How to start a t-shirt business online: 2023 guide
This post was last updated on February 6, 2023.
There's nothing quite like a good t-shirt. Apart from being easy to throw on, t-shirts have a unique way of expressing our individuality, our humor, and our loyalties.
For online sellers, the t-shirt market is also a popular stomping ground. In 2021, the global custom t-shirt printing market was valued at $3.9 billion—and by 2030, it's expected to be worth $9.18 billion, according to Grand View Research.
It's no wonder, then, that this universal wardrobe staple caught your eye. It stands to reason that starting an online t-shirt business might just be one of the best and fastest ways to break into the booming fashion industry.
Related reading: 19 profitable eCommerce business ideas
Not only is it easier than ever to find a free online store builder that's fully integrated with print on demand services and tools to expand your reach, but starting a business online doesn’t necessarily require a big investment. You can launch and start selling custom tees quickly with minimal costs.
Continue reading to learn essential tips for starting a t-shirt business online.
How to start a t-shirt business: 12 essential steps
01. Build your online store
A professional eCommerce platform gives your customers the trust they need to complete their purchase. It’s also an important reflection of your brand’s identity.
Start your online t-shirt business journey by creating and customizing an eCommerce website that embodies your brand. Make sure to choose a platform that allows you to easily integrate your store with a print on demand (POD) service, which offers the easiest way to design, print, and ship your t-shirts.
You’ll additionally want to keep an eye out for integrations with popular sales channels like Amazon and eBay, plus social media channels like Facebook and Instagram.
Here are some other factors to weigh when selecting your eCommerce platform:
Costs - Start lean and budget expenses carefully. Find an eCommerce platform that allows you to start your business with a small investment. Some platforms even let you start for free. (Pro tip: Choose a platform that can support your business—at any scale. Review if the platforms offer advanced marketing and customer management tools to help your business grow.)
Website design capabilities - You’ll want a platform that offers plenty of design flexibility and customization. This’ll allow you to create a business website that matches your brand. (Pro tip: Look for a platform that offers ready-to-go, designer-made, store templates that can easily be adjusted to fit your unique brand.)
Mobile storefront - More than half of all online purchases are now made on mobile, so you'll want to make sure that your platform supports responsive sites and mobile customizations. Fans of the Instagram-famous cat, OwlKitty, can purchase branded tees through its online store which is optimized for mobile. By connecting their Instagram account to their store, OwlKitty sends shoppers directly to their store's fully-optimized product pages.
Once you’ve chosen your platform, you can start creating your store. Don't forget to complete these basic steps:
Name your business. Start by brainstorming a word bank of concepts that relate to your t-shirt business idea. If you need help, you can use Wix's free clothing line name generator. Choose a name that reflects your business but won’t limit you if you choose to expand beyond t-shirts in the future.
Choose your domain. Match your domain name to your brand name. This will help your customers find you online.
Design your store. Customize any store template to reflect your brand and appeal to your target audience.
Add payment options. Make it easy for customers to pay you. Provide multiple options to make sure you don’t lose out on any potential buyers. Through Wix Payments, you can start accepting all major debit/credit cards, Apple Pay, buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) options, and more.
For more tips: How to start an online store in 10 steps
02. Integrate with a print on demand (POD) service
If you're wondering, "What the heck is print on demand?" POD is a form of dropshipping that allows you to make and sell custom t-shirts (and other merchandise) online without the hassle of managing inventory, fulfillment, or shipping.
Wix Stores tend to launch an average of 15% faster than other online retailers when choosing to dropship. And in the first quarter of 2021, Wix Stores using POD grew 529.4% year over year.
POD is a great way to get your feet wet without running up your costs or tying up your resources. In fact, family-owned farm, Little Tail Farms—which offers tours and farmstays—uses POD to sell farm-inspired merchandise to bring in extra revenue.
So, if this is your preferred business model, you'll want to connect your store to a reliable POD service like Modalsyt, Printful, or Printify.
Many of these services have mockup generators that let you virtually place your design on tees and see how it’ll look on models. You can then use these product images on your website to show your customers exactly what they’re buying.
