Last month, I took in just under $8,000 in sales selling t-shirts and hoodies part-time, without having to print or create any of the items myself. If you want to learn the least capital intensive ways to create and sell t-shirts from home, without investing in a printer, blank shirts or any expensive equipment, read on.
Over the last 2 years, I have run a store selling fashion items and have received lots of questions from people wanting to get in this line of business. While I sold a variety of fashion items, this article focuses on t-shirts for simplicity and this post outlines the strategy I use. If you don’t have the time to read the rest of the article, here are some quick points in a nutshell:
- Don’t spend your money on expensive t-shirt printing equipment.
- Instead, use your capital to test your designs on free platforms instead.
- Find your audience, and what they want.
- Once you find your audience, go professional, and get a website. Shopify helps you create a professional website for as little as $29.99/month. This is cheaper than renting a real-world shop.
- Find more of that audience. Pay if you have to.
- Add more products. Rinse and repeat.
Let’s start at the beginning – what top 2 things do you think you will need to build a successful t-shirt clothing brand?
- A t-shirt printer?
- 100 blank t-shirts?
- Business cards?
- Company registration?
The answer is even simpler. All of the suggestions above are over-analyzed options which only shift your focus from the 2 main things you need:
- Your product
- Your customers
If you are focused on selling a t-shirt, you don’t need any of the items above. If you’re in doubt, try putting yourself in the position of a customer and thinking about the last time you bought a t-shirt (or any other item of clothing for that matter online). Did you need business cards, company registration or blank t-shirts to convince you to buy? Probably not. All you needed was being exposed to a design that strongly resonated with you and a payment button.
There is a school of thought in business that prioritizes products and product offers over the traditional business structure when it comes to building a successful business. If you have ever read any book which focuses on a lean business strategy, entrepreneurs are shifting away from the traditional setup and leaning more towards putting offers in front of the customers as a way to check whether the business itself is viable.
The problem with spending resources on unnecessary expenses is that most entrepreneurs won’t find success with the first, second, or third design. Are your resources committed to finding the perfect product for your venture, or are they committed to acquiring liabilities (I call these liabilities, because unless they help you generate revenue – i.e getting customers through the door) they are a drain on your resources. The best use of your capital is in finding that winning design, and you do that by putting as many of your ideas in front of your customers as possible – then letting the customer vote with their pocket.
Two ways to start a t-shirt business
How does this ‘lean’ method of starting a t-shirt printing business hold up against the traditional method?
The hard way (aka the ‘traditional’ method)
Well, in the traditional method, you would need to start with the following:
- purchase a t-shirt printer
- purchase stock: t-shirts in various colours, hoodies in various colours, anything else you want to sell – in various colours
- create your designs or hire a designer
- test print your first lot of stock
- get friends or family to model them and take pictures
- advertise on social media, word-of-mouth etc
I don’t know about you, but I already feel overwhelmed by just reading these steps. And we haven’t even considered the time and money involved. Don’t get me wrong – going down this route could lead to success in the long run – in the very long run. Imagine trying to start with no graphic designer, and a healthy budget of £800. You will need:-
- A good heat press for t-shirt printing (£147.99 on Amazon)
- 30 blank shirts (Approx. £150)
- Website – £30 monthly (using Shopify)
- Graphic design – £30 per design
- Domain name – £10
- Company registration – £12
- Online adverts – £400
- 100 Business cards – £20
- Total – £797.99
The lean way (my preferred way to start) is to outsource production and focus on marketing (or print-on-demand as it is commonly known). Here’s what this looks like:
Buy a heat pressOutsource production to a POD supplier (£0) Buy stock : t-shirts in various colours, hoodies in various colours, anything else you want to sell – in various coloursOutsource stock holding to a POD supplier (£0)
- Create your designs or hire a designer (£30 per design)
Test print your first lot of stockUse software to create images of your t-shirts with the finished graphics on them (£0 if you use Printful, or $14.95 per month with Placeit) Get friends or family to model them and take picturesUse software to create realistic mockups of models wearing your t-shirts (£0 if you use Printful, or $14.95 per month with Placeit)
- Advertise on social media, word-of-mouth etc (£400)
- Total – £430
How to start a t-shirt business the lean way
Align your Passion
This sounds cliche, but passion is the fuel that keeps you going when things don’t work out the first or second time – and I’m not referring to passion in your design. Your graphic designs should be the last thing to be passionate about, as the e-commerce rule states – never fall in love with your product. I have seen so many entrepreneurs fail because they fell in love with a design or product that the market didn’t want. They failed by spending an obscene amount of money to find out that the market didn’t want the product. Many others failed because they never took the time to work on the foundation – their mindset.
