This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
Learning how to start a T-shirt business online starts with choosing a strong niche and creating unique designs that will separate your business from the competition. Once you validate your designs, you’ll need to select a production method and sales platform and build your online store. You’ll then be ready to sell.
Startup costs for online T-shirt businesses range anywhere from $250 to $20,000, with inventory and printing machines being the biggest variables. If you decide to go with print-on-demand T-shirt marketplaces, there will be little to no upfront costs. T-shirts are usually sold at a 40% to 50% profit margin, so if you make $100,000 a year in T-shirt revenue, there’s potential to earn around $50,000 in yearly profit depending on your business model. Your sales volume greatly depends on your niche and marketing strategies.
Learn how to sell T-shirts online by following these seven steps:
Step #1: Find a Niche & Create Your Business Plan
Finding a niche is critical to having a successful T-shirt business. T-shirts tend to look pretty similar; it’s not very easy to create a standout product. However, that is what you will need to do for shoppers to purchase from your store over other more established brands.
When choosing a business to start, you need a clear vision of what you want your product to look like, who will buy it, and why it’s needed. Read our guide that tackles steps on how to find a niche market.
Suppose you want to offer humorous T-shirts. It’s not enough to just design for it; consider what types of funny shirts you will offer. Are you going to sell statement shirts? Graphic ones? Finding a niche means having a particular offering. It might be scary to do this first, as you might feel you won’t get enough market. But this is what you need to do to stand out and reach more people.
Did you know?
According to Retail Insider, custom shirts have seen greater demand due to the increased need for branding strategies and promoting team spirit, company culture, and even bonding among companies and enthusiasts (such as fans, hobbyists, and communities).
If you are having trouble finding a niche, there are T-shirt marketplaces you can look into to have an idea of what is out there in the market. Pay attention to those that are most popular or bestsellers.
Below is a list of pages for some of the top graphic T-shirt marketplaces you can start with:
Besides that, consider checking out Google Trends to get a sense of the topics people are currently interested in.
Once you have decided on a niche, create a business plan for your T-shirt company. Outline your goals, list various opportunities to sell custom T-shirts, and figure out how you’ll execute that plan.
Step #2: Create T-Shirt Designs & Mockups
After you have decided on a niche, the next step would be to create T-shirt designs. This step involves creating designs and mockups.
Eye-catching designs will set your products apart from other T-shirt sellers. During the design process, it’s also helpful to choose a particular theme or image for your brand. This can include a set color scheme, fonts, or logo—anything that will help make your business recognizable.
In addition to being eye-catching, your designs also have to be original. Some popular T-shirts feature famous characters and quotes—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are free to use. Disney, in particular, is very strict against unaffiliated companies using their characters or other trademarks. Comic books, superheroes, children’s shows, and literary quotes are all elements that are popular with customers but can get you into some serious trouble if you use them without proper permission.
You don’t have to create designs for yourself. Try exploring other options, such as the ones listed below:
- Hire a designer: If you’re not artistically inclined or not sure how to start, consider hiring an affordable freelancer; sites like Fiverr and Upwork help you employ experienced designers for individual projects. Just make sure you outline the job description for a graphic designer you need. Learn how to hire a graphic designer.
- Design communities: Behance and Dribbble are popular communities for graphic designers to share their work and take commissions. Simply reach out to artists whose work catches your eye and ask them if they are available for design projects.
- Buy T-shirt designs: There are T-shirt marketplaces, such as Tshirt Factory, Creative Market, and Graphic River, that sell pre-made designs. You can buy vectors, icon packs, royalty-free images, and clip art, but note that these are likely to have been purchased by other people. Since you plan to sell these on shirts, you also need to apply for a commercial license.
Once you have your designs ready, your next step is to create mockups so potential customers can see what the final design will look like printed on a shirt.
You can order shirt samples and take product photos yourself or create a digital mockup using T-shirt mockups and online templates. In creating digital mockups, you need Adobe Photoshop. If you do not know how to work with the software, hire someone from freelance sites such as Fiverr to create mockups for you.
