I’ve been running a modestly successful business along with my work at home gigs. The anti-spam rule says I can’t promote my shirt business here, so I won’t do that. What I will do is share some of the info and insight I’ve gained, in case you also want to get into the shirt-designing and selling business yourself.
My company will never be on the same level as OBEY Clothing or A Bathing Ape, but it’s still a good source of income – so much so that I’ve let go of some sidelines to make more time for my shirt-selling biz.
The secret to making a shirt business sustainable and profitable is to sell online via e-commerce platforms such as Shopify. I’ll be discussing those platforms later in this article. First, let’s cover some of the basics.
Notable Shirt Businesses
If you want to get inspired, look no further than the streetwear scene. Companies like OBEY Clothing, A Bathing Ape, Supreme, and Stüssy have created some of the most iconic shirt designs in history. Many of these are big businesses - especially Supreme, who have collabed with Louis Vuitton, but a lot of them have humble origins. A lot of streetwear designers started out selling online or in small boutiques.
My t-shirt business hasn’t made me as rich as the owners of those companies, obviously. But whenever I get stuck in a rut, I look at all the successful brands to get myself fired-up!
Why Sell Shirts?
There are a lot of outlets for creativity - photography, painting, graphic design are just some of them. But I think t-shirt design is a pretty unique one. When a person wears your shirt, they become a sort of walking billboard for your design. They are, in effect, promoting your work. And since people rarely stay in one place during the day, there are lots of opportunities to expose your work to numerous people.
Of course, the flip side is that your designs need to look awesome enough to wear. Unlike other types of art, a person is wearing your shirt design on their body. It’s more personal than, say, hanging a work of art on the wall. So in my experience, people tend to be more particular when it comes to t-shirt designs. Even people who say they don’t care about what they wear will choose shirts that reflect their personal style and personalities.
The Two Basic Skills Needed for Creating and Selling Shirts
A shirt designer needs two types of skills: design and selling. If you’re proficient in only one aspect, you can always get a partner who’s better in the other. For example, I’m pretty good with the creative side. I have great ideas and know how to design. But actual selling? Yeah, I’m not too good at that. That’s why I partnered up with my boyfriend, who’s good at managing inventory and updating our online presence.
1. Design Skills
This involves knowing how to do both graphic design and illustration. Knowing how to use programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator are also pretty much mandatory.
You will also need to know how to create designs that actually look good on t-shirts. This is something a lot of shirt designers get wrong; they create designs that look good as art prints or desktop backgrounds, but look terrible when printed on a shirt. Finding out what works, so make room for a bit of trial and error when finding what works.
2. Selling Skills
I used to find this a bit boring, but when our shirts started to sell, I became more interested in the actual selling process. You will need to know how to set up online shops like Spotify, how to market your merchandise online, and how to provide good customer service.
Customer service is especially important nowadays. Everyone is connected via social media, and it’s too easy for one customer’s bad experience to go viral and affect other people’s perception of your business. So don’t overlook providing customers a great experience, both before and after they make a purchase.
What Designs Should I Create?
Well, there are two paths you can choose:
1. Create designs that the market would want
This involves creating designs that you think your customers will like, regardless of whether you will like those designs or not.
First, determine who your target market is. It doesn’t have to be super-specific at this point. You can choose a pretty general market/audience like “20-something geeks.”
Once you’ve figured out who your market is, it’s time to do your market research. Visit shops that cater to the same market. Check out what their designs are, and how often they update them. Keep coming back to check which ones are selling and which ones are not. Be on the lookout for designs that sell-out quickly. You can also do some actual people-watching. Just observe what people from your target demographic are wearing.
Now that you know who your market is and what designs they respond positively to, it’s time to make your own designs. I’m not saying you should outright imitate what other people are making. But you should be inspired by them. For example, if you learn that “statement” tees, or shirts with text and catchphrases on them, are selling like pancakes, you can make your own designs without actually copying other people’s designs. Simply make your own slogans and witty one-liners.
2.Create designs that you would want
This is definitely the more fun option. Simply create designs that you yourself would like to wear. If you like wearing shirts with quirky, geeky designs, make more of those. If you prefer shirts with abstract patterns and graphics, go do that.
There’s a bit more risk when you take this route, because you’re basing your designs on your preference, not market research. You’ve got to have faith that there are enough people out there who share your tastes. And you know, what? Unless you have some super-weird preferences or do something outright offensive (please don’t), I think there’s a big chance that someone out there will like the same things you do. Especially with on the internet, nothing is too obscure or leftfield these days.
