How to Start an Online T-Shirt Business: Everything You Need to Know

T-shirts aren’t just a staple of casual wear, but articles of clothing that often reflect our personalities, interests, and identities.

Because of this, selling t-shirts online has become a popular business choice, especially for entrepreneurs and artists looking to explore a relatively low investment business to start.

With the popularity of t-shirt businesses, there’s no doubt you’ll be facing some competition. But by building a brand for a specific audience and creating the kinds of t-shirt designs that your customers want, you can find your own success online.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through each step of the creation process for starting your own t-shirt line and selling in an online store.

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How to start an online t-shirt business

  1. Choose a niche to focus on
  2. Source quality materials
  3. Create your designs
  4. Mockup your t-shirts
  5. Validate your designs before you invest in them
  6. Set up an online store

Selling your t-shirts on Shopify

Here’s the good news: Building and launching a new t-shirt brand is relatively inexpensive and quick. If you already have designs you want to sell, you can be up and running in as little as a few hours.

With the abundance of apps and integrations in the Shopify App Store, you can also connect your store to a t-shirt printer/dropshipper in minutes and have a fully functioning store, ready to print and ship to your customers.EmailStart free trial

5 things to consider before you start a t-shirt business

Although the tools and technology available nowadays for designing, printing and shipping your own t-shirts makes starting up relatively simple, the difficult part is building a brand to stand out from the competition. Combine competition with slim margins and building an online t-shirt company becomes a little harder than it might first appear.

To be successful with your new t-shirt brand, you have to make the right decisions from the get-go.

There are several critical elements to starting a successful t-shirt business. Each of these elements needs to be considered closely before moving forward:

  1. Niche: Being more specific will help you stand out as well as better attract and market to the right audience without blowing your budget
  2. Design: The majority of people that are purchasing graphic tees are looking for designs, graphics, and slogans that connect with them and reflect their opinions and personality
  3. Quality: The quality of the shirts you use and the prints need to be top notch to build a sustainable business
  4. Brand: A strong, interesting brand is vital in the t-shirt industry
  5. Inventory: Will you manage your own inventory to take advantage of volume discounts or use a print-on-demand service to save time and effort

Let’s take a deeper look at each one.

1. Niche

You hear this term tossed around a lot, but nowhere is it more important to choose a niche than in the graphic t-shirt industry. One of the most important factors in building a successful t-shirt business is the ability to stand out, and one of the best ways to do that is by catering to a specific audience or interest group.

Generally, categories like “t-shirts for people who like funny slogans” are going to be too broad to address in a very developed market. You’re going to want to tighten it up a little more. An example of a more specific niche would be t-shirts with funny slogans that relate to doctors and nurses, or dog owners as pictured below.

t-shirt with pug that says keep calm and pug on
Source: ThinkPup

There are many ways to find and evaluate a niche, but to name a few:

  • Visit your prospective niche’s subreddits and evaluate the subscriber count and level of engagement
  • Use Facebook’s Audience Insights tool to gauge the size of your niche on Facebook
  • Scan this list of popular hobbies on Wikipedia for inspiration
  • Consider your own interests and the communities you belong to—sometimes it’s okay to trust your gut

2. Design

The last thing a visitor would want is to see in your catalog is a copy of a t-shirt design found elsewhere. Your designs don’t necessarily need to be complex, in fact, many of the best selling graphic tees are very simple. However, they do need to connect with your audience and stand out.

To ensure a quality print, your design files should generally be at least 300 digital pixels per inch (DPI or PPI), have a transparent background, and be large enough to cover the actual print area of the t-shirt. Just note that your exact specifications will vary depending on the printer and printing technique used (more on that later).

3. Quality

The next most important factor in the success and sustainability of an online t-shirt business is quality. You can disappoint someone once, but they won’t let you disappoint them twice. A pattern that fades and cracks or a t-shirt that shrinks and rips won’t create raving fans that come back and repurchase.

Higher quality t-shirts might cost more to produce but can also command higher prices. The final quality of your t-shirt will depend on the material of the blank t-shirt, printing technique used, and correctly preparing your design file.

a quality t-shirt from nuvango sporting a pattern of a woman smoking a cigarette
Source: Nuvango

4. Brand

A strong, interesting brand is vital in the t-shirt industry. Your brand is a promise that will tie together all your choices including your niche, designs, and quality. Building a unique and likable brand is important for businesses in a high competition industry.