Step #3: Gauge Interest in Your T-Shirt Designs
After finalizing your mockups or product photos, a critical step before offering them to the public is validating your designs. Before you invest money in its production, you need to verify if there is genuine interest in the designs you offer.
You can request feedback from your network by asking them directly through a focus group or email survey. Additionally, you can post designs on your social media accounts. This is especially helpful if your social followers are also your prospective customers.
If you do not have an established network to tap into, or if you want additional advice, then you can validate your T-shirt designs through:
- Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding sites are avenues to test, validate, and collect money upfront for your new business idea. Launching a crowdfunding campaign needs a lot of preparation but is worth the time and effort, as you can have a fully funded business idea even before you launch it.
- Reddit: This popular online discussion platform is a great place to get unbiased feedback about your designs. There are a lot of subreddits you can look for so you can target your market right away. Simply post your mockups and ask for feedback.
Step #4: Select a T-Shirt Printing Method
With your T-shirt designs validated, you’ll need to figure out how your T-shirts will be produced. There are plenty of options available, from in-house production via screen printing to heat transfer or direct-to-garment techniques. You can also sell your T-shirt designs using a print-on-demand service.
Learn how to manufacture T-shirts for your store, from ideation to bulk production.
Screen Printing (In-house Production)
Screen printing is the most practical method for creating your custom T-shirts at scale. It is a technique that uses a mesh screen to force-transfer ink onto a surface—in this case, T-shirts. It is also usually the preferred technique because it allows for a vibrant, multicolor, and high-quality result.
A semi-professional screen printing press costs several thousands of dollars. It’s certainly an investment. However, using this in-house production method will allow for the most significant sales markup. Plus, owning your equipment means expanding into new products, changing designs, or creating custom orders.
Other than a screen printing press kit with stencils and ink, the next important product you will need to invest in is T-shirts. Since you are purchasing blanks, you can save by buying in bulk for the best prices. Source from a wholesaler or manufacturer to get the lowest prices.
|Cost-effective for volume printing||Limiting design-wise (for simple designs only)|
|Long-lasting T-shirt prints||Costs go up for designs with many colors|
|Volume discounts||Labor-intensive setup|
Heat transfer is a printing method that enables you to print a design onto a T-shirt by using high heat. Professional printers employ plastisol transfers using high-quality heat-transfer paper. You may have encountered this printing method from office shops or small Etsy stores.
Heat transfers can produce full-color images onto T-shirts relatively easily and quickly. It usually is recommended for small printing batches or printing single custom garments.
|Can print shirts on demand (single orders)||Lower quality, less lasting than screen printing and DTG methods|
|Better suited for printing small batches (more affordable)||Expensive equipment|
|No limit in colors you can print for a design||Hard to scale as a business printing method|
Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is commonly employed because it prints the ink directly onto a T-shirt and can produce accurate full-color images. It makes better quality printing than heat transfers. Unlike screen printing, it operates like an ink-jet printer, so setup costs are minimal.
However, since it takes the same amount of time to print each T-shirt, you cannot give volume discounts for bulk orders.
|High-detail accuracy in prints||Not cost-effective for bulk orders|
|Unlimited color options||No volume discounts for large orders|
|Cheap setup costs|
Using a print-on-demand service is the same concept as selling your designs on a T-shirt sales site. Instead of hosting your design on a third-party website, print-on-demand services allow you to sell through your site, keep your branding, and maintain the appearance of a completely self-contained small business.
These businesses use a dropshipping technique, where the retailer passes customer orders through to their supplier, which handles fulfilling the order. Many dropship and print-on-demand suppliers will brand the order under the retailer, so customers are none the wiser that their product isn’t coming directly from the retailer.
