For many entrepreneurs, their first online business was a t-shirt business. Back in the day, before the internet, many entrepreneur’s first store was a lemonade stand, but selling lemonade didn’t crossover to the digital world very well, so t-shirt stores ended up being the online equivalent.
But why start a t-shirt business?
Like a lemonade stand, they’re pretty easy for any novice entrepreneur to start. They can be started quickly with a limited amount of infrastructure and basically no money—so they’re a great first step in any entrepreneur’s business portfolio.
For those reasons, starting a t-shirt business tends to get a bad rap—anyone can do it, it doesn’t take any rocket science! But, that’s why we think t-shirt businesses are an important part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They’re like a rite of passage. Ask any modern-day ecommerce entrepreneur if they had a t-shirt business at one point in their career and they’ll likely say yes.
And they’ll also tell you everything that starting a t-shirt business taught them.
Starting a t-shirt business is a great place to learn how to be an entrepreneur—by actually being an entrepreneur! You can read as many books and blogs about entrepreneurship as you want, listen to all the podcasts, and follow all the motivational accounts on social media, but if you aren’t putting anything into practice then you’re still not an entrepreneur.
By starting a t-shirt business, you can put everything you know about building, launching, and growing a business into practice, plus you can figure out everything you don’t know (which will probably be more than you expected) on the way.
When you start a t-shirt business, it may not bring you riches, fame, and glory, but it will teach you important lessons about launching and running a business that you can’t get from books and blogs—which you can apply to any future businesses. For many entrepreneurs, starting a t-shirt business laid a foundation of skills, lessons, and experience that served as a base for every other business they launched in the future.
So, let’s get into everything you need to know about how to start an online t-shirt business.
Table of Contents
- Starting an Online T-Shirt Store from Scratch
- Why You Should Start an Online T-Shirt Business Right Now
- Who Can Start a T-Shirt Business
- How to Start an Online T-Shirt Business Right Now
- Should I Copyright or Trademark My T-Shirt Designs?
- The Cost of Starting a T-Shirt Business
- How to Get Your First T-Shirt Sales
- What to Do if Your T-Shirt Business Isn’t Getting Any Sales
- Online T-Shirt Business Success Stories
- T-Shirt Business FAQs
- How to Start a T-Shirt Business: Step-by-Step Video
- Resource Roundup
- Starting a t-shirt business is easy—pretty much anyone can start one and they can be started for less than $100
- All you need to start a t-shirt business is t-shirt designs, a t-shirt printer/dropshipper, and a website to sell your products on
- T-shirt businesses are a rite of passage for ecommerce entrepreneurs—so many entrepreneurs started their careers with a t-shirt business!
Starting an Online T-Shirt Store from Scratch
The founder of this site, Richard, started off his ecommerce career with a t-shirt store. It was originally just an experiment to see if he could build and launch an online store in 24-hours, but it quickly blew up to be much more than that.
Sure enough, he created and launched his store in 24-hours, but he also documented the process in a blog post to show others how they could do it, too. And people loved it! The post was shared thousands of times and hundreds of thousands of people read it. Some people wanted to buy his t-shirts and others wanted to start their own t-shirt store, too.
But, that was several years ago, and so much has changed for ecommerce businesses since then.
Now, it’s even easier to start a t-shirt business! And there are so many more creative t-shirt designs and concepts that entrepreneurs are selling. Plus, it’s easier to sell other products too like sweatshirts, ball caps, mugs, phone cases, and so much more. New entrepreneurs aren’t limited to just starting t-shirt businesses as their first store anymore, there are so many other options.
So, let’s rewind a few years and start from the very beginning. What was starting a t-shirt business like back in the day? And how have things changed?
The Background Story
As an entrepreneur, I find it hard to do nothing. I always want to be building something. I need to be building something. That’s why, during the process of documenting #TheGreatBuild project, I became frustrated so many times.
One evening while I was waiting and I really couldn’t move forward on the project, I made a decision to build another ecommerce business.
For those that are maybe just reading my blog for the first time and don’t know, my new ecommerce business which I have been documenting through a blog series called #TheGreatBuild is called Finch Goods Co. Many people have asked me where the name “Finch” came from and why I chose Finch Goods for the name of my new business. Truth be told, it was the name of the street I grew up on. It was the place I lived, the place I played, and it was the place of my first dozen entrepreneurial endeavors, mostly in the form of lemonade stands, vegetable stands, a makeshift hockey card pawnshop, and garage sales. The name Finch Goods Co. is a tribute to my early entrepreneur days.
Finch is also the name of the closest subway/bus station, and up until I had a car, it was my access point to the rest of the world. If I wanted to go anywhere, I passed through Finch Station.
Because of my sentimental attachment to Finch, I designed a t-shirt based on the typography, colors, and tile pattern of that station in late February.
Fast forward a few weeks to a night in April. I was working on #TheGreatBuild project (Finch Goods Co.) and was getting close to launching. However, I was stuck. Everything was ready to go except I was waiting on some inventory I intended to launch with. I had nothing to do.
