According to Shopify, global retail e-commerce sales will reach 4.5 TRILLION dollars by 2021. That’s almost double 2017’s $2.3 trillion in just 4 years. Needless to say we’re talking about an already huge number being doubled here, so that’s incredible growth. If you want a piece of the online e-commerce action, there’s just no better time. So, selling t-shirts online to make money, is that a viable business model that can help you capitalize on this e-commerce craze?
The truth is, digital e-commerce is a huge space and there’s a massive variety of goods and services that can be sold online. The barrier to entry has also been significantly reduced in the past few years. Whether you’re interested in getting started selling digital products, subscriptions or physical goods, there are multiple solutions that can now help you get started with minimal resources.
The t-shirt selling model is no exception. Let me tell you more about the challenges of starting such a business online and how modern solutions were able to solve these challenges. But first, let’s answer the most important question:
Is selling t-shirts online profitable?
This question is like asking: would wearing clothes keep you warm? That’s dependent on several aspects such as the type of clothes you’re wearing, the material, the weather…etc. Many online sellers are profitable, and many others aren’t. But if your question is: can YOU do it? Well, with the right mindset, tools and hard work, yes, absolutely.
What do I need to get started?
Alright so the idea of selling t-shirts online (or virtually any physical product) might be a little intimidating. You feel like it’s a whole “operation” and you need a whole team, a warehouse, printing facilities…etc. Truth is, none of that is really needed to get started.
Let’s take it step by step. We’ll summarize what we’ll need to start the business and then look into how we can get these steps done with minimal resources. So we basically need to:
- Research. We need to come up with some design ideas.
- Design. We execute the design and have it ready for printing.
- Print. We print the design on the actual t-shirt(s).
- Stock. We store/stock the t-shirts so they’re ready for delivery.
- List. We list the t-shirts on our online shop, Facebook page…etc.
- Market. We promote the t-shirt. People can’t buy what they aren’t aware of!
- Sell. We accept buyer’s payment and manage their order within our system.
- Deliver. We ship the order over to the customer.
- Support. We provide after-sales support (and pre-sales) as well.
These 9 steps may seem complicated, but in reality, modern solutions allow us to practically do only a few of those steps ourselves while having all the complicated stuff outsourced to third-party partners. This makes the business model much more accessible to anyone looking to get started with it, requiring only a few hundred dollars of budget and just a single person to run things in the beginning.
So the first step is research. You might already have something in mind if a certain design or niche was the initial inspiration that encouraged you to pursue this business model in the first place. If that’s the case, you’re in luck, as you probably have a solid idea on what kind of designs would work with your target market/audience and that’s half the battle.
If, however, you just had the idea to start the t-shirt business but aren’t sure who to sell to or what to sell, then follow the tips in this section, they aim to help you form a more solid idea that you can then execute upon.
Industries you’re familiar with
This is the easiest way to get started. I’ll give you an example. You may have heard about the video game “Fortnite”, it’s been heavily trending around the world for a while now. While I did not really play the game myself, my brother was addicted for quite a bit.
Naturally, as I saw him play, I picked up a few “in-game” phrases, item names, expressions and even inside jokes. I got a “community tour” from someone “on the inside”. This is invaluable. Because at that moment, I knew that if I printed a t-shirt with the inside joke “x” printed on it, that t-shirt is very likely to sell, because the community will relate.
I had my “inside man” guiding me towards’ the community’s “wants”, and hence the designs I’d produce would feel familiar and relatable, like it was designed by “one of them”, and hence has a much better chance to be purchased.
You can pretty much do the same if you have this “inside man” in any community or you’re part of a community/industry yourself. It could be sports, hobbies, an occupation…etc. These are some of the niches that have a history of doing really well on printed t-shirts:
These were just some examples, you’re not limited to those by any means.
But why not basic t-shirts or generic designs?
I don’t deny that many brands roll in some serious dough selling generic t-shirts, but your situation is different. Established name brands usually have loyal followers that are happy to wear just about anything with the brand’s logo. If you take the brand name out of the equation, however, what would prompt you to buy a generic/basic non-brand t-shirt?