Print-on-demand services are popular because they allow T-shirt businesses to skip in-house production and screen printing. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the hassle of shipping orders yourself. The downside is that dropshipping companies typically charge higher rates than traditional wholesalers because they provide as much service as a product.
|Little to no operational expenses||Lower profit margins|
|Easy to set up||No control over quality|
|No surplus stock||Longer fulfillment times|
Tip: After deciding your printing process, you will need to source T-shirts. Remember the following:
- Since you are purchasing blanks, you can save by buying in bulk for the best prices. Learn more about buying wholesale and finding wholesale suppliers.
- Since you are printing your T-shirts in-house (as opposed to a print-on-demand service) note that you will need to register your business and have a reseller’s license before you can purchase your blank T-shirts at wholesale prices.
Step #5: Decide Where To Sell Your T-Shirts
There are plenty of options when it comes to selling T-shirts online. If you want to start selling right away and for no upfront cost, you can use a site like SPRING or SunFrog to simply create designs and collect profits every time one of your designs sells on their site. Or, if you’re looking to create a full-on T-shirt empire, you can build your own business from the ground up. This would involve creating a full-blown ecommerce store.
Individuals looking for passive income through low-maintenance sales
Those wanting to create a branded shopping experience with the potential to expand
Creative artists that offer custom made-to-order shirts and want an established audience to sell to
Businesses that can produce bulk T-shirts and manage a steady supply of inventory; also for those that would like to sell through affiliate marketing
Personal blog and social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest)
Established bloggers, influencers, and content creators
T-Shirt Sales Sites
T-shirt sales sites are online platforms that let users create custom designs that are then posted for sale on the site. Shoppers purchase products from any number or combination of T-shirt designers. When the order is placed, the site produces the product and fulfills the order. The T-shirt designer sits back and collects a commission each time one of the designs is sold.
Popular T-shirt sales sites include:
If you’re selling through one of these sites, there are a lot of steps you get to skip. There are no upfront costs when dealing with in-house production or outsourcing manufacturing, handling shipping, or even navigating ecommerce platforms. You get to keep it simple and skip down to marketing your business.
Remember that while sales sites are a great form of passive income, they limit the types of products you can sell, the presentation of your products, packaging, and materials.
Creating an ecommerce site using a platform like Shopify, BigCommerce, or Square Online is a relatively easy way to sell T-shirts online and have greater control over the website, marketing, and sales process than using a sales site. For a simple ecommerce operation, Shopify is a popular choice. However, there are also several free ecommerce website builders available and other paid ecommerce solutions.
Building your website is a good option if you want to have more creative and logistical control over your products, sell various goods, and make higher sales margins (as opposed to passive design commissions). However, it comes with personal investments of both time and money.
If you’re a creative artist and want to sell your work, you have a buying audience already shopping on Etsy. Listing and selling products on Etsy is quite easy, especially compared to maintaining your own website. This leaves you more time to concentrate on your creative works.
Selling on Etsy involves setting up product listings, configuring payment methods, and designing your shop’s landing page. This can actually be done in a few hours. It’s after opening an Etsy shop that the real work begins. Apply our tips on how to sell on Etsy successfully.
There are a number of ways to sell T-shirts on Amazon—through print-on-demand, setting up your own store, and affiliate marketing.
Amazon offers Merch by Amazon, similar to how print-on-demand and dropshipping services work. You just upload your artwork, set your price, and Amazon lists your products and handles production, shipping, and even customer service—with no upfront costs.
Alternatively, you can also set up your Amazon store and handle production yourself if you have the resources and want more hands-on control of your business. Just be sure to orient yourself with Amazon fees and write effective product descriptions.
You can also sell through affiliate marketing. Direct affiliate programs give you the advantage of brand recognition. Many of these programs are free to join and even offer lots of flexibility.
One popular program is Amazon’s influencer program. If you’ve ever seen someone on social media with a link to their own Amazon Store, that’s what this is. Basically, you pick out the products you recommend (in this case, your favorite T-shirts), add them to your store, and earn money through qualified purchases.
Apparel items can earn up to a 7% commission. That’s nowhere near a traditional 50% retail markup, but considering all it takes is adding an Amazon link to your social bio, it doesn’t hurt to try it out.
