Your entrepreneurial spirit longs to build a business from the ground up, and your heart draws you to express your creativity by design. Although the process won’t be completed overnight, if your dream is to start a t-shirt business, it’s absolutely within your grasp.
With ambition, ingenuity, and hard work, you can take pride in expressing yourself creatively while building a business that’s completely yours.
Whether you already have designs ready to go or are just beginning to make plans, this guide will take you through the process of starting a t-shirt business.
1. Choose a niche
Determining your ideal audience is essential to starting a successful business. Some entrepreneurs skip this vital step and dive right into design and production, but spending a little time here can save you a lot of time in the future.
Narrowing your focus to a niche audience helps you stand out from the competition and provides direction for branding decisions and company culture. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you try to please everyone, you won’t stand out to anyone.
So, what does a niche look like? You could decide to target women in their 30s, but that’s actually a huge swath of people around the world. Instead, what about female chefs in their 30s? Even better — female chefs in their 30s that specialize in vegan baking. You could then create t-shirts designed just for them, with inside jokes specific to the vegan or chef lifestyle.
Your goal is to find an audience narrow enough that your business is super relatable. But, you’ll also want to stay just wide enough that you have more than a few people in your audience.
We have an entire article on finding your eCommerce audience. Check it out to become an expert.
2. Make a plan to source your shirts
Craftsmanship is everything in a creative small business, and having a solid manufacturing plan and understanding the costs is critical to a successful startup. To start a t-shirt business, you have a number of options for manufacturing. Here are the primary ones:
Print-on-demand companies take your designs, print them onto a blank product, then ship the item directly to your customer. Printing on demand is a low-risk way to get your feet wet as you begin your eCommerce business.
Some of the benefits of choosing a print-on-demand model are:
- Lower risk and startup costs: There’s no need to buy expensive equipment or order large amounts of inventory that may never sell.
- Fewer shipping logistics to consider: As print-on-demand companies ship directly to your customers, you don’t need to figure out shipping logistics.
- Less space is required: You don’t need a warehouse to store inventory.
- More design creativity with less risk: You can experiment with new designs without needing to order tons of inventory.
While print-on-demand fulfillment is a convenient and straightforward way to begin manufacturing your product, it comes with some downsides:
- Lack of quality control: Since you don’t see the products before they reach your customers, you can’t be sure of the quality.
- No control over packaging and unboxing: Your customers may be underwhelmed by the lack of personality.
- Higher costs mean a lower profit margin: Although printing on demand requires a lower initial investment to get started, your margins per product will be very narrow.
For ultimate control over your products, you can commit to manufacturing your t-shirts entirely in-house. Although you can expect higher startup costs, many customers are willing to pay more for a high-quality product.
Some of the benefits of in-house production are:
- Quality control: You have full control over what you deem customer-ready.
- Personalized shipping: Curate a unique unboxing experience for your customers and include personal touches like handwritten notes.
- An opportunity to sell customized products: You have more flexibility to create personalized, custom products.
Some of the challenges of in-house production include:
- Research is required to choose a printing method: From vinyl to embroidery, many options exist for printing designs onto t-shirts. Direct-to-garment printers provide unsurpassed color and print quality with minimal labor, but are a substantial financial investment upfront. Screen printing is labor-intensive and allows fewer colors, but may offer opportunities for bespoke designs. No matter your choice, with the expense of equipment investment, you want to do your research and choose the right manufacturing technique for your business.
- Expensive equipment investment: Whether you choose embroidery or heat-press, your business may take a while to turn a profit after paying off the initial investment.
- Space requirements: In-house production will need more space for printing equipment, inventory, and shipping supplies.
- Learning curve: Unless you have previous printing experience, you’re likely to face a learning curve when attempting to use new equipment. You’ll need practice to create high-quality, customer-ready products, which can mean more costs and lower quality as you gain experience.
Another option for manufacturing your t-shirts is using a third-party printer. For this model, you’ll choose a printing company and provide your design, and they will print and deliver the finished products for you to stock and fulfill orders. You can select a national printing company or choose a nearby, local print shop. The latter option can be helpful if you’re just learning the production process and need someone to provide one-on-one advice.
Some of the benefits of third-party manufacturing include:
- Quality control: Since you fulfill orders yourself, you can confirm that what you’re sending to the customer is up to your standards.
- Shipping and unboxing control: Shipping in-house allows you to personalize your delivery and packaging methods to cater to your customers.
- High-quality printing: Choosing an experienced third-party print company ensures your customers receive a high-quality t-shirt, which is critical to gaining repeat customers.
Some of the downsides are:
- Order minimums: Many print shops require a minimum quantity to print a design. Order minimums mean higher up-front costs.