Probably the price, not much else. It’s so easy nowadays to print t-shirts and if you’re not a brand, you have no tangible advantage over anyone else if your design is generic. All you can do is compete on price, and believe me, that’s almost always a losing battle.
What I recommended above, though, is “passion niches”. In the example t-shirts above, you can instantly relate if you’re part of that particular audience. You want that t-shirt, because it represents who you are or conveys a message you want the world to get loud and clear. This approach is advantageous for several reasons:
- You now have another competitive edge: design. Unique/smart/relatable design, not a generic design.
- People relate on an emotional level (because it’s their “passion”) and can then be triggered to press on that “buy now” button, with little regards to price as long as it’s reasonable.
- If you’re promoting your design on social media (which you should be), your post will be much more likely to go viral than a general t-shirt with “cute colors”. If you post a cool firefighter t-shirt, people will be scrambling to tag/mention their firefighter friends and family members. Firefighters themselves will be inclined to tag/mention/share with their circles or fellow firefighters. See where this is going?
Trend analysis helps you gauge whether a certain industry is worth exploring and answers the “when” question too. Google Trends is a free tool by Google that helps us do just that. It’s awesome because it’s free, and it’s by Google. Where else can you get data that’s better than the world’s biggest search engine’s?
Let’s take an example. Remember the fidget spinner craze? If we hop onto Google Trends and enter “fidget spinner” in the search bar, here’s what comes up. Note that I’ve adjusted the dates to “2004-present” and the location to “United States”. You can play around with these attributes as you please.
The chart shows the term’s relative popularity within the specified time period and location. If you take a look at the chart, it’s immediately apparent that “fidget spinners” started its upward curve in January 2017. By May 2017, it had reached its peak (everyone and their mothers were selling fidget spinners at that time if you recall).
The popularity curve went down as fast as it went up, though. By December 2017, the “fidget spinner trend” was almost completely gone. Of course fidget spinners might not be a ripe topic or niche for t-shirt ideas, but the example was just to illustrate that some niches could have been super trendy at some point but then died down later.
Google Trends allows you to identify this with a glance, before actually deciding to commit to that niche and risking the potential loss of a lot of time and money.
Let’s look into another example, this time with “tennis”. Now tennis is a sport and there are a lot of t-shirt ideas that can serve the passionate market of tennis players and/or fans. Say I already have an idea for an awesome tennis t-shirt, but I’m not sure when would be the right time to start selling it. Google trends can really help me answer this as well.
So I’ll hop onto Google Trends and type in “Tennis”. This time, I’ll choose a 12-month time period and the US as the location.
You can see that the term’s popularity is relatively constant throughout the year, but then there’s a very noticeable spike that starts and ends roughly in the end of August to the end of September. I googled things like “tennis september” and I discovered that a big tennis tournament, the “US Open” takes place in September.
I’m no tennis guru but I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I already knew that one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, Wimbledon, is hosted in the UK every year. So I googled “wimbledon 2018 date” and here’s the result:
So I ran back to Google trends and switched the location setting to “United Kingdom”. Lo and behold:
Taking this even further, I changed the “12 months” date range to “2004-present” and I could instantly tell that interest in tennis spikes yearly almost in the exact same periods throughout the UK. It’s now pretty much impossible to dismiss those findings as a coincidence.
So here’s a summary of the key findings:
- I would likely steer clear of selling fidget spinners or anything else related to fidget spinners right now.
- If I plan to sell tennis-related t-shirts in the US, I might try launching this venture in the end of August or during September when the excitement and interest in the sport is at its peak.
- If I plan to sell in the UK, I might try it out starting from the end of June/early July to sync up with Wimbledon when there’s peak interest as well.
Simple information acquired from Google Trends can really make or break your business. You won’t risk going after a trend that already bit the dust and it can help you jump on trends early on while the curve is going up and allow you to capitalize on it before anyone else does.