As an entrepreneur, having nothing to do is a terrible feeling. It feels exactly the opposite of progress—probably because it is. Growing anxious to launch Finch Goods Co. and not being able to, I stared blankly at my computer for a few minutes, until my screen darkened and went to sleep. In the reflection of my screen, I saw my shirt… Finch.
Remembering the few compliments I got on the shirt, I wondered if people actually were interested in hyper-local t-shirts that represented their community—right down to their local subway station.
The idea of hyper-local t-shirts was one I was sure people were interested in. Our city definitely has a lot of pride and after some cursory Google searches, I found nothing similar. The closest was a series of vinyl wall decals with the various stations’ typographies. Searching for that company’s name on Google, I found several online news articles about them. They had been running their business for 5+ years, so in theory, they were doing well.
The thought of getting wrapped up in a new business while still trying to launch Finch Goods Co. was a little intimidating. My time was very limited at this point… Because of this, I came to a decision; if I were to build a new business, there would have to be some rules:
- I had 24 hours to build it—no more, no less
- It had to be fully automated once it was live
Under these rules, building the entire business would essentially act in itself as the validation.
It’s Go Time… 23:59
With these rules in mind, there were a couple of things to figure out:
- #1: Which ecommerce platform was I going to use?
- #2: How would I print the t-shirts and ship them in an automated way?
For me, #1 was easy. Unless #2 forced my hand in another direction, I would use Shopify (Shopify Review). It’s the platform I know and love, it’s the easiest to use (in my opinion), and it offered the most amount of app integrations, which I knew was likely where I would find a dropshipping company to print and ship custom shirts for me.
I immediately headed to the Shopify App Store and searched for “t-shirts.” The search returned approximately six t-shirt printers/dropshippers. After scanning through all of them, their integrations, their t-shirt options, and pricing, I decided on Printful. Printful, it seemed, had the most seamless integration, the best selection of shirts, and reasonable pricing. They also had the ability to print other products like canvas prints and bags, should I ever decide to expand my product offering.
With my ecommerce platform and t-shirt printer/dropshipper decided upon, it was time to work on the designs. Now, Toronto has over 60 stations and I completely underestimated how grueling and exhausting it would be to design all 60. Luckily, many of the designs had a similar style. Over the next 6 hours, I cranked out almost all 60 t-shirt designs for the stations.
With all 60 designs complete, I thought I was done. However, I quickly realized that very few people would buy a design without knowing how it looked on a t-shirt. With that in mind, I headed over to my favorite graphic design marketplace, Creative Market. I searched for “t-shirt template” and quickly found a really slick template for $8.
Now that I had the t-shirt template and all my t-shirt designs, it was once again a manual process of applying all 60 of my designs to the t-shirt template and saving each file.
With all my t-shirt designs completed, it was time to build the website. I signed up for Shopify’s 14-day trial and got to work. I already had a Shopify theme I had purchased for Finch Goods Co. so I figured I might as well use it for this project as well. When it comes to naming a business, I know it can sometimes take weeks, but I didn’t have that long. I decided to allocate 3 minutes to naming this business. As confusing as this was (mostly for my friends and family) I decided to call this business, Finch’s. Again, this was named after the street I grew up on, the subway station closest to my childhood home and, it just so happens that Finch Station is the first station on the subway line.
I designed the website to be as simple as possible, even keeping the same color scheme from Finch Goods Co. The most time-consuming part was creating each of the 60 products and uploading the right photos for each. Organization was key.
Finally, after 5 coffees and close to 14 hours straight, Finch’s was born:
The last step before I launched and marketed my new online store was to integrate my store with Printful (Printful Review). This was an easy enough process. I installed the Printful Shopify App, and from there it automatically pulled in all my products. All I had to do at that point was upload the design file to each product and select the type/style of shirt I was going to use.
At this point, I was pretty tired and really had no idea what I was going to do for my marketing. However, I did remember that just in the previous week, the subway celebrated its 60th anniversary. Could I use this to my advantage? I did some searches on Google to see who covered this event. One stuck out immediately: It was a pretty popular local online blog and they just wrote an article about the subway system’s 60th anniversary. I figured the author of that post might want to hear about my newly released shirts.
I found the author on Twitter and asked for his email address. Later that evening, I emailed him the following:
Within the hour he replied asking a few more questions. It was late and I was exhausted. I decided to leave my response until the morning. Besides, I still had a few things left to set up in my Shopify account before launch.
The next day, I woke up to the dinging sound of emails coming through to my phone, *ding*… *ding*… *ding*. After ignoring the first few, I finally rolled over and checked my phone. To my surprise, it was a bunch of emails from customers asking about my shirts, shipping, and pricing… Customers? I haven’t even officially launched yet!
I quickly opened my laptop and discovered a big spike in traffic to my site. Although I had not “officially” launched, my site was live. However, I still had not turned on checkout, so no one could actually buy a t-shirt.
My first priority was to turn the checkout on and complete a test order to make sure everything was working properly. After I did that, I checked to see where the traffic was coming from. Turns out, the writer went ahead without my email responses and published a post about my store anyways!
Here was his post:
I also received a handful of other emails from people interested in collaborations and promotions with my line of tees.