Under the POD model, you sell your graphic tees directly from your online store. Once an order is placed, your POD partner will then print the t-shirt(s) and ship it straight to your customers.
While using a POD service might be the fastest way to start selling t-shirts, there are plenty of alternative routes, such as sourcing and manufacturing. You just have to choose the right one for you.
If you choose to source your own t-shirts and connect with local or international manufacturers, take some time to research the process and learn more about how to start a clothing line. Some entrepreneurs use POD to test the market or establish their brands before switching to specific suppliers.
03. Pick a niche
With billions of tees out there, why should shoppers buy yours? The answer: Because you made your product specifically for them.
To find your niche, you might use your personal interests and passions as inspiration. Is there a specific group you identify with? Are you a diehard fan of a sports team, a TV show, an indie movie, a specific celebrity? Do you hold a specific political position or are you a member of a particular movement?
Or, discover your niche by researching what’s on-trend. What are people interested in and talking about? Use Google Trends to find out what search terms are trending in your country or worldwide and use that information to inspire or validate your choice of niche.
Once you define your target audience, get to know customers better through channels like:
Reddit - On Reddit, users create posts that are voted on by the community. The site is broken down into sections called subreddits and there’s one for seemingly everything. Users subscribe to specific subreddits that interest them in order to see those posts. Discover what your target audience is posting. Explore feeds to see which content receives the most engagement and subscribers. Use this information as a springboard for creating designs and messaging for your t-shirts.
Facebook Groups - Find niche communities that share your interests. Engage with these users and see what receives feedback. Ask them for ideas and test out your designs.
Competitor sites - Many of your competitors have likely done their own customer research to inform product design and their marketing messages. Take a peek at their sites and observe what seems to be working well for them, versus what could use improvement. Check customer reviews, FAQs, and product descriptions for clues as to what your business could offer to make your customers happy.
04. Create stunning t-shirt designs
Make your t-shirts stand out from the pack with original designs.
Use your t-shirt to express a message, tell a story, or display an aspect of your personality. Your designs don’t have to be complex. A simple, trendy design can attract customers.
Modern Magnolia sells hand printed t-shirts with illustrations and slogans that appeal to a broad range of female users. Its t-shirts have a strong American flavor (with a touch of humor) and target niche audiences like parents, music fans, and animal lovers.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be an artist to make a cool design. You can use pre-existing templates offered by some POD services, Canva, or Wix's free logo maker. Alternatively, you can hire a designer from one of these platforms:
Wix Marketplace - Safely search through a list of vetted professionals. The Wix Marketplace serves as a directory for connecting with designers of various backgrounds and specialties, and features transparent rates and past work.
Fiverr - Connect with a freelancer to create a single design. You can search by the type of designer and filter by how much you are willing to spend.
Upwork - Use this platform to find long-term freelancers to help with numerous or ongoing projects.
Behance - Explore this designer-focused social media platform. Graphic artists use Behance to show off their work, gain inspiration and find jobs.
Dribbble - This is another platform where designers hang out. You can scroll through showcased art or filter by style to find designs you like. Then reach out to the artist to discuss your project.
Note that each manufacturer or POD service will have different image requirements that you'll want to read through carefully in order to ensure that your designs are printed correctly. For example, Printful has the following requirements:
Images should be at least 150 DPI (dots per inch). Some specific t-shirt brands may require a larger DPI, so double-check before uploading your design.
Your design can be uploaded in JPG and PNG formats.
Print files should be saved in sRGB, not CMYK.
05. Select high-quality materials
Nobody likes an ill-fitted, low-quality graphic tee.
Whether you’re using POD services or sourcing your own t-shirts, make sure to sample your products. Ensure that you’re selling a product that meets your quality standards and prints exactly as you'd expect.
As another test: Go through the normal buying process as though you're a customer. Buy the t-shirts from your website, jotting down any hiccups with checkout, shipping, packaging, and more. As you test the product yourself, consider:
Is it comfortable to wear?
Are the colors vibrant?
How does it look and feel after a wash (e.g., does it shrink? Does the pattern crack?)
How does it wear over time?