Pinterest, Zazzle, Google Images and Spy Tools
If you’re stuck getting t-shirt ideas, these websites can be a goldmine. Say we’ll stick to the same “tennis” niche we were talking about earlier. Let’s see how we can find some really interesting t-shirt ideas and then use them as inspiration to create our own designs.
Note that copying designs can get you into a lot of trouble, so using the designs you see to get your brain’s creative juices flowing and to help guide your designers would be the recommended approach.
Doing otherwise is not sustainable and could easily get you shut down by Facebook or Google Ads (when you’re advertising). Even worse, you could get sued by the original designer or copyright holder.
Alright so with that out of the way, let’s type in “tennis t-shirt” or “funny tennis t-shirt” in Pinterest and see what comes up:
You can see several interesting designs right away. This is just one screenshot but if you scroll down, you’ll see literally hundreds of other designs. Best of all, you can see if specific websites seem to be dominating the results and you can go ahead and explore those websites individually.
For instance, I can see that there are a lot of results from “Zazzle” and “Vitome Store”, so I can open up these websites in a new tab and explore them for more designs. This works in a very similar fashion with Google images:
If you have some money to spare, you can also explore tools like TeeSpy. TeeSpy is a research/discovery/spy tool designed to help you explore tons of successful t-shirt designs. It’s especially helpful because it has some sales/popularity data on the t-shirts allowing you to understand not only which designs look good but which designs actually sell.
It also aggregates data from a ton of sources like TeeSpring, TeeChip, ViralStyle and more. It has a neat feature that helps you find designs on Pinterest and sort them by Likes/Pins. This feature can be invaluable and is not available when searching Pinterest directly. The tool is subscription based and has a free, limited version. Paid plans start at $27/month.
It’s time to bring those ideas to life. The design phase. You can either create the t-shirt design yourself or hire a professional designer to do it for you. If your design skills are limited but you still want to give it a go yourself because you don’t have the budget to hire a designer, you can use a website like Canva.
Canva is a popular graphic design software that you can use directly from your browser. It’s free, and it’s newbie-friendly, which means you don’t actually need to be a fulltime/career designer to use it.
If you’re not a designer, I don’t really recommend going about this yourself unless your design is fundamentally very simple and requires limited skill. If you go this route, make sure you ask a “sample” of your target audience whether this is something they’d actually be interested in buying.
For instance, for the tennis niche, ask a friend or family member that plays the sport if your t-shirt’s ideal market is tennis players. Ask them for the cold-hard truth with no sugar coating. Make sure it’s something they’d be willing to buy otherwise everything else from this point onwards doesn’t matter.
If your audience doesn’t relate to the design, they won’t buy and if they don’t buy then you won’t make money no matter how smart and sexy your design, website and marketing is. I personally like to hire people for design, you can get really good quality designs at very affordable prices these days. Here are some suggestions.
- Fiverr. Fiverr is recommended if you’re really tight on budget. Designs start at $5 there and you can get something pretty decent in the $15-$25 range. It’s also easy to sort freelancers by viewing their star ratings and portfolio.
- Upwork/Freelancer.com. Prices are typically higher here than Fiverr but there’s a huge variety of freelancers. I use Upwork and Freelancer.com for “mid-range” work and I get pretty decent results.
- 99Designs. This is my go to website for premium designs. Some incredibly talented freelancers are on 99Designs. You can also start a contest and get dozens of potential designs to choose from. T-Shirt design contests at 99Designs start at $149.
Print, Stock and Deliver
I’ve put those together under a single subheading because the solutions I’ll be suggesting help you do the three things at the same time. Before I get into that, let’s look at your options. You either:
Do everything yourself.
Printing is the toughest one to do it yourself. You’ll need to buy equipment, learn how to use them, buy “raw material” and operate your “mini printing factory”. Storing and delivering the t-shirts yourself is less of a hassle but can quickly become one when you start getting a lot of orders.