Furthermore, that day I also received some favorable social media mentions from BlogTO as well as a local Hip Hop radio station and a handful of other locals.
Costs & Sales
I’ve broken down my total costs below for this 24-hour business. My fixed costs amounted to a staggering $24. My variable costs were $13 per shirt to print each one. My revenues for the first 24 hours of business were $347.71 for a total profit (in the first 24 hours) of $210.71
$16 font for typography (Fixed Cost)
$8 t-shirt mockup template (Fixed Cost)
$104 for printing 8 t-shirts at $13 per t-shirt (Variable Costs)
$137 Total Costs
Total Revenue In The First 24 Hours:
Admittedly, after the spike in sales from the initial media coverage, sales dropped. In fact, since that first 24-hour sales period, I’ve only made a few hundred more dollars, however, I have done ABSOLUTELY NOTHING and everything is 100% automated. I have not, and I have no need to login to anything for sales and orders to be taken care of.
Since my initial email that sparked my initial sales, I haven’t done anything else for marketing. That one blog post continues to deliver a small trickle of sales each week.
Most of my time now is spent on my new project, Finch Goods Co. so I have almost no time left for this project. However, when I do get some time, I’m going to focus on SEO around some keywords I uncovered that I believe have the potential to deliver a steady stream of high-quality traffic for people looking for localized Toronto t-shirts. Again, I want to keep this project as automated as possible so SEO is going to be the biggest opportunity to achieve that.
So as you can see, starting a t-shirt business is a valuable way to learn the ropes around building, launching, and growing an online business. It worked for Richard, and it can work for you, too.
Why You Should Start an Online T-Shirt Business Right Now
The biggest problem we find among online entrepreneurs is:
- They don’t know what to sell online so they spend months and months looking for product ideas, before giving up
- If they do find a great product idea and start their first business, they have no idea how to properly market their product and business to drive traffic and convert that traffic to sales—thus a great product or idea is squandered
Starting a t-shirt business helps with both of these factors.
First, if you’re struggling to find a product to sell, you will automatically have a product—t-shirts. It makes choosing a product idea simple.
Second, an online t-shirt business gives you a way to start understanding and experimenting with online marketing before you sink some real time and money into a more serious business.
Remember, and never forget, you’ll learn 100x more from actually starting a business than you ever will from just consuming articles, blogs, books, and podcasts. There is no substitution for the real-world experience of building traffic and learning to convert it, and starting with a t-shirt business can be one of the best places to begin.
Who Can Start a T-Shirt Business
One of the best things about starting an online t-shirt business?
Pretty much anyone can start one!
There’s a much lower barrier-to-entry because you don’t have to purchase a bunch of t-shirts from a wholesaler, learn how to screen print designs on them, and then figure out how to ship the t-shirts to your customers. Oh no—selling t-shirts online is a much more streamlined process now, to the point that you don’t even have to see your t-shirts in-person at all. They can be made and sent directly to your customers without you having to lift a finger.
This is great news for new entrepreneurs because it means that they can start t-shirt businesses and get their foot in the door more easily.
You can start a t-shirt business if:
- You want a small side project
- You want to start your first business
- You’re a student
- You’re a stay-at-home parent
- You work another job
- You have some free time
- You want to experiment with marketing
- You have a cool t-shirt design idea
- You want to start a business and then sell it
- You want to start a business and then grow it
- You want to make your own merch
- You don’t have much money to spend on starting a business
- You have virtually no money to spend on starting a business
- You want to start and run a business that takes minimal effort to upkeep
- You don’t have the ability to commit full-time to starting and running an online business
Whatever your reason, pretty much anyone can start a t-shirt business! Read on to the next sections to find out how you can start a completely automated t-shirt business for very little upfront investment, and without purchasing any inventory upfront.
Remember, Richard started his t-shirt business for less than $150, so it’s possible!
How to Start an Online T-Shirt Business Right Now
Alright, let’s get into the details.
This is how you can start an online t-shirt business right now:
- You need a niche
- You need a t-shirt supplier
- You need a website
- You need t-shirt designs
That’s it! Just three main steps.
Let’s dive in further.
Pick a Niche
Before starting your online t-shirt business, there is one important thing to consider—your niche.
Choosing a niche is absolutely vital for success in the over-saturated t-shirt industry. If you don’t focus on your niche, your t-shirt designs and marketing may not appeal to your core audience and you also might not stand out in the market.
What is a Niche?
A niche is a group of people joined together by a common interest that is typically a subset of a larger market.
Think of it like this: Every person in the world has interests and those interests categorize them—consciously or not—into niches. Niches are specific enough to account for a substantial amount of people, while not being too large or too broad.
For example, picking “women” as a niche is too broad. Women are interested in many different things, they are a broad range of ages, activity levels, geological locations, and have varying skills and values. “Women” are a market, but not a niche market. “Women who rock climb” is more specific, without being too broad. There’s a substantial portion of the world’s population who fit the description of this niche market without it being too limiting.
Why Pick a Niche?
The purpose of picking your niche is to define a target group of people that your t-shirts will appeal to.
