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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.

Pros

  • Low startup costs compared to other businesses
  • Only requires online store
  • Option to print on demand and reduce inventory
  • Create your own work schedule

Cons

  • 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
  • Permits
  • 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.

Compare online business loans

Name Product Filter Values Loan amount APR Requirements
Fora Financial business loans
Finder Rating: 4.1 / 5: ★★★★★
Fora Financial business loans
$5,000 – $500,000
Varies
6+ months in business, $12,000+ monthly revenue, no open bankruptcies
Get qualified for funding in minutes for up to $500,000 without affecting your credit score. Best for companies with at least six figures in annual revenue.
Lendio business loans
Finder Rating: 4.75 / 5: ★★★★★
Lendio business loans
$500 – $5,000,000
Starting at 6%
Operate business in US or Canada, have a business bank account, 560+ personal credit score
Submit one simple application to potentially get offers from a network of over 300 legit business lenders.
National Funding business loans
Finder Rating: 4.75 / 5: ★★★★★
National Funding business loans
$5,000 – $500,000
4% to 8%
Be in business at least one year and make at least $150,000 in annual sales. Other loan types have additional requirements.
Working capital loans and equipment financing, some high-risk industries may be eligible.
Fundbox lines of credit
Finder Rating: 4.2 / 5: ★★★★★
Fundbox lines of credit
$1,000 – $150,000
Not stated
6 + months in business, $100,000+ in annual revenue, 600+ credit score
Get flat rate, short-term financing based on the financial health of your business, not your credit score.
Bitty Advance business cash advances
Finder Rating: 2.8 / 5: ★★★★★
Bitty Advance business cash advances
$2,000 – $25,000
Not applicable
$5,000 monthly bank revenue, 6+ months in business, business bank account open 3+ months, 450+ credit score
With APRs in the triple digits, this is best saved as a last resort.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

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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