You’re also going to either print the t-shirt when each order comes in, or print a single (or multiple) design(s) in bulk. The first approach could become very hectic quickly. With the second approach, you could get stuck with “dead stock” if your design doesn’t sell as well as you had anticipated.
Outsource some or all of the three things.
You can buy wholesale in bulk then store and deliver the t-shirts yourself. But then again you risk deadstock. You can buy wholesale, send yout t-shirts to a third-party fulfillment warehouse, and let them handle inventory and fulfillment for you.
This removes most of the headache but adds a lot of additional costs that eat into your margins. Additionally, it doesn’t solve the deadstock issue.
The recommended approach
Here’s my recommended approach, at least in the beginning: Print-on-demand. This solution allows you to outsource your printing, stock management and fulfilment at the same time. It lets you focus on designing and selling while the legwork is gets handled by others.
So how does it work exactly?
Simple. A customer places an order on your website or wherever else you’re selling. You send the Print-On-Demand “POD” company the design along with the customer’s details. That’s practically it.
The POD company handles things from there. They print the design and ship it directly to the customer. No stock to keep and no worrying about shipping. Everything is done “on demand”. Even better, there are solutions that help you automate the part where you forward your customers’ orders to the POD company.
They simply hook directly to your existing order system and once an order is placed, it’s automatically sent to your POD company based on your predefined setting. This level of automation gives you a lot of freedom and limits your risk. It also allows your business to be run by a single individual, at least at the beginning.
One of the most popular POD companies is TeeSpring. Their model is simple: You give them the design and they print and ship for you. Not only that, but they give you a personalized order page/link where customers can place the order for your t-shirt.
No need to have your own website or handle any payment processing,. You just point people to your t-shirt’s link on teespring and get paid when they purchase. Similar websites include SunFrog, ViralStyle and TeeChip.
The second type of POD companies are ones that “hook up” or integrate with your own website or store to fulfill orders. One of the most popular ones out there in this space is Printful.
Printful has expanded and now offers not only printing on t-shirts, but also hats, mugs, pillows, posters and more. They’re not the cheapest out there but they have very tight quality control and a very good reputation in the industry. Other companies like them include TeeScape and CustomCat.
List and Sell
Where and how are people going to see and purchase your t-shirts? There are three main approaches here, each with their own pros and cons.
In this approach, you simply post photos of your t-shirts on Facebook/Instagram…etc and take orders manually, say in a Google spreadsheet. Customers would manually pay you through PayPal or Stripe, for instance. You’d then manually place their order with the POD company.
The main advantage here is that all you need to get started is a Facebook page and a PayPal account. The main disadvantage is because the process is very manual, you could face some issues tracking orders and keeping your customers up to date.
Things can also get confusing as the number of orders grow, and you may need to hire employees early on to help you out because of how labor intensive the work is.
With this approach, you’re letting websites like TeeSpring handle everything for you. You just create the design and market it. This approach is good because it saves you a ton of headache and allows you to scale fast.
Whether you sell 1 t-shirt or 1000, the platform will take care of it with no hiccups and you’ll receive your money according to the payment schedule agreed upon. You can also get started in a jiffy, just create an account with the platform and upload your design.
The first major drawback is that POD platforms can heavily eat into your margins. It’s not uncommon for the POD service to charge you 40-60% of the t-shirt’s price you set. That’s a big cut that could force you to either be a lot less competitive or raise your prices to figures that may not be reasonable to your end customer.
The second drawback is branding. At the end of the day, the customer is buying from “TeeSpring” or “SunFrog” or whatever else. This is the t-shirt marketplace that’s selling them the merchandise, and your role is mostly hidden “behind the scenes”. This means you lose out on building your own brand that people admire, follow and buy more and more from.
Your own store
This is my recommended approach and is the best of all worlds in my opinion. With your own store, you can sell your t-shirts on yourbrandname.com. It’s not as hard as you think, too, you don’t need a developer or a highly technical person to build your website. You can easily get your online store up and running using a platform such as Shopify.