If you have no niche market, then you’ll have too broad a range of people to try to sell to which can become overwhelming and fruitless. Targeting ad campaigns becomes difficult, your branding can become directionless and there will be no identifiable passion fueling your business.
Niche markets are passionate about their interests because, well, they’re interested in them! If you feed into their interests then their community is likely to extend their passion to your business.
Find a T-Shirt Supplier
Once you have an idea of what your target niche is, you need to source your products! A business is nothing without products to sell.
So, in this case, you need to find t-shirts.
Luckily, there are lots (and we mean lots!) of t-shirt suppliers out there. You can find suppliers in all kinds of countries selling all kinds of t-shirts in all kinds of materials at all kinds of price points.
But what you need to narrow down your search to is a supplier that meets your specific criteria.
Do you want your t-shirts to be a certain style (cropped or long?), a certain color (neutrals or brights?), a certain fabric (cotton or a poly-blend?), or to meet certain specifications (eco-friendly or sweat-wicking?). If so, you’ll have to find a supplier that can meet the standards you’re setting.
If price is a big factor for you, you might want to focus on finding a t-shirt supplier that’s located in an area where manufacturing costs are low, so the cost to produce your products will be low, too. If fast-shipping is a priority for you, you might want to work with a supplier that has fulfillment warehouses in locations where most of your customers live so they’ll get their products faster.
Above all else, for new entrepreneurs, we recommend working with a t-shirt supplier that offers dropshipping.
It’s when the t-shirt supplier handles the entire process of making, printing, packing, and shipping your t-shirt products for you. They handle all the backend stuff, so you get to focus on creating your t-shirt designs, marketing your t-shirts, and helping your customers. It makes the process of starting and running your business super easy, and it’s how you can start a t-shirt business with no money upfront.
When you work with a t-shirt dropshipper, you just purchase a t-shirt from them when a customer purchases one from you! And most t-shirt dropshippers integrate with the most popular ecommerce platforms (like Shopify) so the entire process can be completely automated, meaning that you don’t have to forward customer orders to your dropshipper. The orders will go straight through from your site to your dropshipper!
Dropshipping is one of those things that sounds too good to be true—but it’s a tried-and-true process. Richard used Printful to dropship his t-shirts when he started his t-shirt business several years ago, and it’s only gotten better since then! Now, Printful is one of the top dropshipping services in the world, they have warehouses all over the globe in countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Latvia so customers get their orders fast. They also ship worldwide, they offer tons of different products so you can dropship more than just t-shirts, and they have a team you can work with to create your designs if you want help bringing your product ideas to life.
They’re a full-service dropshipping service and they’re adding new products all the time, so they’re our top recommendation when it comes to starting your t-shirt business. If you want to learn more about them, check out our Printful Review.
But, if you’re looking to explore all your options, check out the following t-shirt dropshippers:
- Printful (Printful Review)
- Print Aura
- Shirt Monkey
- Tee Talkies
- T-Shirt & Sons
Or check out our Dropshipping Suppliers Directory for even more suppliers.
Once you’ve picked a t-shirt supplier, you can move on to the next step.
Create Your T-Shirt Business Website
There are plenty of available platforms that you can sell your t-shirts on.
Marketplaces like Teespring have become popular lately, however, options like this aren’t ideal if you’re trying to learn more about digital marketing and branding. Choosing a marketplace platform like Teespring means that your products live on the Teespring platform so you don’t have the option to brand your own website, get deep into your site’s analytics, or implement sophisticated conversion optimization tactics.
There’s a time and a place for ecommerce marketplaces like Teespring—there definitely are some advantages to them like being able to draw in traffic and sales quickly—but if you’re looking to really learn the ropes of ecommerce, we’d recommend the next option…
Which is to choose a hosted ecommerce platform. If you’re serious about building a brand or learning more about digital marketing, website optimization, and sales strategies, then you need to go with a more customizable option like Shopify, BigCommerce, or Squarespace.
There are plenty of hosted ecommerce platforms out there, but our top pick is Shopify. They’re the best choice for pretty much any online business, and since they’re the biggest player in the game, it’s highly likely that whichever t-shirt dropshipper you work with will integrate directly with Shopify so you can automate your sales process.
It’s also super easy to get your site set up on Shopify. You don’t need to know how to code or even know much about how to set up a website—Shopify walks you through the entire process. They’re built to help people who know nothing about online businesses get their online business set up quickly and easily, but they’re also powerful enough to scale along with businesses as they grow. Any size of online store can be set up on Shopify, whether it’s a local mom-and-pop shop, to a Fortune 500 company—they’re a good fit for pretty much any business.
So, for your t-shirt store, we recommend setting it up on Shopify. You can make use of their 14-day free trial to get started before committing. But, if you want to explore all your options, check out our roundup of all the best ecommerce platforms here before making your choice.
Create Your T-Shirt Designs
Once you have a t-shirt supplier and you have an idea of where you’re going to set up shop, it’s time to figure out what you want your t-shirts to look like.
Your t-shirt designs are a super important part of your business—they’re essentially what’s going to set you apart from all the other t-shirt stores or retailers out there so it’s worth putting effort into your t-shirt designs.
