T-shirts. They’re the everyday, everywhere garment that’s inexpensive to make and endlessly customizable from color to the material to graphic design. We’ve all probably got at least a dozen of them in our closets, and that’s the conservative estimate! With all these shirts, there’s got to be a way to make money selling t-shirts online. Right?
Absolutely – so long as you’ve got a great idea and the discipline to bring it into the world. And with all the affordable options for outsourcing every step from design to printing to shipping, there’s no excuse not to have a little fun with a t-shirt side business. Here’s how.
1. Design the Shirt
First things first: if you don’t have a shirt idea, you can’t build a shirt business. It’s that simple. So, spend some time brainstorming and coming up with cute design ideas, clever puns, or laugh-out-loud jokes that you think people would enjoy wearing in their day-to-day. You can riff off popular TV and movies (but make sure you steer clear of copyright infringement), capture cultural moments or movements, or take advantage of local pride with community-specific designs.
If you have a talent for art, developing the actual visual design for the t-shirt is all part of the fun. For those of you with great ideas who are NOT artists, don’t worry! You can still have the t-shirt business of your dreams.
When you’re mainly working with typography (various fonts) and color choices, you can learn how to use Adobe Photoshop to create beautiful graphics for your shirts. You might even learn how to use clipart or word shapes to enhance your images. You can take advantage of some of the new apps like Over and Wordswag. You can pick up some great design tips on Udemy.
If your shirt idea still requires more artistic skill than you possess, you might look for an artist to work with for a share in the profits. Or, if you have a little money to invest, you might commission an artist through Upwork to create the graphics for your shirt.
Whatever you do while designing your shirt, make sure the words, fonts, clipart, and other images are free for you to use commercially and do not infringe on anyone else's copyright. You can download a template from Amazon once you’ve applied for a Merch account which we will talk about in the next step.
2. Decide Where to Sell Your T-Shirts
You’ve got a great shirt idea, and you’re coming up with the graphic design to really capture customers’ attention and earn their money. Now, how are you going to get your shirts to the public so they can buy them? If you wanted to be REALLY hands-on, of course, you could either learn to silkscreen shirts yourself or order them from a large vendor, store the shirts in your home, and ship them yourself to each customer when selling your shirts through a personal website or Etsy. That’s one of the most expensive ways to start a t-shirt business, however, what with buying stock you haven’t sold yet. If you’ve got an amazing design, why not let someone else do all the production and shipping for you?
There is an incredible number of possible printing and storefront options open to you that don’t require an at-home warehouse and shipping facility.
Spreadshop is brought to you by the folks behind Spreadshirt who've been in the custom print-on-demand merchandise game online for over 15 years. You can start your own free Spreadshop quickly and easily – and they offer simple ways to brand your storefront and even integrate your new shop with your website, too.
As with similar print-on-demand sites, you can set your own price for each product. They boast that they offer some of the highest commission rates in the business, guaranteeing that you'll make at least 20% off each sale – starting with your first. If you make a large volume in sales, you can also make a higher commission rate – reportedly up to 40%.
They have over 200 products that you can choose for your shop in various quality and price ranges from large brands to Spreadshop's own private label. You can customize clothing (t-shirts, of course!), and other items, such as accessories like bags and buttons, aprons and mugs and phone cases and caps and more. Spreadshop handles everything besides the design for you – they buy the product inventory, print the products, do quality control, pack and ship worldwide, and even take care of customer service.
They also offer plenty of tools to support you – their site includes tips and tricks to design and promote your products, and they periodically offer promotions to help you make sales. They make it easy to track your sales data, too, and even better – your customers will find it as easy to order from you on their mobile phones as it is on their desktops. Check it out here.
Zazzle and CafePress
Zazzle and CafePress are two of the easiest, with quick signup and quick product setup – and you can even expand beyond shirts to any number of other items from mugs and stickers to postcards and pillow covers.
On Zazzle, the price of printing the t-shirt is predetermined by the site. You then choose your royalty rate which is added to the base price. You can set your royalty at 5-99%. Zazzle recommends sticking to around 12%. A small transaction fee may also be deducted from your royalty depending on the rate.
At the time of writing, the base price for CafePress t-shirts was $18. Add your markup to the top. Performance bonuses are also available to shop owners.