Your passion should be in your ability to commit to making a success of your business and achieving your entrepreneurship goals. In Napoleon Hills’ classic Think and Grow Rich, a burning desire for the successful lifestyle you really want is the first principle of success. When your passion lies in your goals rather than one product, you can make see through obstacles and commit to making your plans work.
Find your niche
Your niche is the second most important thing that determines how well your products are likely to sell. You must have a good eye for spotting niches that people are passionate about. Many entrepreneurs think that selling t-shirts is about creating cool, fun designs. Anyone can get cheap t-shirts with cool designs for £8 from the nearest Primark.
The difference between a £8 t-shirt and a £30 t-shirt is how strongly the target audience resonates with the message on the t-shirt. Do some research on your niche market, and hit them with designs that strongly resonate with what they feel strongly enough to talk about. Test these niches to find out what they feel strongly enough about to pay for.
There are several ways to research your niche. One popular way to do this is to watch the news and check for related trending topics on social media platforms. Create designs (text-based designs are the quickest to make) that resonate with your audience and put it in front of them very quickly. I know someone who does this very well with political news from the US, but there are other trends you can explore.
Create your product
Now we get to the mechanics – the easy part. Once you have some niche and design ideas, create 4 – 5 designs and test them with the market. Create your designs yourself using design software, or outsource this to a good designer on a budget website like Fiverr. The best way to deal with Fiverr designers is by giving them visual design cues and telling them what to do with these.
Ask them for mockups as well so that they do not just create the designs, but they also place the designs on clothes and show what the clothes might look like.
Market your designs
This is the real test of your audience and how well they are willing to vote with their pockets. You can market online using design marketplaces such as Etsy and Redbubble. Also take advantage of organic communities where your target audiences hang out, as you can get sales with a minimum spend. Post in niche groups for your marketplace and you can collaborate with Instagram influencers to show your products to their audiences.
It is clear that the second method (called print-on-design) clearly saves over 40% of your starting budget by removing the need to invest in a printer and stock that could go to waste if your design ideas don’t prove to be a hit with customers. This doesn’t factor in the time spent on figuring out how to operate your t-shirt press or the money wasted on printed shirts that don’t sell. Instead, that headache is passed on to professionals who print all day and all you have to focus on is creating your designs and marketing them.
By focusing on putting as many designs as possible in front of as many people as possible, you can significantly improve your chances of being successful.
There are so many examples of entrepreneurs who have used this approach in different industries, but my favourite is this guy who grew a beef jerky business from zero to $12,000 without ever touching a dehydrator.
It does take a huge mindset shift to start thinking of building a business this way, so personally, I needed a course (called the OFA Challenge) to help me understand the process a little better. For $100, the course was turned into a challenge that explained not just the psychology of each step, but gave me specific actions to focus on each day. What this did for me was that it stopped my mind from wandering to unproductive activities and basically kept me on the straight and narrow.
Here’s what your overall business strategy could look like:
- Use your capital to test different designs on free platforms, to find out what my customers wanted/what niche to get in.
- Once you have established some sales, go professional, and get a website. Shopify is a very popular platform as you can get up and running within 24 hours.
- Reach out to your customers where they hang out – use Facebook and Instagram paid ads and reaching out to influencers.
- Rinse and repeat by creating more of what your customers like.
What print-on-demand companies can you outsource production to?
There are lots of companies out that will help you print your designs on any item of your choice. These companies are not usually limited to t-shirts and hoodies, but also towels, mugs, tote bags, backpacks etc. They hold blank stock, and when you receive an order, you forward it to them and pay and they print and ship directly to your customer.
Here’s a small list of the main print-on-design companies that I use:
1. Printful (Ships from USA, Mexico, Latvia, Spain, Australia and Japan)
2. Inkthreadable (Ships from UK)
3. PrintGenie (Ships from USA)
4. Artsadd (Ships from USA, China)
5. Printlocker.com.au (Ships from Australia)
I will cover the main do’s and don’t in a different post, but the main reason for this post is to help you see that getting started isn’t as overwhelming as it looks. So take that first step today – sign up, get designing and start testing!