Most suppliers will offer tees made out of regular cotton and ring-spun cotton. Some use organic cotton, grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. Here’s what to consider when choosing your materials.
If your t-shirt business has a sustainable ethos, it’s worth choosing t-shirt manufacturers or POD services who offer t-shirts made from organic cotton or recycled fabrics, like cotton scraps and upcycled polyester. It’s likely that these options will have a higher unit price, but shoppers may be willing to pay more for more eco-friendly options.
Consider what size options you’ll offer customers, too. Do you want to build a size-inclusive t-shirt brand that is accessible to everybody? Or perhaps, for now, you want to limit your inventory and specialize in tees for a particular size range.
In short, treat your customers like you’d want to be treated. Make sure your product is made well so your customers keep coming back and become ambassadors for your brand.
06. Get feedback on your designs
It's always a good idea to validate your ideas. Once you have your design and tee picked out, you’ll want to make sure that it looks good when it all comes together.
Use a mockup generator to visualize how your design will look on products before it’s printed. Then, take some time to write engaging product descriptions that tell your shoppers everything they need to know about your t-shirts. Include product specs, sizing details, care instructions, and the story behind your t-shirt design. Some POD services will provide default product descriptions that you can edit and make your own.
So, you love your new tees, great. But will potential shoppers?
Post your mockup on your own social media pages and see what your followers think. Publish them in Facebook Groups to see how your community responds.
Remember those subreddits you found? Revisit them and request feedback from your fellow Redditors. Word your post in a way so that it doesn’t come across as a marketing ploy. Rather, ask people for honest feedback on your tee. (This is a great way to attract attention to your product while learning more about your target audience.)
You can even share your design on designer blogs or sites like Behance and Dribbble. If your idea is particularly innovative, consider uploading your project to a crowdfunding site and asking people to invest in your t-shirt business.
Wherever you share your design, make sure to add a watermark to protect your designs from being copied.
07. Choose a printing technique
When it comes to inking your tees, learn about the different printing options available. Choosing the right printing technique is just as important as choosing the right material, though some POD services may only offer a certain type of printing by default.
Heat transfer - This is a good option if you want to print images yourself. The most popular type of heat transfer is called Plastisol Transfers. For this method, print your design with a professional printer on high-quality release paper. Then, use a heat press to “print” the image on your t-shirt.
Screen printing - This method is ideal for printing large quantities of t-shirts with the same design. Using stencil-like mesh screens, designs are painted onto t-shirts layer by layer. Each layer is limited to a single color. While you can add multiple layers and colors, doing so will drive up your cost. Because of the labor-intensive setup, this method is best suited to large batches of tees with the same design.
Direct-to-garment (DTG) - This is currently the most popular method of printing designs onto t-shirts. Using an inkjet printer, your design is applied to garments. This is ideal for complex, detailed designs. DTG uses the same process for small or large quantities of prints.
All-over print (sublimated) - If you want to create a truly unique t-shirt, you may want to print outside the seams. All-over print allows you to do exactly that. Create a design that will be printed all over your tee. Unfortunately, not all print on demand companies will allow you to do this.
Embroidery - Stitch a unique embroidered design on your tees for a more delicate look. While you’ll be limited in colors and sizes, well-designed embroidery can be all your shirt needs to make a statement. Both Printful and Printify offer embroidery for t-shirts, but pay close attention to their guidelines.
Here’s what to consider when choosing a printing method:
08. Manage your inventory
If you're not using a POD service, you’ll need to manage your own inventory. Keeping control over your inventory is key to building a profitable business.
Start off with a small number of t-shirts in a variety of sizes. Stick to one or two t-shirt colors to limit your risk and overhead costs. To keep initial investments low, consider buying small batches of t-shirts as the orders come in. Then, find a local printer that can ink your tees with a technique that works best for your needs.
Research how to find a manufacturer and once you’re ready to buy a larger stock, source your t-shirts from reliable suppliers to ensure product quality. Find a wholesaler who can offer you an affordable rate so you can give your customers the best product possible at a good price.
