help if you don’t have a local option.

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How do you advertise/promote your t-shirt business?

If you’re going to sell online, you’ve got to promote online. Having a social media presence is extremely important: it is the most effective way to advertise for little or no cost. Making a Twitter or Facebook page for your t-shirt business is simple, and you can link to your online store from there. You can debut new designs and interact with customers, and there are plenty of tips to help optimise your Twitter and Facebook campaigns.

You should also identify your audience early on. If you are targeting a niche audience, like a local sports team or a popular video game, then you should find out what websites those people frequent. Often those websites have forums or ad space to sell; you can directly target the people most likely to want your product.

What are some important things to keep in mind?

  • Find your Niche: If there is something you have a deep personal interest in, enough to create a t-shirt for it, you can bet you’re not alone. Focus on that niche and you’ll have an inherent understanding of your market.
  • Stay on Brand: Think about the attitude you want to portray. Are you cute? Irreverent? Smart?  Define your brand and stick with it everywhere, from your t-shirt design to your website.
  • Test your Design: Try several variations of your design. If it is a text-only design, try different fonts and colors. You may find something you like more than the original.
  • Be Socially Active: If you’re using social media as a primary advertising tool, you must be active. The more you post, the more visible you are, but be careful; too much activity can cause the audience to tune out.
  • Be Realistic: Your t-shirt business may blow up right away, but chances are it will take time to turn a profit. Decide early on how long you’re willing to continue if the business is losing money rather than making it.

Ready to get started?

Hopefully this article gave you a better idea as how to start a t-shirt business online. There are many more resources as to how to start selling t-shirts online or sell products online in general. Being an entrepreneur can seem daunting, but with a clever idea and a bit of work, even a t-shirt business can be big business.

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