The quality isn’t always the best at Zazzle and CafePress, so you might go up the ladder a bit and set up a store with Redbubble. At this site as well, they determine the base price and you can set your markup.
Even better, check out Merch by Amazon and get your business automatically kicked up a notch by having your t-shirts available on Amazon.
Merch is the creme de la creme of online shops for those trying to make money selling t-shirts. And with good reason! The traffic volume is incomparable. According to TrafficEstimate.com, Amazon receives about 669 million unique visitors each month. Redbubble? 8 million. Teespring? 3.9 million. Zazzle? 3.7 million. CafePress? About 1.7 million. The traffic continues to decrease as you get into other t-shirt marketplaces.
Another nice thing about Amazon is they often offer additional seller resources and tools. In this case, they offer analysis insights to help you manage your shirt business. And the resources out there focusing on this platform are phenomenal! Stop by Merch Informer for just a taste of the research tools that are available. If only every home business had those resources.
If you’d rather set up your own shop integrated seamlessly into your own website, work with Shopify to find a printer and dropshipper and go from there.
This step is all about finding the best printer and dropshipper for your needs, balancing between economy of price and availability of options. And I’ve only shared a few of your options here! You should do your research and also compare each option to determine how much margin there is for you to make a profit on top of the printing and shipping costs for your t-shirts. You can even sell your t-shirts on more than one platform if you would like. Diversification is almost always a good thing.
3. Set Up Shop
Once you have a design, a vendor, and a dropshipper, you’re ready to put your store together and start selling. With sites like Zazzle or Redbubble, that means creating an account, personalizing your storefront as allowed (uploading a header on Zazzle, ensuring you’ve got a good profile pic on Redbubble), and then setting up your products for sale by uploading designs, situating them on the shirts, and then selecting which colors will be available. The process is similar for Merch by Amazon, except there’s a waiting period before they add it to their site.
Building your own personal website is the trickiest choice, which will require purchasing a domain name, setting up your website and integrating a secure storefront for your customers. Bluehost is my hosting company of choice for beginners. They have e-commerce shopping cart platforms for you to choose from, or you can have them install WordPress and then you can create your store with something like Woocommerce.
While you can immediately get started selling your shirts, there are a few other things you should consider first. Consider making an official small business by filing with the state – if you’re going to sell t-shirts stocked from home or locally at festivals and conventions, you definitely need to do this. There are licensing and taxes to consider. You may also want to consider copyrighting or trademarking your t-shirt phrases and designs so no one else can steal your ideas and profit from them. This can be an expensive and lengthy process, however. You will definitely want to think about the long-term selling potential of a design before diving into this territory.
4. Have a Marketing Plan
For your t-shirt business to be successful, it’s imperative that you have a marketing plan once everything is set up. This isn’t Field of Dreams and I’m not whispering to Kevin Costner: you can’t just make it and expect the customers to come. You’ve got to let them know you’re there.
There are a number of ways to support your marketing, from using SEO best practices to your designs capitalizing on phrases and topics that are popular in a given moment. You should also figure out the exact type of person you want to sell to – no, it can’t be “everyone.” Not for marketing purposes. You’ve got to be specific, like “women in their 20s-30s who enjoy the TV show Outlander” or “people who live in Toronto and might have sentimental feelings for local transit.” Once you’ve figured out who your target customer is, you can more successfully market to them and score some sales.
Reach out to influencers in your target demographic to see if they’re interested in your shirt design and whether they might share it with their followers. Reach out to specific blogs – if you’ve made a shirt of interest to locals in one specific city, reach out to the city’s big bloggers to share what you made. Use social media and hashtags to connect with current conversations somehow related to your t-shirt design and promote your shirt along the way, or spend a little on advertising on social networks like Facebook and Instagram (if you have the budget). You could even use scarcity tactics to drive customer interest in your designs – everyone gets excited about a “limited edition” and many like a product more when “time’s almost up!” – so create a t-shirt design that you only sell for a limited time. You could also draw sales by giving money away: advertise (and follow through!) that a portion of every sale goes to a particular charity (then target people who might donate to that charity anyway).
There are so many ways to create your t-shirt, sell your t-shirt, and market your t-shirt – and my post should give you a leg up on throwing yourself into this exciting new venture! Use my starter guide and the resources I’ve linked here to get your t-shirt business up and running.
Published January 2018. Updated March 2019.