When customers have more choices, it becomes extremely important for an ecommerce business to have a distinctive presence to capture customers’ attention.

If you’ve chosen a niche that embodies a certain lifestyle, you can incorporate it into your marketing and website to speak to these customers, like in the anime/streetwear example from Sugoi Shirts below.

sugoi shirts instagram as an example of building a lifestyle brand
Source: Sugoi Shirts

5. Inventory

When starting a t-shirt business, most people either opt to buy and hold inventory, taking advantage of bulk pricing and local printers, or use a print-on-demand service to take inventory management and shipping off your plate. You can also opt for a mix of both.

By holding your own inventory, you can more easily sell in-person and potentially improve your profit margins, whereas with print-on-demand, you take on a lot less risk. Weigh the pros and cons before you start, and if you’re unsure, print-on-demand is always a low-investment way to test one of your online business ideas.

Of course, if you have the budget for it, you can also invest in your own printer and set up a base of operations.

Sourcing quality t-shirts and printers 

Not all t-shirts are the same and not all print jobs are the same. As we mentioned above, quality is paramount to your brand and its success, so it’s important to educate yourself and choose your blank shirts wisely.

It might be tempting to sacrifice quality for higher profit margins but you need to consider how the quality will affect the customer’s decision to share your brand and repurchase in the long run.

Choosing a quality t-shirt encompasses several factors, including fit, sizing, material, softness, and weight. A great starting point for determining which blank t-shirt to use is to check out T-Shirt Magazine Online’s review of some of the most popular blank t-shirts for printing.

Once you narrow down your choices, it’s strongly encouraged to order samples yourself to make an informed final decision.

T-shirt printing techniques

In this day and age, there are three popular methods for printing onto t-shirts. Each method has its pros and cons, and will partially depend on how much time you want to invest in the product creation, as well as the printing partner you choose.

Below, we have outlined all three print methods to give you a better understanding of each process. Whether you invest in your own printer or use a local supplier, it’s worth understanding how each printing technique works.

Screen printing

screen printer set up at printful
Source: Printful

Screen printing is an old technique that has stood the test of time. As one of the most popular methods for printing onto t-shirts, screen printing can produce durable and long-lasting results. However, a labor-intensive initial setup means screen printing is most cost-effective when printing in bulk. Screen printing also poses issues when it comes to complex designs or designs with more than four to five colors as each color increases costs and production time.

Pros

  • Cost effective for large batches.
  • Volume discounts.

Cons

  • Not cost effective for multiple colors.
  • Can only print simple images and designs.

Heat transfer

heat transfer printer
Source: Transfer Express

Heat transfers have also been around for a long time and exist in several forms. You may have seen basic heat transfer paper at your local office supply store.

Although these make it easy to print your designs from your home computer and transfer them with an iron, these won’t cut it when it comes to running a business. The more advanced form of heat transfers are called plastisol transfers and are printed by professional printers on special, high-quality heat transfer paper. The advantage of this is being able to order a stack of prints from your local printer and transfer them to your t-shirts as you receive orders with a commercial heat press machine.

Heat transfers can produce full-color images onto t-shirts relatively easily and quickly.

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Pros

  • You can “print” each shirt on demand.

Cons

  • Lower quality and less durable than direct-to-garment and screen printing.
  • Large upfront investment into a heat press machine (Few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars).
  • The do-it-yourself approach means additional time input from yourself.

Direct-To-Garment (DTG)

direct-to-garment printer
Source: Anajet

The direct-to-garment printing process operates much like an ink-jet printer you might have at home. DTG prints ink directly onto the t-shirt and can produce full-color images with accuracy.

Direct-to-garment printing produces quality printing on par with screen printing and better than heat transfers. Because it operates just like an ink-jet printer, there are no setup costs, unlike screen printing. This means that it’s easy and cost-effective to print small orders.

The major disadvantage of direct-to-garment printing is the lack of volume discount for large orders, as it takes the same amount of time to print each shirt.

Pros

  • Unlimited color options.
  • High detail accuracy in printed design.
  • Great for small orders or one-offs.
  • No set-up costs.

Cons

  • Not cost effective for large production runs.
  • Generally no volume discounts.

Creating your t-shirt designs

Find the best selling designs and niches

If you’re stuck for t-shirt niche ideas and designs, a great start is to look at what else is popular and currently selling well.

Below is a list of several popular and best seller pages for some of the top graphic t-shirt marketplaces that just might help you get a better idea of your next niche or t-shirt design.