At this point, you'll want to choose a printing company that will provide the quality and fulfillment services you need. If it’s within budget, you may want to consider investing in printing equipment yourself to have more control over the process.
As mentioned earlier, if you’re using a POD service, inventory, shipping and fulfillment will be handled for you. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to keep a small amount of stock on hand to sell in a pop-up shop or to local businesses. It can also be helpful for promotional offers, or to show potential customers and investors your product.
09. Calculate your costs
When it comes to learning how much it costs to start a business, calculating your costs is essential. Before you price your products, you’ll need to determine your expenses. Go through this list and estimate what you’re paying (if anything) for each service. This will give you a better sense of how much you’ll need to charge per tee to make a profit.
Online store - Website hosting, domain, business email account
Design - Website designer, logo, t-shirt designer
Printing - Printing equipment, extra charges for specialty POD services
Product - Cost of t-shirts, inventory, storage
Shipping - Offset the costs of free shipping, domestic shipping, international shipping
Branding and marketing - Promotional materials, social media marketing, digital advertising, branded packaging
If you make the t-shirts yourself, in-house, account for your labor costs too: time spent making t-shirts, packing, shipping, managing inventory and general business administration.
While you might not take a wage from your business when it’s in the startup phase, you’ll need to know potential costs as you grow and hire staff.
10. Set your price
How do you make sure you profit from each sale? To build a t-shirt business that makes money and can justify certain prices, you’ll need to research the market, identify a niche, and create unique products or powerful messaging that attract loyal customers.
Before you decide on the right product pricing strategy for your business, take these three factors into account:
There’s a lot of competition
With low-cost products, your profit margins will be slimmer
It takes time to grow your business
As with all eCommerce business ideas, you'll need to be strategic in order to start making a significant profit, i.e., you’ll need to be creative, mindful with expenses, and market your tees well.
Before deciding on a price, do market research. Check marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy, alongside your competitors to see what’s a fair and profitable price to charge for a niche graphic tee.
Here’s a rough pricing estimate for graphic tees.
$5 - $15: Unless you are selling huge amounts of t-shirts, you may find it difficult to make money selling tees at this price range. So, this range is only feasible if you create and print large amounts of the same design as one batch, or if you print t-shirts yourself.
$16 - $29: This is roughly the average price range for graphic t-shirts. If you want to make a decent profit on each tee without scaring customers away, set your price within this range. This is helpful for scaling your business from the start, earning up to 50% profit on each tee, and selling products printed by a POD service.
$30 - $40: T-shirts in this price range are usually specialty items or particularly unique. This range works best for tees that incorporate various printing techniques, high-quality t-shirts, and detailed or specialty designs (e.g., limited release tees).
Compare your tees to similar brands who sell shirts online. Think: what will the market pay for an organic cotton t-shirt with a unique hand-drawn illustration? Will you charge more or less than your competitors? If more, why would people pay more for your tees? If less, ensure you’re not undervaluing your product. That said, when starting a new business, strategically underpricing can be a good way to stand out and attract new customers if done responsibly.
Most businesses aim to make about 50% profit on each item. So, this simple formula can come in handy when determining your retail price:
Retail price of your graphic tee = cost of product x 2
In other words, you can start by charging your customers double the amount it cost you to create each tee.
11. Build your brand
Now, it's time to start selling your t-shirts and getting your brand out there. Here are a few pointers for strengthening your eCommerce branding and your eCommerce marketing:
Create a memorable logo to represent your brand. Use a logo maker, design one yourself using software like Adobe Illustrator, or hire a graphic designer to create one for you.
Get on the right social media platforms. Know your target audience and where they hang out online. Then create promotional campaigns to spread the word about your products. Consider influencer marketing as a way to connect with your audience. If social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers are out of your budget, find relevant nano influencers with a small but loyal following. Reach out to them and see if they would be interested in showcasing your t-shirts on their platform.
Use advanced SEO tools to help customers find your site organically on Google. Include keywords relevant to your brand and products throughout your site pages, without stuffing them unnaturally. Consider investing in digital advertising, using tools like Google Ads to target high-intent shoppers searching for unique t-shirts online.