How to Start a T-Shirt Business
T-shirts are a fashion staple. They’re a classic as tried and true as denim. Everyone has one in his closet, and most of us have dozens. The best part is that they’re pretty inexpensive and virtually fashion-proof. You probably won’t see Vogue declaring the death of the tee anytime soon. A tee is the one garment that seemingly never goes out of style, and that’s why they’ve become an increasingly popular industry.
The custom T-shirt printing market is growing. By 2025, it’s expected to cross the $10 billion mark. The good news is that grabbing a piece of that pie doesn’t take a huge investment. Whether you’re launching your own line or opting to start a T-shirt printing business, it's easy to get started.
The biggest investment for most T-shirt businesses is the T-shirt printing equipment. A professional screen-printing press can cost upward of $10,000. Of course, you can absolutely start small with a four- or six-screen machine for under $5,000. Once you have the machine, the subsequent costs are pushed on to the customer. According to Lawson Screen & Digital Products, it only costs about $1.50 in materials to actually create the screen and around $25 for the screen itself. Customers typically pay a setup charge per screen to cover those costs. For this reason, it’s easiest and most financially responsible to start small.
“We had begun our screen printing career in bathrooms and garages of our parents' house,” says Eric Solomon, co-owner of the Texas-based Night Owls Printing. “So this business started very small, and as we continued to grow and learn, we began expanding. We definitely worked harder, not smarter, for a long time.”
Solomon has since acquired a second printing company, which he merged into his already-existing T-shirt printing business. The company has expanded to offer pins, patches and a variety of different garments.
If you simply wish to create your own T-shirt line, you may opt to outsource your printing rather than do it in house. In that case, the startup costs are way cheaper. You can order custom tees for a couple hundred dollars, but it should be noted that owning your own screen-printing equipment can save costs in the long run depending on the number of orders your business receives. It’s probably only worth it if you’re creating hundreds of T-shirts every month and have the bandwidth to put in the work.
Starting a business can be expensive, even if T-shirt businesses are generally cheaper than launching a full clothing line. It’s only natural to want to cut corners on some costs, but unfortunately, this is one industry where you get what you pay for. Ruby Cooke, who started her own printing company called Life Club, learned this the hard way when she opted for a cheaper press.
“We made the mistake of buying cheaper equipment when we first started out, feeling smug that we’d saved ourselves a few hundred quid,” she says. "That smugness was soon gone. Our precious time, the stress and money wasted on T-shirt misprints is beyond belief. The moment we upgraded to a quality carousel, the game changed for us.”
Similarly, high-quality blank T-shirts attract repeat customers. Everyone has a favorite comfy tee, and a cheap blank isn’t going to be anyone’s go-to shirt. You want to make something customers want to live in, not something that's stiff or shrinks and cracks in the wash.
The T-shirt business is all about niche. In order to be successful, you’ve got to know your customer inside and out. A T-shirt is a blank canvas, but that doesn’t mean you should put just anything on it. Designs require careful thought and some major creativity.
According to Crystal Ferriss Medoro, who hawked T-shirts for six years as a merchandise manager on the cross-country music festival Vans Warped Tour, knowing what’s trendy in your niche is make or break. For example, Ferriss Medoro cites bright colors and simplicity as trendy among teens and said that “different states have different fashion trends.”
In today’s age of social media, a brand is so much more than a brand. It’s a community. For this reason, it’s important to be unique and strong with your image. Ferriss Medoro urged business owners to not lose sight of what makes them stand out, even if they occasionally have to nix a design they love that might not land with their customer base.
“Know your audience. Cater to them,” she said. “Just because you like a design doesn’t mean they will. If you want [it] to sell, you make sure that you do something that will sell, but make sure your integrity is still in it. Don’t cater entirely to popular demand. Keep your own flair.”
Once you’ve decided on a couple designs for your T-shirt company (or alternatively, the type of blank tees with which your T-shirt printing business will work), it’s time to launch an online store and set up your brand on social media. T-shirt printing businesses may opt to hire a developer and create a website from scratch. The most practical option is to use a service like Wix or Squarespace that offers an easily customizable website at a monthly cost for those with little web design knowledge.
If you’re launching a T-shirt line, you've got more options. You might opt for an online marketplace like Etsy, Big Cartel or Storenvy or go for your own personalized website through Shopify or Limited Run. The latter allows you to embed your shop into an already-existing website.
In 2018, most T-shirt companies heavily focus their marketing plan on social media. Whether that’s Instagram hashtag campaigns, influencer collaborations, contests or boosted Facebook ads depends on the business plan. Likely, it's a mix of all of the above. Rami Even-Esh, a New Jersey rapper who launched a successful pickle-themed T-shirt line for his project Kosha Dillz, said that creating a sense of urgency is the best marketing tactic. For him, this means launching a line in connection with a music video or album release. For others, this means creating limited-edition designs.
“If you make it limited edition and presell the shirts, you could sell out within two days and create more of a demand,” he said. “Be prepared to give out at least five to 10 shirts to people that will agree to promote and can repost [images] on social media.”
Like Nike’s famed slogan, just do it. The secret to launching a T-shirt company is launching a T-shirt company_._ Get up off your couch and bring your ideas to life.
“So many people have ideas for T-shirts that they want to do but never actually do it,” said Chris Wrenn, owner of the Boston-based sports apparel brand Sully’s. “I also own a custom T-shirt printing company [in addition to Sully’s and indie record label Bridge 9], and it's crazy how people hem and haw about the finer details of their ideas before they actually do it. It's like they're planning their first tattoo.”