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How to start a t-shirt business
Finding the right market is key to making your tees stand out from the rest.
Running a t-shirt business gives you flexible hours and the ability to work for yourself — but you likely won’t be able to get it off the ground on your own. Finding the right market niche, partners and suppliers is essential to making sure your new company is a success.
8 steps to start your t-shirt business
These basic steps can help you cover your bases when you’re getting your company off the ground.
1. Start designing
Create a few mockups of the designs that made you want to start a t-shirt business in the first place. Before you get started, do a little research on what’s out there already. This can help you avoid accidentally violating any copyrights or trademarks.
If you don’t have a lot of experience with mockups, consider hiring a freelance graphic designer to help you get your ideas down on fabric. You can also enlist freelance fashion designers to help out. You can often find freelancers on sites like Designhill, Dribble or Fiverr.
- Tip: Print your designs before bringing them to the public. Your t-shirt might not look exactly like what you see on your screen.
2. Find your market niche
Once you have something you’re happy with, it’s time to find your niche. Do some research to figure out who your ideal buyer is.
One way to get started is to look into similar brands and the markets they serve. Can’t find a t-shirt company that’s similar to yours? You might have an untapped market.
3. Validate your designs
Get feedback from your market by sharing your mockups on social media and Reddit.
While you can show your designs to friends and family, the most useful feedback often comes from the people you want to buy your shirts. Also consider hiring a consultant with experience in the t-shirt industry for professional feedback on your designs.
Once you’ve made adjustments and tweaks to your mockups, consider protecting your designs by registering them as a trademark.
- Tip: Watermarking the mockups you share on social media can protect your designs.
4. Find your brand
Creating your brand after you understand your market and have a few designs can be helpful. You’ll need to choose a name, web domain and logo. Having a mission statement can also help.
Start by writing down areas where you — and your market — aren’t willing to compromise. For example, some companies might not be willing to compromise on a low price, while others might prioritize high quality.
5. Decide how you’re going to sell your shirt
At this point, you’re ready to decide how you’re going to manufacture and sell your t-shirts. Research e-commerce platforms and printers to see which best works for you. Some platforms like Shopify offer a basic monthly plan for new businesses.
It’s also time to source your t-shirts, printers or printing machines. The type of printer or machine depends on what kinds of shirt you want to sell.
- Screen printers offer the highest quality but most expensive products. They’re particularly good if your designs are dark, vibrant or cover more than just the front of the shirt.
- Heat transfer printers will fuse printed images onto your shirt. It’s fast, making it a strong choice for companies that make shirts to order — and the machines are often cheap enough to buy yourself. But your design might peel over time.
- Direct-to-garment printers use an inkjet to print designs directly onto your shirt. While the quality is a bit lower than screen printing, it’s one of the cheapest ways to make a t-shirt. It’s not as fast as heat-transfer printing, however.
Not sure which direction to go in? Stores like Cafe Press, Spreadshirt or Teespring will do the heavy lifting and offer a platform to sell your shirts while you’re getting started. But these can be more expensive than printing on your own.
6. Look into licenses, permits and insurance
Decide which business structure you want to use and sign up for a license with your local business department. Many t-shirt companies are registered as limited liability companies (LLCs), but you also might want to consider registering as a corporation or partnership.
If you’re setting up an office or production facility, you also might need to get permits from your health and safety department or the fire department in your area. Also look into business insurance to protect any facilities, inventory or equipment that your company is responsible for.
7. Create a business plan
Writing a business plan gives you an opportunity to conduct some formal market research, come up with a marketing and sales plan and make financial projections.
This is also when you’ll need to price your t-shirts. The cost should cover production, overhead — like your salary, utilities and e-commerce platform fees — and leave room for some profit.
Also take into account what other t-shirt companies are charging. If you can’t make a profit from your t-shirt, go back to the drawing table and find a way to cut down on production or operating expenses.
8. Action your marketing strategy
At this point, you’re ready to open your store to the world. Social media can be one of the most effective tools for apparel companies. Running ads on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Google is a great place to start. Focus on wherever your niche market spends most of its time.
Also consider hiring micro or nano influencers. Smaller influencers often only have a few hundred followers. But their followers are often more loyal than bigger influencers and can help spread the word about your t-shirts through your niche market.
Pros and cons of starting a t-shirt business
Weigh these benefits against the drawbacks before you sit down to create your first design.
- Low startup costs compared to other businesses
- Only requires online store
- Option to print on demand and reduce inventory
- Create your own work schedule
- High competition
- Difficult to offer high-quality t-shirts with a profit at first
- Sales tax can decrease your profits
What costs should I budget for?
You might need to budget for some or all of the following expenses when you start a t-shirt business.
- Business registration fees
- Business insurance
- Freelancer and consultant fees
- Social media and google ads
- Real estate — including office, storefront and manufacturing space
- Printer fees
- E-commerce platform fees
- Printing equipment and ink
- Premade t-shirts or fabric and sewing machines
- Training and personnel
- Software — including payroll and accounting
- Office supplies and furniture
Types of financing for t-shirt businesses
All new businesses need seed money to get off the ground. Here’s where you might want to look for funds to get your doors open and cover the first few years.
- Crowdfunding through a platform like Kickstarter can help raise money from your online following to launch a popular design.
- Microlenders offer small-dollar loans for entrepreneurs, usually with low credit requirements and business training programs.
- Community banks can also offer bank loans to entrepreneurs — though you typically need a credit score over 67o and enough personal assets to back the loan.
- Business credit cards offer access to funds for those small, one-off expenses you didn’t anticipate — though you might have to use a personal credit card during the early stages of your business.
- E-commerce business loans often integrate with your platform to offer cashflow financing during the early growth stages.
- Online business loans can offer fast access to funds when you’re ready to expand but can’t yet qualify for a bank loan.
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Starting a t-shirt business can be a great way to turn your creativity into a career. And with so many online resources to help dip your toes in the market, it might not be as risky as other ventures. Before beginning your entrepreneurial journey, learn about other small business resources your new company might need.
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