So you want to start a T-shirt brand. The line forms to the left.

These days it seems like everyone and their mother has the perfect idea for a t-shirt. If you browse Zazzle or another on-demand t-shirt site, you’ll see that some people actually do. And a lot more don’t.

In fact, most people who find out we have our own t-shirt line eventually tell us, “Hey, you know what you should do for a t-shirt? You should…” Sometimes they even come up with some good ideas. Plus, it sounds easy. Hey, just put that on a shirt and sell a million!

If you’ve tried to start your own apparel or t-shirt line and hit a big wall of this is way too expensive, I’m not surprised. It’s not as easy as it looks from the outside.

But wait! Here’s a sweet and tasty easysicle fresh out of the freezer for you.

Selling T-shirts the Easy Way

Sites like the aforementioned Zazzle do make it look easy, don’t they? You design it, they print and ship. That really is as easy as it gets. In fact, we recommend them all the time to people who just want to do a one-off shirt as a gag, or sell a few shirts for beer money. But hold on to your keg, because it’s not a good business model for your apparel line. It’s a great business model for Zazzle. We’ve had designs on Zazzle for years and we make a few bucks every month, without even trying very hard. It has its advantages, namely:

  • Zero overhead – you don’t have to carry an inventory of shirts you may not sell
  • Customers choose their own shirt and size from hundreds of options (see also no inventory)
  • Complete order fulfillment – you don’t have to take orders or interact in any way
  • Built-in SEO – you share the power of a larger website and its category, searching, and featured listings

Sounds amazing. So why shouldn’t anyone start an apparel line using Zazzle? It’s a dreamy hot fudge sundae with a million dollars on top! Before you get chocolate all over your chin, think about these disadvantages:

  • If you price competitively (to make sales), you will bring in about $1.50 per shirt
  • You can’t brand shirts with your private label
  • You can’t control quality
  • Stores won’t carry your line at those prices – you need to offer wholesale pricing

We think Zazzle and sites like it are great when you want to test designs and see if there’s a market. When you’re ready to get serious about starting a t-shirt line, you need to dig deeper into your ice cream truck and scoop your own cones.

Selling T-shirts the Hard Way

We get a few inquiries every month for our custom screen printing from people who want to start their own t-shirt line. They range from complete noobs testing the waters to seasoned entrepreneurs who regularly sell their shirts online and in local markets. The ratio of inquiries to printed orders for this category of customer is almost zero. The numero uno reason? Affordability.

We are usually not the cheapest screen printer around, but the issue has never been one of our prices being too high. The problem is one of sticker shock. Until they contact us, most people don’t have an idea how much they’re going to have to invest to get a viable inventory of t-shirts. I sympathize. This is a tough business. To successfully sell t-shirts, you have to order them in bulk (wholesale) so you can get them into the market at a competitive price and still profit enough to do it all over again. Here’s some simple t-shirt math for you.

Say you place an order for 20 t-shirts. For a screen printer, that’s a small order. Depending on the design, you could spend between $12-$18 per shirt. That means to sell them at a profit, you’ll have to sell them for anywhere between $18-$27. Now, if your shirts are super special, that might work in a local market or online. It doesn’t account for overhead on a booth or your web site (that counts), but you’ll make back your money on the shirts at least.

If you take your shirts to a local store, they’re not going to want to pay those prices. They’re going to get you down as low as possible so they can mark that up and sell the shirts for $15-$18. That is, if they’re super special and it’s a high end boutique, not a souvenir shop in Little Tokyo selling shirts at 3 for $10. So let’s back that price up to what you need to buy them at. If you can get those shirts at $6-$7 each, you might be able to get an order in at a local shop.

How do you get your custom shirt prices that low? You probably guessed already, but I’ll tell you anyway. You order a lot of them. Think in the hundreds, at least. Sounds like a big outlay, right? You betcha. That’s what makes the business tough.

You Can Still Start an Apparel Line

I know. It’s like your scoop of pickle pear pistachio just fell off your cone into the dirt. That’s how I feel every time I talk to someone who wants us to quote them on printing their t-shirt line. I feel your pain. But there is hope for all of us! You can still start your t-shirt line, you just need to think through a few things before you press the big phat go button. Figure out this stuff first:

  • Where and to whom are you selling your t-shirts? This will help you figure your pricing, which determines your initial budget.
  • Cull your designs down to the very, very best. Eliminate that iffy one your Facebook friend promised they would buy if you would do it.
  • Choose a good quality shirt, but don’t get crazy. You want midrange. Not Michael’s on clearance and not Calvin Klein. Do your homework.
  • Oh, yeah. Do your homework.
  • Will you tag them? How? Is it even necessary? Can you do it yourself and still make it look professional? Get feedback on this.
  • What do you need to spend initially to sell them? Think “easy” stuff like tables, banners, web site, payment methods. This stuff costs money and affects your profitability. It’s business 101 stuff, but you need to account for it.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Don’t listen to the critics (external and internal) who tell you it’s an impossible business to make any money in. It is possible. It takes time and persistence, for sure. If you plan well and start out early accounting for your costs and potential profits, you’ll make it work.

One Response to So you want to start a T-shirt brand. The line forms to the left.

  1. Gee... says:

    Great advise and thought process:)

(818) 835-2585 Woodland Hills, California | sparky@sparkyfirepants.com

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