These are your options:
- Create your own t-shirt designs
- Purchase designs from artists/creatives
- Commission an artist/creative to create designs for you
Depending on your budget and design ideas, one of these options might be a better fit for you than the others, so consider them carefully.
Creating Your Own T-Shirt Designs
If you’re an artist or creative, you might want to create your own designs or already have designs that you can print on your t-shirts. If that’s the case, then create your own t-shirt designs!
If you want to create your own t-shirt designs but aren’t sure how, check out classes on Skillshare to learn how to make your own designs. You could create designs on paper and then scan them onto your computer to make a digital file, or you could create digital designs right from the get-go.
Purchasing T-Shirt Designs
If you don’t want to create your own designs but don’t want to hire a designer to create them, you can purchase designs from creators on sites like Creative Market, GraphicRiver, or Designious. There are so many different options to choose from, and in most cases, you can even make small edits to the designs to tailor them to your needs. But keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase the commercial license option in order to include the designs on t-shirts that you’re selling, and you’ll have to abide by the licenses’ rules.
Also keep in mind that these marketplaces are open to anyone, so it’s possible that other people will be using the same designs and selling their own products with the designs on them—so they won’t be unique to you or your business.
Hiring a T-Shirt Designer
The final option is to hire a designer that can create t-shirt designs for you. This is likely to be the most costly option out of all three, however, it will likely give you great results and will ensure that your designs are more bespoke than if you were to purchase them from a public marketplace.
If you want to hire a designer, try these services:
A graphic designer will be able to take your design ideas and bring them to life so you can sell the exact kind of t-shirts you want to sell. There are all kinds of designers out there so whether you want abstract t-shirt designs, t-shirts will cool fonts, illustrations to print on your t-shirts, patterns to print on your t-shirts, or whatever else you can think of—you’ll likely be able to find the perfect designer to create what you’re looking for.
To keep your t-shirt designs consistent from one to the next, work with the same designer for each design. It will help give your t-shirts a certain look which can help you establish a recognizable brand. On the other hand, if you want more varied options to keep things fresh and interesting, work with different designers for each design to give your customers more options! It’s your t-shirt business, so you can do what you want.
Finding T-Shirt Mockups
Another part of setting up your t-shirt store is creating product images to sell your t-shirts to your customers. You can always order samples from your t-shirt supplier so you can see your t-shirts in person and shoot them on a model (Printful lets you print off samples at a discounted price so you can do this!) but if you’re under time or budget constraints, there is another option.
Use a t-shirt mockup to bring your t-shirt designs to life—without actually having to purchase or photograph your t-shirts yourself!
This is a great option if, like Richard, you’re launching soon and you don’t have time to order your t-shirts and wait for them to arrive, or if you want to keep your startup budget low and not order samples of your t-shirts.
A t-shirt mockup enables you to bring your t-shirt designs to life without seeing them in person.
If you’re looking for a free t-shirt mockup option, Printful’s Mockup Generator is your best option. It can create t-shirt mockup flat lays, t-shirt mockups on models, and even lifestyle t-shirt mockups. It’s a super quick, budget-friendly option and it’s the option Richard chose when he was getting his product photos ready for his t-shirt store.
You can also purchase t-shirt mockups for a nominal fee (usually less than $10) from sites like Creative Market, Fiverr t-shirt mockups, GraphicRiver T-Shirt Mockups, and Design Bolts—50 T-Shirt Mockups if you can’t seem to find what you’re looking for on Printful’s Mockup Generator.
There are literally hundreds of t-shirt mock-up templates available online, both free and paid, so you should be able to find something that works for your business and your budget!
Should I Copyright My T-Shirt Designs? Should I Trademark My T-Shirt Designs?
First of all, what are copyrights and trademarks?
- Trademarks apply to identifying elements of a brand such as a logo
- Copyrights apply to literary and artistic works such as designs, books, and video
Should I Copyright or Trademark My T-Shirt Designs?
The super common questions of whether to copyright your t-shirt designs or trademark your t-shirt designs can be answered simply: In our opinion, no.
If you’re wondering whether you should copyright your t-shirt designs or trademark your t-shirt designs, we suggest not doing so. Why? The short answer is that you automatically own any copyrights to designs you’ve created without having to officially register that copyright, and trademarks are expensive, time-consuming, and don’t give you benefits in all jurisdictions.
Plus, when you register a trademark you have the obligation to defend that trademark, so you have the responsibility to hold people/businesses accountable if they infringe on your trademark which can lead to taking legal action (aka, more time and money) in future.
Copyrights and trademarks may be a good fit for you if you have something really important to protect, in which case seek advice from local counsel, however, for the average person we don’t suggest pursuing official copyrights or trademarks.
Can I Use Copyrighted or Trademarked Designs on My T-Shirts?
Again, the answer is likely no.
If you want to use copyrighted or trademarked designs on your t-shirts, you need to have express written permission from the owner of the copyright or trademark. Printing copyrighted or trademarked material on your t-shirt without the owner’s permission could possibly lead to legal action, which can be costly and time-consuming.
If you’re not sure whether a design you want to use is copyrighted or trademarked, reach out to the owner to see if it’s in the public domain or if you can use the design on your own products. If you can’t find the owner or when in doubt, don’t use the design. It’s not worth any legal ramifications for infringing on a copyright or trademark.
