How to start a T-shirt business (and make more money online)

This year I met a lot of people who are making Tshirts.

tshirt business

Why Tshirts?

Because creative people who can draw cool things have trouble selling just arts or prints. Tshirts are wearable art, and people like to wear cool/indie/artsy shirts that stand out.

First I met the TeeSpring guys.

TeeSpring is like Kickstarter – crowdfunding for Tshirts.

You set a campaign goal and only make the shirt if you sell enough to cover printing costs. I met a couple guys in Thailand who would make a niche shirt appealing to a specific group of people, and then target that group with Facebook ads to sell enough shirts. It only worked about 1/10th of the time, but the times it did work they made thousands of dollars in a few days, which led to tens of thousands a month.

Smart business, but they weren’t designers (or artists). The shirts weren’t great.

In Taiwan some of my friends have been making shirts for several years – but they hand-draw everything, hand print everything using their own screening machine, and then hand deliver or ship.

And they are really good. Their designs are awesome.

But of course they are doing way too much work, with very little payoff.

My advice: Go Online

They were missing the fundamental principles of starting a successful online business:

1. It needs to be scalable.

2. You need to focus on the value you produce and outsource everything else.

3. You don’t want to be involved in production or distribution (certainly not both).

4. You need an easy way for people to find you and pay you for your products.

My advice to them was this:

Focus on the drawings. Stop doing all that other shit, and produce 10X the number of illustrations.

Put all those illustrations up on Society6 or Zazzle or a Tshirt design company. You may sell 1/10th of what you’re selling now but you won’t have to do anything to make the money.

Plus, you can still sell local, so this is all just extra money for something you already have.

Put a PayPal button up on your website for direct orders – or better yet, just direct everyone to your Zazzle/Society6 page.

You don’t want to disturb your creative production with boring stuff like fulfilling orders.

You are worth more money when you’re drawing or illustrating new work, than you are worth when you’re fulfilling orders.

Get people to like you on Facebook.

Get people to sign up to your email list in exchange for high-res, downloadable PNG files they can print themselves (make sure to put your logo and website on the files).

A note on piracy

My friends are worried about putting their designs online because people will steal them.

Yes that happens. But the payoff of being online should outweigh other considerations.

Just make sure you put your designs up everywhere before someone else does. It’s not likely people will steal your design and sell them online. It’s possible somebody will steal your design and sell them on the street in some country you’ve never been to.

But won’t hurt your sales much, if at all.

Worrying about piracy is like refusing to buy a plane ticket because planes crash or disappear sometime.

So you stay home and never visit all the magical places you’ve dreamed about. You’ll be safe, but you’ll never get anywhere.

Piracy is not the enemy. Obscurity is the enemy. If you can get your work out there so everybody knows that it’s yours, nobody will be able to pirate you, because people will recognize the work instantly.

Starting an online business

Online businesses are mostly the same.

Make a product or a service. Find a way to produce and deliver it.

Get it in front of people with a big marketplace.

Marketing: It’s hard to get people to find your website. That’s why you sell on TeeSpring or Ebay or someplace other people are actively looking for products like yours. You also need to put your shit everywhere by repurposing content. Make YouTube videos. Make a SlideShare. Get on BoredPanda.

Quality: Be better than everyone else.

Pricing: Charge the average of what everyone else is charging, but be the best so it will seem like a deal. Once you’re famous and recognized as the best, raise prices.

Real money is about moving a lot of product – so streamline everything. Cut out non-essential processes and focus on making maximum sales without spending much in administrative costs or duties.

Publishing Books

The reason I know all of this is because it’s just like publishing books.

The “Publishing Revolution” came with POD (Print on Demand), where authors could upload their PDF files and Amazon would print and ship just one copy of the book whenever someone bought it – which means, no production costs for authors.

And the rise of ebooks meant that authors had valuable digital content they could give away for free to build followers quickly. Publishing is still a great business to get into, although – I’m a little jealous of my friends who are designing pictures.

One drawing a day and you’ll have over 350 in a year – with that many designs, you should be making a solid chunk of income and dominate the online Tshirt industry.

Whereas, I’ll be lucky if I can finish one book a month – unless I outsource my writing, something I’ve been experimenting with.

I know that “real money” won’t start flowing until I have at least 10, but more probably 25 books out there.

But the great thing about books and Tshirts is, after you’ve done the work, it’s passive income – and you should have a steady stream of hands-off income coming in every month, unless something changes or the world ends.

tshirt company

Check out my friends’ shop at Society6.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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