Online T-Shirt Selling Platforms
Okay, with the basics out of the way, it’s time for me to list down the selling platforms I’ve used.
Redbubble is a company based in Australia. What I like about the company is you can sell a wide variety of products in addition to t-shirts, such as phone cases, mugs, tote bags, wall prints, and notebooks. That said, t-shirts are still their top-selling product.
Redbubble handles the actual selling, printing, and production of these products - all you do is provide the designs. The company provides the base price of the merchandise, which covers production cost and their service charge. You then add your profit margin on top of this price.
For example, if the base price of a t-shirt on Redbubble is $20, you can add a 10% profit margin to it. So the actual selling price will be $22.
2. The Tshirt Mill
On The Tshirt Mill, you can set up your own online shop - for free! Like Redbubble, you upload your designs, and the Tshirt handles the rest. Their services include customer service, customer service, and the actual t-shirt printing.
Their printing service is particularly useful when you’re a small or starting business, because you don’t have to find your own suppliers. And believe me, looking for reliable suppliers who won’t rip you off can be a pain. The Tshirt Mill handles all of that.
The company gives you a wholesale rate for their services, on which you can add your own profit margins. Payments are distributed monthly via PayPal.
The NeatoShop is a great platform for fun and quirky shirt designs. But take note: they might have a fun facade, but they’re pretty serious about the quality of the designs being sold on their site. So make sure your work looks great when presented beside the other great designs on the site.
Before you can sell on their site, they’ll have to review your portfolio first. I don’t count this against the site - quite the opposite, actually. I think it’s a good thing that they’re super-particular about the designs they sell.
4. Design By Humans
Design By Humans was founded in 2007. One of their goals is to bring artists and creators from around the world together on a platform that lets them sell wearable works of art. The company has a great pro-artist culture, which I think can sometimes be missing with other companies.
Unlike the other companies listed here, Design By Humans sets the final selling price of the products. You get a flat rate of $3 for every shirt that is sold on the Design by Humans shop. I used to think being able to set my own prices was a mandatory for me, but a $3 royalty per shirt sold is actually pretty good.
Teepublic is a digital storefront and fulfillment site. You can open your own selling page on Teepublic, and they handle production, shipping, and customer service (the “fulfillment” part). Like Design By Humans, Teepublic is the one that sets the prices for the products.
The full-price commission is $4 (a pretty awesome rate!), but if your design goes on sale, your the commission is $2. The funny thing about Teepublic is your designs will start with the sale price for the first 72 hours. After which, the normal selling price will apply. Teepublic does this to boost interest and encourage sales of new designs.
Threadless is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, websites on this list. I’ve been a loyal Threadless customer even before I decided to start selling shirts myself. It’s a great company, and has great customer service. But what I like about it are the designs they have. Threadless has some of the most awesome shirt designs available, thanks to their kickass community of artists. These artists definitely inspire me.
On Threadless, shirts come with a base price of $15, on which you add your profit margin. Most shirts sell for around $22. You can make a lot of money selling on Threadless, but you need to make sure your designs can stand toe-to-toe with the other awesome designs on the site.
When someone buys your design, Threadless handles the production and shipping of the shirt. Again, no need to coordinate with your own suppliers. Selling on Threadless is super convenient!
7. Print Aura
Print Aura is another print-on-demand company. Like the other companies listed here, they handle the production and fulfillment of your orders.
Selling on Print Aura is super-easy: there are no membership fees and order minimums.
With any luck, your shirt designs will sell really well. When that time comes you might want to look into opening your own shop. We used Shopify for our first online shop, and I highly recommend it.
Shopify is an actual e-commerce platform, unlike the other companies on this list, which are just fulfillment companies. Shopify will enable you to grow while keeping all your earnings (minus overhead costs, of course).
The great thing about starting a Shopify-based online store is no coding skills are needed. It has a really easy drag-and-drop interface, as well as a slew of awesome site templates (many of which are free). You can learn how to customize your shop, upload products, and process payments within minutes. Shopify is a game-changer!
The Verdict: Legit or Scam?
All these sites are legit ways to kickstart your own online t-shirt selling business! The first seven companies are easy to use and when you use them, you won’t have to worry about dealing with shirt and print suppliers. That sort of service is a big deal for us small-time entrepreneurs, because it takes away the hassle of working with our own suppliers. They enable us to do the fun work - designing shirts!
The last company on the list - Shopify - is a great option when you decide to level-up your shirt-selling game.
This article is based on my own experiences starting my own online shirt-selling business. Now it’s your turn to share! Have you designed shirts or any other merch? What selling platforms did you use?
Let’s hear your stories!