It’s worth remembering that copyrights and trademarks can extend not only to images and works of art, but to fonts, icons, illustrations, memes, quotes, and sayings, as well as brands. Just because you don’t know the source of a quote, image, meme, illustration, or something like an icon or font character seems too simple to be copyrighted or trademarked, it doesn’t mean that it’s free game to use.
The general rule of thumb here is if you haven’t created it, then don’t use it on your products.
This extends to your product photos and marketing materials, too. If you haven’t paid for a t-shirt mockup, or used a t-shirt mockup that you know is free to use, or worked with a model to create your product photos, then don’t put your t-shirt design on an image and use it on your site.
People own the copyright to their own images, even if they’re on Instagram or Pinterest and even if you don’t know who the original source is, so don’t overlay your t-shirt design on someone else’s image and then upload it to your site because that’s also likely an infringement on someone’s copyright.
This might seem confusing or like a lot of information but again remember:
- Don’t use a design, image, illustration, font, or icon on your t-shirt if you haven’t created it
- Don’t use a design, image, illustration, font, or icon on your t-shirt if you didn’t purchase the commercial rights to use it
- Don’t use a design, image, illustration, font, or icon on your t-shirt if you didn’t commission a designer, artist, or creator to create them for you for commercial purposes
- Don’t put your designs on images that you don’t own or haven’t created (even if the images come from Instagram or Pinterest or Google and/or you don’t know who the creator of the image is)
- Don’t use quotes that you haven’t created (yes, quotes are copyrighted work, even sometimes if they come from unknown sources)
- Memes can be copyrighted works, too
- Don’t use copyrighted or trademarked brand slogans, images, logos, or assets of any kind
- When in doubt, err on the side of caution and don’t use a work that isn’t yours
- If unsure, try to contact the owner/creator of whatever asset you want to use in your design
It’s better to be safe than sorry in the matters of copyright and trademark infringement, so conduct your own due diligence and contact qualified professionals if need be.
Check out these online legal resources for qualified legal advice, if need be:
- Lawtrades (USA)
- Clarity (Worldwide)
- Ownr (Canada)
- Rocket Lawyer (USA, UK, Spain, France, The Netherlands)
The Cost of Starting a T-Shirt Business
If you’re new to ecommerce or just starting a t-shirt business for the first time, you might be wondering how much it costs to start a t-shirt business.
Let’s get into it.
How Much Does it Cost to Start a T-Shirt Business?
T-shirt businesses can be started on a very small budget, especially if you’re working with a t-shirt dropshipper to supply your products.
These are the main costs:
- The cost of setting up your website (an ecommerce platform like Shopify costs $29/month but remember that they offer a 14-day free trial)
- The cost of making your t-shirt designs (this can be free if you make them yourself)
- The cost of t-shirt product photo mockups (this can be free if you use the Printful Mockup Generator)
- The cost of marketing (this can be free if you use social media)
- The cost of your t-shirts (if you use a dropshipper, you only have to purchase t-shirts once a customer has actually placed an order, meaning you don’t have to purchase any inventory upfront
How Can I Start My Own T-Shirt Business with No Money?
To start a t-shirt business with no money or very little money, you’ll need to create your own t-shirt designs, use a dropshipper like Printful so you don’t have to purchase any inventory upfront, and you’ll have to make your own product photos.
You can make your own product photos for free by using Printful’s Mockup Generator. All you have to do is upload your t-shirt designs to one of their t-shirt mockups and you’ll have a product photo-ready in seconds!
You’ll also have to have some sort of website to sell your t-shirt on, which will be hard to find for free. Shopify offers a 14-day free trial, but after that, you’ll have to commit to a paid plan (which costs $29/month).
Alternatively, you could use WordPress.org if you can figure out how to set up your own self-hosted website, but you’ll have to pay for hosting (we recommend Kinsta. Read our full Kinsta Review here to find out why). You could also use a site like Carrd (Carrd Review), which may not give you all the ecommerce functionalities that a Shopify site would, but it costs $19.99/year instead.
Is a T-Shirt Business Profitable?
Yes, t-shirt businesses can be profitable! Like any business, you control the expenses that cost your business money and the prices you charge your customers, so all it takes is some basic bookkeeping and smart business financial strategies to make your t-shirt business profitable.
If you want your t-shirt business to be profitable, minimize your expenses and make sure your t-shirt prices cover all your expenses. Don’t forget to leave room for profit to be leftover!
If you use a t-shirt dropshipping supplier like Printful, they will tell you the recommended retail price (RRP) for each product, so you’ll have an idea of how much to charge for each item and how much profit you’ll make from it. This is a great guideline to go off of, but still keep your own expenses in mind! You’re in control of your expenses and product prices—so make sure you have a good handle on those so you can keep your profits in good standing.
For business pricing strategies, check out this post.
How Much Can You Make Selling T-Shirts?
There’s no limit to how much you can earn selling t-shirts! How much you earn will be directly impacted by how many t-shirts you sell and what your product prices are, so keep those factors in mind.
