My Buddies and I Are Starting A T-shirt Line

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We hear this at Bold at least once a week and although we try to engage in these new business ventures with equal enthusiasm, we rarely see a second order from most t-shirt entrepreneurs. I don’t want this blog post to be a downer and to kill your hopes and dreams, but if you are a budding t-shirt entrepreneur, allow me to share some advice and hopefully better prepare you for what’s to come.

Starting a T-Shirt Business

First of all you have to realize that the general public is used to paying next to nothing for a t-shirt. When big corporations make huge quantity runs off-shore, they get them done for way less money than you ever will. These shirts arrive at stores here, printed and ready to be sold at prices unattainable by North American manufacturing. Not that we can’t get close, but chances are you aren’t making the quantities they are either.

If you think about it, most people are willing to pay up to $25 for a t-shirt they love at a retail shop. So you need to expect the retail shop wants to make 100% mark up on your product, so they will buy from you at $12.50.  Now of course you need to make 100% mark up too, so you need to buy from your printer at $6.50.  Is this possible?  Well, yes…and no.

If you buy 500, and you keep your print simple and you don’t print in a custom label, yes. But as soon as you start adding extras, like custom neck labels, (yes we do these) front and back printing, folding and bagging (we do this too), you will be over the ten dollar amount pretty quick.  And don’t expect to get anywhere close to wholesale pricing if you only want 36. There is no way to make money selling your t-shirt designs to other stores if you are printing 36 pieces at a time.  At 36 pieces per design you aren’t a clothing line. You are a fun hobby. (- which is fine. We all need a hobby.)

What about Zazzle of Café Press or those one off t-shirt shops that print your design for you and manage your inventory?  Well, yes that is an option if you have a couple ideas and you just want to get them out there, but there are a couple of problems with that model. First off, you have no control over quality. A lot of times you won’t even see the shirt that goes to the customer and you can’t brand the product with a custom neck label or custom packaging. To your customer, it’s just a shirt they bought off Zazzle. Second, you can’t get the shirts into any stores other than that website’s store. And you can’t get them into your own hands either at low enough price to re-sell. And finally, those companies will give you about $1.69 for every shirt you sell. Hmmm.

So in our experience, the best way to make this work is to go big, or go hobby. Jump in with both feet, order a large quantity of t-shirts and other apparel and go pound the pavement.

Which brings me to the most important ingredient for success in this business. Enthusiasm. Even more so than great designs. We have seen great designs go nowhere and other designs that were, well, less that amazing sell and sell and sell. Why? Because the owner of those designs knew how to sell and was willing to pound the pavement to get his work out there.

So, yes it can be done and yes you can make money selling your t-shirt designs.  Just don’t expect it to be easy and bring a whole lot of passion for your product.  With the right combination you just might be the next big thing.

Matt Pierrot

Owner and guy who once started a t-shirt business.