- Unsold inventory: If a line of shirts isn’t popular, you could be left with a lot of unsold inventory.
- Space requirements: You’ll need a lot of space to store inventory
You can overcome the challenge of order minimums by holding a pre-sale for new designs. Sell your design before ordering the finished product to predict demand and calculate how many to order.
3. Design your t-shirts
Here’s the fun part! Let your creativity shine by developing designs with your audience in mind. From idea to finished product, here are a few ways to execute an amazing print design:
- Fully design the image yourself using design software.
- Create a concept and color scheme and hire a graphic design freelancer to complete your artwork.
- Use design templates from the print-on-demand or manufacturing company you’re using.
4. Take excellent photos
Since online customers can’t see and feel products in person, excellent photos are a must for an eCommerce store. Dedicating your time to staging high-quality product photos that capture your design aesthetic will pay off. Learn how to take professional-quality product photos.
Even if you choose a print-on-demand model, order physical products to take real-life photos rather than relying on mock-ups to sell your products. Showing the shirts on models can be valuable, but you can also get creative by staging beautiful flat lay scenes. Adding a mixture of close-up shots, staged photos, and transparent background pictures will make your store look professional and entice shoppers into buying.
5. Choose an online store platform
Now that you have your designs and manufacturing plan ready, you’re just a few steps away from the exciting moment your shop goes live. First, you need to decide the platform you’ll use to build your site.
You can hire a developer to create a store from scratch, but this is a major investment. For this reason, most stores use a web-building platform. Some of these options, however, have strict rules and design limitations can make it difficult to create a unique site. Plus, you’re at the mercy of the platform and can have your store taken down at any time.
Instead, it’s better to own your site outright while also taking advantage of a framework that means you don’t have to develop something from scratch. That’s where WordPress and WooCommerce shine.
They allow you to customize your eCommerce website to look and feel exactly how you want. With a huge library of available themes and the Block Editor, creating a beautiful custom website doesn’t require you to be an advanced developer.
Plus, WooCommerce provides limitless functionality, thanks to extensions for email marketing, raffles, subscriptions, live chat, and more. See the full extension library.
Looking for more details and considerations? Read our in-depth guide to choosing an operating system.
6. Build your t-shirt store
Now’s the time to officially build and start your online t-shirt store! Here are the general steps you’ll follow:
- Choose a domain name and hosting provider
- Install WordPress
- Choose a theme
- Install WooCommerce and go through the Setup Wizard, which will guide you through shipping, taxes, payment collection, and more.
- Create your pages and products
Follow a friendly guide with details for each step: How to Set Up a New WooCommerce Store.
7. Extend your store
WooCommerce is unique to other selling platforms in the vast array of extensions and add-ons available to customize your site. Here are a few options you have thanks to extensions:
- Sell subscriptions: Offer a t-shirt of the month club in your store to generate recurring income.
- Customize variations: Use rotating photos to highlight product variations and utilize color and image swatches to visually represent variations.
- Add size charts: Use this size chart extension to help customers select the correct size.
- Create product bundles: Entice your buyers to add more to their cart with bundles and bulk discount packages.
- Create a more streamlined shipping and fulfillment process: Get WooCommerce Shipping to purchase labels directly from your website and claim huge discounts from major carriers.
- Build a loyalty program: Create a loyalty system where customers can earn points to get discounts on future purchases.
Want some help with customizations? Check out our list of WooExperts — vetted, proven agencies ready to assist with your project.
8. Market your store
Once you’re up and running, it’s time to market your shop to reach more customers. Extensions will once again come in handy to connect your store with advertising platforms and allow you to measure progress and improve campaigns. There’s no one-size-fits-all marketing plan, but here are some things you should consider:
- Social media: Connect with your niche audience on social media by creating relevant content and adding value to conversations. Pinterest is one platform you won’t want to miss. There’s lots you can learn about building a following, and once you have, here’s how to turn social media followers into customers.
- Search engine optimization: When customers begin looking for products to buy, they often start with search engines. Learn how to optimize your eCommerce site so their search leads them to your store.
- Email marketing: Start an email list and use it to recover abandoned carts, provide value for your customers, and encourage future sales. Learn how to create an email marketing strategy.
- Paid advertising: Get your business in front of your target audience with paid ads on the sites they already visit and platforms they already use. Learn the basics of online advertising.
Start your online t-shirt business today
Starting a successful business is a journey that takes some time. But formulating a solid plan for building your store, manufacturing, and order fulfillment can help you get there, step by step. With an abundance of resources and tips for selling online, WooCommerce will always be here to help.
If you’ve dreamed of starting your own online t-shirt business, make today the day you take your first steps.