If you want to earn a lot selling t-shirts online, set some goals! Market your products and your store so you can get more traffic to your site because the more people you have landing on your site, the more products you’re likely to sell. And by keeping your prices at a point where you can cover all your business expenses and still have profit left over, the more likely you’ll be to earn even more.
These are the considerations it takes to run a business—any business, not just a t-shirt business—so this creates a great learning opportunity. If you’re a new entrepreneur, these are great questions to be asking and important things to be implementing on your site, so pay particular attention to the lessons you learn here.
How to Get Your First T-Shirt Sales: Marketing Your T-Shirt Business
Once your t-shirt business is up and running, it’s time to get some traffic!
These are some tactics you can use to drive traffic to your t-shirt store so you can get your first sales…
Build an Audience
Don’t underestimate the power of social media! Platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are free to use and by simply posting great content, you can build up an audience around your t-shirt business. If you aren’t sure what to post, check out your competitors to see what they’re doing and not doing so you can fill in the gaps.
Sell to the Audience You Already Have
If you’re already on social media, then you already have an audience (no matter how small!) so share your products on your social channels. This might not grow your business, but it might get you your first sale.
Sell to Your Friends & Family
Most entrepreneurs got their first sales from their friends and family—so reach out to yours and get them to shout you out to their social media followers!
Find Your Niche Online & Hang Out There
Where do your customers like to hang out online? Do they congregate in certain Facebook groups, in specific subreddits, on Discord channels, or particular websites or social media channels?
Find out where they hang out and make your presence known!
Don’t be spammy, but rather try to make genuine connections with the people there. Eventually, they may become your customers.
Pay for Ads on Social Media
If you have the budget, throw up some ads on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok and see how they go! Make sure that you know your niche well so you can target them as accurately as possible.
Work with Influencers (& Micro-Influencers)
Influencers are a powerful way to get your product in front of your target audience, so make use of it!
Working with influencers requires some kind of budget, but if you don’t have a marketing budget right now, you could always send your t-shirt to an influencer no-strings-attached and see if the influencer wears your shirt in one of their posts, or recommends it to their followers. There’s no guarantee they’ll share it with their followers, but it might be worth a try! It’s worth reaching out to micro-influencers too (influencers with less than 50,000 followers) as they can often have very engaged followings, even if they are small.
Optimize Your Site for SEO
SEO is one of the best organic marketing tactics you can use on your site, so make sure you optimize it. Plus, SEO is free and once you learn the ropes, it’s easy to implement so there really is no downside.
Check out our post on SEO Optimization for Ecommerce Stores to learn what you can do to boost the chances of your t-shirt store landing on the first page of Google search results.
What to Do if Your T-Shirt Business Isn’t Getting Any Sales
If this is your first t-shirt business then it’s possible that you might have difficulties getting some sales at first—but, don’t get frustrated. Every business goes through these growing pains.
To get more sales coming in when you aren’t getting any, all it might take is some small edits or changes to get the ball rolling! It’s a learning process, so don’t get too discouraged.
Here are some ideas…
First, try to identify the problem. It could be anything from poor product photos, expensive shipping fees, a confusing website, poor-quality t-shirt designs, overpriced t-shirts, lack of exposure, poor SEO, inauthentic content, an unconvincing brand story, or a combination of any of these factors.
Take a hard look at every aspect of your business and figure out what changes can be made. Figure out what’s not working so you can fix it!
Next, ask yourself if you’re targeting the right market.
Re-examine your chosen niche and figure out if your t-shirt products directly add value to it, or if you’ve begun to stray away from your niche in any way. Or, perhaps you’ve been marketing to the wrong niche entirely and need to pick a new one, or narrow-in even further.
Figuring out whether you’re targeting the right niche might take some time but finding out where your brand fits in the market can be the difference between getting no sales, and getting a lot of sales. So, it’s worth your while!
It’s easier and cheaper to sell to current customers than it is to acquire new ones. You have a t-shirt business and people typically wear more than one t-shirt in their day-to-day lives so that means you have the opportunity to sell more than one of your products to your customers.
Utilize that opportunity!
Create an incentive for your customers to purchase again from you whether that be a stellar unboxing experience, a packing insert with a discount code for their next order (Printful enables you to send branded packing inserts), or create fun new products often so your customers can get excited about them. Do what you need to do to make your audience want to purchase from you again.
Online T-Shirt Business Success Stories
This is perhaps one of the most clever t-shirt designs created in recent memory.
Before you travel, pick up a t-shirt from IconSpeak to help you communicate with the locals no matter where you are. Languages may not be universal, but oftentimes we can figure out what others are trying to say based on pictures, and the t-shirts from IconSpeak come with 39 of the most essential travel icons so you can break through any language barrier and get directions to wherever you need to go.
Including universally recognizable icons for Wi-Fi, coffee, food, lodgings, and washrooms (to name a few), the IconSpeak t-shirt can be one of the best things you wear on your travels.
IconSpeak started just by selling t-shirts, but they’ve expanded to selling other products like tote bags, phone cases, hats, and more!