Personal Blog & Social Media Platforms
Step #6: Finalize Your Budget & Register Your Business
Determine Operating Costs
Aside from your initial investment, there are operating costs you should consider when you start a T-shirt business: fixed costs, inventory, production supplies, and labor.
Fixed costs are the expenses you shell out for rent, electricity, insurance, and more—all those things that you need to maintain for a physical location. If you don’t have a place and operate solely online, then your fixed costs are your website monthly fees. Inventory and production supplies vary significantly on your T-shirt production method, and labor fees depend on whether you operate the business yourself or hire a team right away.
Operational costs are vital in helping you price a product competitively and still gain profit. We recommend joining organizations such as the Printing United Alliance, PPAI, or ASI, as they offer to mentor, put out trade shows and conventions, and help you navigate this new world of T-shirt printing.
Register Your Business
After you have determined your operational costs and decided on your T-shirt production and selling, the final step is registering your business. This will vary greatly depending on the type of business registration you will apply for and which state your business will operate in, but it will generally involve deciding on a business name, applying for additional licenses such as trademarks, and opening business bank accounts.
Step #7: Set Up Your Online T-Shirt Store
Now that you have decided your business type and production and registered your business, the last step is to set up your online T-shirt store.
If you choose to go with an established T-shirt marketplace, simply create your account, read their policies before uploading your designs, and start selling. Etsy and Amazon have different sign-up processes which we already have outlined above.
If you’re going to build your brand and sell exclusively in your store, go with a user-friendly ecommerce website builder. Decide which ecommerce platform to go with, apply our ecommerce website design tips in building your website, and use marketing strategies to promote your online business.
We particularly recommend the following ecommerce platforms for:
- Shopify: Best for small businesses that are just starting but have plans to scale; also for those that want to try dropshipping and print-on-demand services
- BigCommerce: Best for businesses that have a high volume of sales
- Squarespace: Best for creatives, bloggers, influencers that market themselves online and want to offer limited promotional items occasionally (such as T-shirts)
A significant advantage of going with ecommerce platforms to build your online T-shirt business is its integrations with print-on-demand services. If you are just starting and have a limited budget, testing out your products using print-on-demand apps such as Printful on Shopify, will help you jump-start your business without inventory and fulfillment overhead.
You’ve now started your online T-shirt business, so the next step is to sell, sell, sell! Read our ecommerce marketing strategies to promote your business and increase sales.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business Online Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Is an online T-shirt business profitable?
Yes, it is. While mostly perceived as a saturated market, the global custom T-shirt printing market size is expected to have a 9.7% compounded annual growth rate from 2021 to 2028. It is still considered one of the best business ideas to make money.
T-shirts are usually sold with a 40% to 50% profit margin, so you can make money out of them. Doing so also helps you offer free shipping, enticing customers to shop more. However, how much profit you earn depends on your niche, the marketing strategies you apply, and your operating costs. Initially, you might not be able to make that much money until your business kicks off.
How much do I need to create an online T-shirt business?
The cost to start an online T-shirt business ranges anywhere from $250 to $20,000. If you decide to go with print-on-demand T-shirt marketplaces, there will be no upfront costs. However, the bulk of investment is the work you will put in.
Calculating your startup costs would depend on the T-shirt production method you choose to go with. For example, heat transfer printing would require a good heat press machine (starts at $700) and a vinyl cutter (around $200), plus supplies (shirts and vinyl).
You also need to sign up for an ecommerce subscription to be able to start selling online. To set up a Shopify store, expect to pay $250 to $500 in startup fees and around $50 to $100 in monthly fees at the start, including add-ons. You can learn more about its fees in our Shopify pricing guide.
Starting an online T-shirt business involves research, validation, production, and raising money for startup costs. Alternatively, you can get started on selling T-shirts online without spending anything upfront if you decide to go with print-on-demand services. However, you’ll still have to market your product and have a great design to stand out from the sea of other sellers. Designing and selling T-shirts to an already established audience can help shorten the lead time from discovery to sale because you’ll use your online store.