How to Start a T-Shirt Business: A Step-By-Step Guide

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So you’re thinking of a master plan...and that master plan includes starting a t-shirt business.

Whether you’ve always wanted to sell t-shirts or you think this would be a smoother transition to a full-blown fashion brand, you’re in for a lot of work, which shouldn’t stop a budding entrepreneur like yourself! We’ve outlined the steps below to give you a roadmap of your retail journey.

“A big business starts small” - Richard Branson”

1. Determine your WHY

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Before you start mocking up t-shirts (seriously, before you even try to doodle your first design), I recommend you have a very clear WHY.  Starting a t-shirt business and running a successful t-shirt business are two very different things.  Do you have the time? The energy? The money?  A budding business will require all of these things.  If you’re looking for a hobby or a side hustle that will make you rich, this is the wrong route to take.  Having a passion for what you’re doing will be the only thing that will get you through all the roadblocks and hurdles. Complex took a look at how COVID has impacted streetwear t-shirt sales, which is a must-read before you start.  It outlines the very real sales environment you’ll be entering. 

2. Determine what your end product will look like

What kind of shirts are you making? Will there be a logo, or will each of the shirts have a different design? Are you aiming to make streetwear or something more mainstream? Will the shirts be for something specific, like your band, or are you trying to show support to a political or cultural movement? Sketch out some ideas; it will be easier to execute something to your vision instead of just telling a screen printer, “It’s like...a cool whirly design on the front, and then the back will have these dots that kind of look like a signature but isn’t?”

You might not be able to draw out precisely what it’s in your head, but we’re looking to get into the general vicinity.  

3. Research the market

This is a huge industry, and it would be extraordinarily reckless of you to jump in without doing some groundwork. “The global market for the custom t-shirt printing industry is expected to eclipse $10 billion by 2025”...that means that a lot of people are doing this. Lord knows we don’t need another “I only drink on days that end with -y” type tees, but you probably have some great ideas that haven’t been done yet.  Determine the market demographic you’re going after; where do they shop? What are their interests?  What compels them? Look into how much it usually costs to run a t-shirt business; how often do they succeed? How often do they fail?

“To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” -Steve Jobs


Wait.  My bad. You aren’t quite there. Time to execute your plan.

4. Create your design

If “artistic” isn’t a trait you possess, that’s fine.  I’m creative as hell, but I’m also complete trash at time management.  No one’s perfect. What can you do?  Hire a designer.

There are numerous sites that help you find a designer for hire, but here are a few to start you off: 

Upwork - browse through tons of designers that list prices and skillsets; you can see how many jobs they’ve done and read reviews

99 Designs

99 Designs - see galleries of top-rated freelance t-shirt designers; you can also request a quote.


DesignCrowd - This site boasts over 17,000 designers from all around the world; it even lists how much they’ve made through the site so far.

T-Shirt Factory

If you don’t have an idea already in mind or think you’ll “know it when you see it,” many sites let you buy their clip or vector art. 

T-Shirt Factory - Tons of options in different styles and even creates a quick mock-up for you to view the final product.

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Creative Market

Creative Market - A great resource for images and fonts, but also with Shopify themes to help you set up your e-commerce site.

5. Finalize the details

You now know what your shirt is going to look like, but you also need to consider the feel and fit. It’s also essential to decide on whether you’re going to screen print your design or have it stitched on, what color and material the shirts will be, and what sizes you want the shirt to run in. You might want to do a lot of things at this point (all the colors! All the materials! All the sizes!), but everything costs money.  Prioritize the things that are most important to you.  Once you start selling your shirts, you can use the funds to expand into different colorways and styles. Websites like BulkApparel, Deal Rack, and Jiffy Shirts are a few options to order in bulk, and all have relatively low prices.

If you aren’t sure what type of printing process to use, Place It created this really informative infographic to help you determine what procedure is best for you.

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You planned, you executed, and now you need to sell.

"Ninety percent of selling is conviction and 10 percent is persuasion." - Shiv Khera

6. Open Up Shop

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The best thing about the current retail space is that there are so many ways to set up shop, with the most popular being brick-and-mortar and starting an e-commerce business.  Each route offers its difficulties and benefits; you’ll have to do more research to find what fits for your brand, but here’s a topline view:


PROS: A physical presence adds to a brand’s legitimacy, the location can introduce new customers to your brand, and there are more opportunities to provide excellent customer service and unique customer experience.

CONS: High startup costs from working with a major retailer, might need to invest in costly programs to create purchase orders and meet minimum quantity requirements.

Even in 2020, as most shoppers are moving away from physical locations and pursuing online businesses,  there is some appeal to having your shirts in a brick-and-mortar store. If you want to work with more prominent retailers, you will have to invest more money in your product. 

You’ll want to make sure your product looks as professional as possible, from printing hang tags to sending out your product in polybags and the correct packaging.  You will also need to create a line sheet that lists out all your products, pictures, the cost, and the suggested retail. 

Then comes pitching your product: Some people find success at trade shows, while others research retailers’ buyers and email them through LinkedIn.

In my former life, I was a buyer, and the success rate of this didn’t always depend on how great the product was; if I didn’t think it targeted a new demographic or fulfilled a white space, then I knew it wasn’t for me. I say that to advise you to proceed with caution. Know that once you get your items into a store, the costs don’t stop. You might need to sign up for the same systems the retailer does to transmit purchase orders (POs), and there’s a possibility you will have to pay for any markdowns or any promotions the retailer may run. 

Digital Space

PROS: You handle all aspects of your brand from updating your site to cultivating your brand DNA, anyone with access to the internet can become a customer, and lower costs.

CONS: You handle all aspects of your brand from updating your site to cultivating your brand DNA, difficult to garner customers when no one knows who you are.

Brands were turning towards e-commerce for the past few years, but COVID confirmed the importance of having a digital footprint.  As stores shut down and many employees were let go, many companies found that their COM sales were still growing. As NRF reported that overall retail sales were down 21.6% from April 2019 to April 2020, COM sales were up 21.2%.

Having a COM business isn’t notably easier.  You will need to create a website that is intuitive and lets customers shop easily.  Prices should easily be found, and all products should have high-resolution images of the front and back, as well as all the sizes and colors the shirt is available in. Use resources like Google Analytics to do a temperature check on your site after a few months. You’ll need to know how you’re doing in key metrics like sales rate, conversion, and add to cart prices. 

7. Promote your brand

No one can buy your shirts if they don’t know about them. After identifying your target demographic, you should have a better idea of where to start marketing. You don’t have to create a social media account on every platform. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube might be the go to’s, but it’s better to do a few accounts well than have a subpar presence everywhere. You don’t need a Tik-Tok to create a dance challenge when your primary demographic is 40-55-year-old women. Reaching out to influencers is also an excellent way to spread the word about your business.  Find influencers that align with your brand DNA; your offer to partner together should be something that also benefits them. People prefer to buy from brands that they feel a personal connection to, add a blog tab to your site and create content that feels authentic to who you are.

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