Did you know that Gymshark started off selling t-shirts? The brand’s founder, Ben Francis, started printing t-shirts himself in his mother’s garage when he was just 19 years old and since then, has grown the brand into something much more—a fitness clothing empire valued at over 1 billion British Pounds.
While Gymshark sells more than just t-shirts at this point and is a fully-fledged direct-to-consumer brand and one of Shopify’s most successful stores, selling t-shirts is how the brand started—proving that starting a t-shirt business can lead to something much bigger and better.
Another brand that started by the founder printing t-shirts by hand, Aydian Dowling started Point 5cc as a t-shirt brand that shares trans-positive messages.
Dowling originally started selling t-shirts with the intention of raising money for his own gender-affirming surgery and planned to close up shop when his goal was reached. However, after a few months, he built up a community of customers so supportive and enthusiastic that he’s kept Point 5cc up and running ever since.
Due to all the support, Dowling also set up a non-profit that supports transgender people in need, showing that t-shirt brands can contribute to a mission and community far bigger than themselves.
More inspiration for t-shirt brands can be found here:
T-Shirt Business FAQs
Still have questions about how to start a t-shirt business? Check out these FAQs.
How Do I Start an Online T-Shirt Business? Quick Step-by-Step Breakdown
- Pick a niche market
- Pick a t-shirt supplier
- Create your t-shirt designs
- Build a website
- Drive traffic to your site
- Make your first sales
- Build an audience
- Continue building your t-shirt brand & business
We cover these steps throughout this post, so scroll up to each section to find out more.
Do You Need a Business License to Sell T-Shirts Online?
This can vary depending on where you’re located, but in general, most businesses whether online or not, need a business license. In some areas, however, you may not need to apply for a business license until your business reaches a certain revenue threshold.
If you operate a business without the proper license you may be subject to fees or fines. Obtaining a business license should be fairly easy in most areas, so check the necessary authorities in your area to find out where to get a business license.
We’re not qualified professionals in this area and business license requirements will depend on your area or region, so conduct your own due diligence and consult the relevant authorities in your jurisdiction for more information.
- USA: US Small Business Association
- Canada: Canadian Government Website
- UK: UK Government Website
- Australia: ABLIS
What Do I Need to Start a T-Shirt Business?
To start a t-shirt business, you need these things:
- A website (like Shopify)
- T-shirt designs
- A t-shirt printer or dropshipper (like Printful)
- Product photos (t-shirt mockups)
- A marketing plan (like our 52 Week Marketing Plan)
You don’t need a lot to start a t-shirt business—basically just t-shirts and a website to sell your t-shirts on. It’s possible to start a t-shirt business with the bare minimum and working with a dropshipper like Printful makes it even easier to do that.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business at Home?
To start a t-shirt business from home, work with a t-shirt dropshipper so you don’t have to stock any inventory or ship any orders.
A t-shirt dropshipper makes starting and running a t-shirt business from home super easy, so if that’s your plan then we recommend working with a dropshipper like Printful.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business: Step-By-Step Video
Learn how to start a t-shirt business in this step-by-step video!
These are the resources we mentioned in this post so that you can find them easily and build your own online t-shirt store, fast!
- Build your t-shirt store with:
- Shopify (use their 14-day free trial)
- Check out these other Shopify resources:
- Build your t-shirt store on a self-hosted website with these resources:
- Choose a t-shirt printer/dropshipper:
- Find more dropshippers and learn more about dropshipping here:
- Use these t-shirt mockup and product photo generators:
- Create t-shirt designs with these resources:
- Or hire freelance artists to create t-shirt designs for you:
- Take these Skillshare courses to learn more:
- A Staple of Branding: How to Start Your Fashion Company by Jeff Staple
- Hey, Cool Shirt: Designing Effective T-shirt Graphics by Chris Delorenzo
- Get business license information here:
- Get legal advice and resources here:
- Check out these t-shirt business success stories:
- Get more t-shirt business inspiration here:
- These resources from us might make building your t-shirt business even easier:
- How to Start a T-Shirt Business Webinar
- 500 Ecommerce Niches Guide
- Build a Better Brand: Ecommerce Branding Guide
- Dropshipping Suppliers Directory
- Clothing Suppliers Directory
- Manufacturers Directory
- Wholesale Suppliers Directory
- How to Find and Work with Private Label Suppliers
- Private Label Suppliers Directory
- START: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Getting Started in Ecommerce
- One Page Ecommerce Business Plan
- 52 Week Marketing Plan
- Ecommerce SEO Strategies to Get Your Online Store in the SERPs
There you have it. Richard built a new t-shirt business in 24-hours with only $24 and was able to generate over $300 in sales in the first day. He did it with the bare minimum on a tight time schedule, and you can do it, too!
Granted, a t-shirt business alone may never make an entrepreneur rich and famous. However, as we pointed out before, we firmly believe that a t-shirt business serves its purpose in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, even if that purpose is just to practice for something bigger and better.
Now it’s your turn. If you’ve been thinking about starting an online business but have been stuck in the “I don’t know what to sell” stage for more than a few months, then we are challenging you to build a t-shirt business, for no reason other than to start. Start building something, start marketing something, start converting something. Just start something.