Shopify gets you up and running with your own store in just a few minutes. You can customize the whole look and feel of your store, add and edit products, integrate with payments processors and more using an intuitive drag and drop interface.
Shopify also integrates with major POD companies like Printful, and this allows you to easily fulfill customer orders once they’re placed on your website.
Shopify plans start at $30 a month which is a pretty fair deal considering everything you get. Using your t-shirt designs + Shopify + Printful + PayPal and/or Stripe, your business could be up and running in a matter of days, on your .com website and your very own online store.
The Shopify route helps you build a professional looking brand and create loyalty that prompts customers to return and buy again and again. You can also run loyalty and referral programs, partner with other brands or influencers…etc. Most importantly, your store and brand will be an asset that you can sell later or hire people to run things on your behalf for a passive, long term income source.
The disadvantages here is that there’s an additional overhead. It’s your own online store and your own payment processing accounts. You need to keep your website and content updated with clear shipping policies, refund policies…etc.
You need to make sure you comply with local and international laws depending on the countries you serve. You’re a business, so all the responsibilities of the typical business owner lie on your shoulders.
Setting up your own store is also slightly more complicated than selling directly through, say, TeeSpring. TeeSpring takes no money from you upfront as well, while Shopify charges you a monthly fee. A good “hybrid” approach might be to test out the waters with something like TeeSpring first, then expand later on to a full-fledged store.
And now for the marketing. There are a lot of different approaches you can take here. SEO, Google Ads, YouTube and more. But two approaches to marketing work particularly well with “passion niches”.
The right influencers are a goldmine on Instagram. Instagram is awesome especially for the very “visual” niches like food, travel, pets…etc. In a nutshell, the way this works is that you find accounts related to your niche on Instagram and evaluate the engagement on their content.
Things you need to check out:
- Number of followers. They don’t need to have millions or even hundreds of thousands. You can contact an influencer with a loyal and highly engaged 10,000 followers and can better ROI from them than a 100K follower influencer.
- Engagement. Unfortunately, a lot of Instagram influencers use shady practices such as fake followers to inflate their follower count and attract sponsorships and business deals. Make sure the engagement on the influencers’ posts matches their number of followers.
- Relevance. Needless to say you wouldn’t typically want to promote a cat collar to followers of a biking-related instagram account, for instance.
You can use tools such as Hype Auditor to check the authenticity of followers and engagement. The website also has interesting “top 1000” lists of influencers based on their quality of followers. Could be a great starting point to finding influencers you can partner with.
Once you’ve found an influencer or more, you can keep track of them in a spreadsheet. They’ll often have their email addresses listed on their profiles, so you can use that to get in touch and ask them for the price of a sponsored post, or you can DM them if their email address is not listed.
Facebook Ads can really help drive engagement and sales to your t-shirts. They can also provide the needed boost for your content to go viral (providing it’s worthy of course). Disruptive Advertising has an excellent Facebook Ads guide that can help you quickly get started.
Prompt support is critical when it comes to digital businesses. Customers have no physical stores to run to and rant, and hence it’s essential to make sure you’re always available. Thankfully, a number of different solutions exist to help you with this.
Drift provides online chat support functionality and is super easy to integrate with Shopify. For email support, HelpScout is an excellent solution as well.
All details aside, the primary factor that will determine whether you’re successful at this business model is: the product-market fit. It’s not about the platform you use to sell or whether you advertise with Facebook or Instagram. It’s about whether you’re able to design a t-shirt that resonates with your audience or not.
If you’re able to create tennis-related t-shirts and sell them locally near your closest tennis court out of the trunk of your car, you’re more than likely going to be able to sell them online as well. Same thing if you failed to sell them locally.
Find inspiration, create your design, test it out with your audience (could be a friend or family member), then start selling. Ask for feedback. If all’s good, sell more and scale. If your audience doesn’t like the t-shirts, ask them for feedback and reiterate till you hit them with something they’d be willing to buy at a heartbeat.
That’s it! If you have any experience selling t-shirts online, please share them in the comments section below, and let me know if you have any questions!