You may also want to consider checking out Google Trends to get a sense of the topics people are currently interested in.

Hire a designer

Once you have an idea for some t-shirt designs. You’re going to have to get your ideas actually designed. If you have Adobe Photoshop or similar programs you can likely produce some simple designs by yourself. However, if you’re like most people, you will likely need to enlist some help.

There are a wide variety of tools and market places you can use to find a suitable graphic designer to help you with your designs.

Design communities

Dribbble: Dribbble is a great designer community with lots of unique talent. Search for the style you’re looking for and message the designers you like to see if they’re available for freelance projects.

Behance: Behance is another great designer community to check out for your next t-shirt designer.

Freelance networks

Some other great options you may also want to try are the more popular freelance networks like Freelancer and Upwork.

Buy t-shirt designs

If you’re stuck for a designer, there are also options to purchase pre-made designs. You’ll want to keep in mind that if you choose to go this route, there’s a high likelihood that other people are already selling the design, making it harder for you and your brand to stand out.

Check out t-shirt graphic marketplaces like:

You may also want to check out general graphic design marketplaces but keep in mind if you plan to sell your t-shirts, you’ll need to purchase a commercial license.

Mocking up your t-shirts

Once you have some final designs, your next step will be to get some mockup images of them on actual t-shirts. Your customers are going to want to actually see what the final design will look like printed on a shirt.

There are a few ways you can get images of your final designs on t-shirts including ordering samples and taking product photography yourself, or with the abundance of t-shirt templates online, you can opt to create a 100% digital mockup like the one below.

Adobe Photoshop t-shirt templates (.psd) are the most common types of mockup files. They allow you to quickly preview how your designs will look printed on a t-shirt. Most Photoshop templates come with multiple layers that allow you to change the color of the shirt and apply your own design that will blend with the creases, folds, and contours of the shirt.

Below, we have compiled several resources to help you find the best mockup file for your next project:

If Adobe Photoshop isn’t right for you, you can also use web-based mockup software that will allow you to do the same thing without having to download and figure out Photoshop.

Another great option for tasks like this is to enlist help from someone on Fiverr. Just search for t-shirt mockups.

Validating your designs

Before you invest a lot of money on your new business idea, you should first verify that there is a market and interest for your designs. There are many ways you can go about validating the market for your design ideas.

Some of the popular and more common methods for validating your ideas include:

Personal social networks: Post some of your designs to your Facebook profile, niche Facebook Groups, on Twitter, and other social networks your friends and potential customers frequent. Be careful when asking friends and family, however—their opinions are prone to kindness.

Reddit: Despite the community’s general aversion to marketing, Reddit is still one of the best places to get honest feedback on your designs (which can even translate into sales after you launch). With countless subreddits, it’s easy to find a highly targeted niche of potential customers and ask them directly for their thoughts on your designs before launching.

Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding sites have made it much easier to test, validate, and collect money upfront for your new business idea. Launching a crowdfunding campaign can be time-consuming and requires a good deal of preparation, however, the benefits can be huge, which include fully funding your project before you launch it. If you have a particularly novel t-shirt business idea (say, matching t-shirts for dogs and dog owners), crowdfunding might be for you.

Print on demand: Finally, with ecommerce platforms like Shopify, it’s never been easier to set up a fully functional online store in a matter of few hours to validate your business idea. Start a 14-day free trial and integrate a print-on-demand service to validate your t-shirts by trying to sell them online.

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Setting up your t-shirt store

sugoi shirts t-shirt store
Sugoi Shirts sells anime-inspired t-shirts on Shopify. Hear their best t-shirt business tips on our podcast.

Now that you have your t-shirt designs in hand, have made your mockups and validated your idea, it’s time to build your store. As mentioned in the validation section, getting set up on Shopify is quick and easy, and you can start with a 14-day free trial.

There are a handful of t-shirt print-on-demand services that directly integrate with your Shopify store as well, allowing you to start taking orders in no time. These services will print and ship your t-shirts to your customers on your behalf every time you receive an order. There’s no need to purchase or hold any inventory upfront, making it a great way to get started. Best of all, if you want to use your design on other printable products, such as mugs and tote bags, you have that option as well.

There are a variety of t-shirts available through the following print-on-demand apps:

Start your t-shirt business today

It’s never been easier to express your creativity through your own online t-shirt business. Whatever niche you choose to serve or how ambitious you decide to be with your quality and designs, a t-shirt store makes for a great first business for new entrepreneurs

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