There has never been easier time to start a retail business on the side. Ecommerce platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce make it incredibly simple to start a store, requiring just a few clicks and less than $100 in your pocket.
There’s an unlimited variety of products you can sell, but one has been proven to work over and over—t-shirts.
I know it may sound too simple, but it’s true! T-shirts have been a go-to for many first-time entrepreneurs branching out from their full-time jobs.
This basic, timeless business model has helped countless entrepreneurs earn their first few dollars, learn the basic skills of how to start an online business, and gain the confidence to achieve entrepreneurial success.
If you’re intrigued, keep reading because today we’ll show you how you can start a profitable online store selling t-shirts on the side. We’ll also talk to Benny Hsu who has created a $100,000 t-shirt business. He gives us advice on how to start and grow this reliable side hustle.
Why Sell T-Shirts?
The first question you may be asking yourself is, why would you sell t-shirts in the first place? Why not something like electronics, sporting goods, food, or other fashion staples?
The reason t-shirts are an amazing first choice for new entrepreneurs testing out ecommerce is that they are ubiquitous: everybody uses t-shirts. You probably own a dozen or more. And you’d probably buy another if if you saw one you liked—they’re usually cheap after all.
T-shirts are also easy to outsource. There are many companies that manufacture and print high-quality t-shirts for cheap.
Because you would technically be drop-shipping from these companies—that is, the company deals with the production and logistics, while you deal with sales and customer service—you avoid stressing over production, warehousing, and transportation.
Once you find a design you like, you can sell it over and over again, just like when selling a digital product.
Finally, t-shirts are just one part of an empire you could build. You can branch into pants, tank tops, hats, and even products like mugs, stickers, and pillows.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business Online
Find a Niche for Your Online T-Shirt Business
Because t-shirts are everywhere, if you want to succeed, you must stand out. Plain t-shirts won’t cut it. You need to connect with an audience who will love your brand and the designs you sell.
That’s why you need to start by finding a niche for your t-shirts. This can’t be a broad niche like “fitness enthusiasts.”
We often say that to succeed with an online business you need to develop a buyer persona—a specific version of your ideal customer—and a strong brand that connects with a passionate audience.
Your t-shirts have to be so specific in their target that when your audience sees it, they say “This is perfect for me. I must buy this.”
After all, sports fans don’t wear their team’s t-shirts because they look good; they do it to show to their rivals and fellow fans who they stand for.
T-shirts work as a representation of your audience’s identity.
As always, when it comes to finding your niche, you need to do a lot of research. This step will make or break your business, so take your time to find, analyze, and understand your audience.
Scout Communities in Industries You Like and Know
Start by picking a community you like and are familiar with. This isn’t mandatory, but it will make your research much easier.
Go to Reddit, Facebook groups, and other industry-specific forums and read through dozens of posts to see what people love to talk and complain about.
These sites are goldmines for research, so take your time and take notes.
A good thing to look for are inside jokes or popular memes. If you can leverage these shared jokes in your t-shirts, they will quickly become popular in the communities.
Do Keyword Research
Because people only search when they need to understand something, find a solution to a problem, or buy a product, they work as proxies to enter the mind of your audience.
Both keywords with “high competition” (that is, pages that have a lot of links pointing to them) and “high CPC” (that is, keywords that companies bid for in Google Adwords) help you see what people in your industry care about the most.
For example, if I were to search “powerlifting gear,” I’d not only find that this is a popular term, but also very popular among the community and the businesses in this specific industry.
Once you find a keyword, check out the top 10 results and see what people say about the topic at hand.
In this example, I found that people search for weightlifting belts. While on its own, this isn’t something that I could use on a t-shirt, if I use my imagination, I can think of some funny ideas that weightlifters can relate to.
Competitors are always a great source of inspiration. The popularity of a given product can tell you what works and what doesn’t.
Some sites actually let you organize products by popularity and by reviews; both let you check the designs people in your industry like the most.
When you research your industry, you want to see who the biggest ecommerce stores are and whether they sell t-shirts or not. If they do, check the designs and their popularity.
You can also use some platforms like Amazon and Etsy to see if there are any designs in your industry.
Pro Tip: Test Different Niches
I talked to Benny Hsu, one of the most successful t-shirt entrepreneurs out there, who has earned over $100,000 in one month, and he recommends a similar approach.
To start, he suggests researching on Amazon to identify the t-shirts with the highest BSR (Best Sellers Rankings).
Similarly, he recommends using Etsy and other sites to check the best sellers. Better yet, he recommends looking at a specific store’s reviews. “See what customers are leaving reviews about. That’s a great way to know what they’re actually buying since you can’t see sales numbers on the stores,” he says.
Design the T-Shirt
The key that will make or break your online t-shirt business is the design you choose. This will carry your brand, create a connection with your audience, and become the foundation upon which your store’s success will be built.
When it comes to design, like any creative endeavor, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. You can’t A/B test different designs and optimize them slightly until you hit the “right” conversion rate like you do with a blog post or a pop-up.
Based on your research, you need to think thoroughly about the ideas that seem to resonate best with your audience. Then, you need to create something that plays along those lines.
You may have to spend a few hundred dollars to get a good graphic designer who creates a few designs based on your ideas, but this will be money well spent, considering the design will make or break your t-shirt business’s success.
If you still can’t find a designer, you can also purchase pre-made designs. While this can work if you’re in contact with some up-and-coming designers who haven’t sold their pre-made designs yet, there’s still a high chance that other people are already selling the design, so choose this option at your own discretion.
You can purchase these pre-made designs in marketplaces like:
You can also get a design in one of the more standard graphic design marketplaces—just remember that in order to sell these designs, you will have to purchase a commercial license, which can cost over $50 per design.
The two largest graphic design marketplaces are:
Whoever you end up working with, make sure you get a file that’s at least 300 digital pixels per inch (DPI or PPI), has a transparent background, and covers the actual print area of the t-shirt. This will guarantee that once you print your design it will look great on the t-shirt.
When it comes to designing a t-shirt, Benny Hsu recommends you “look at the types of designs that are currently selling for a particular niche I’m designing for. Is it full of graphics? Is it simple with text only? Is it a mix of both?”
You want to follow a similar design pattern so when your audience looks at your designs, it’s similar to what they’re looking for.
Print Your Design
When it comes to printing, your first option, although the least convenient, is to work with a local print shop and warehouse your products on your own. This can be great because you can control the design and printing better, you can test the designs on the go, and improve them quickly.
The problem is that this option can be more expensive per unit—local printing shops don’t handle the volumes some of the options below have—and will require you to handle the logistics on your own.
A better option when you are first getting started is to outsource the entire process to a dropshipping company like Printful or Gooten. These companies take care of the printing and logistics, saving you a lot of time and money in the process. All you have to do is upload a file and send it to your customers. To set up an account with either of these companies, you need to order samples to test the designs, t-shirt quality, and sizes, set up your fulfillment preferences, and a few other things. But compared to the costs and time spent on starting a traditional ecommerce store, this process is easier.
Alternatively, you can use a platform like Redbubble or Teespring. These platforms aren’t really so much of an option if you want to build a long-term t-shirt business, since the “artist” (i.e., you) makes around 20% of the price of the product.
These two marketplaces can work great if you only want to test some ideas and see which designs see the most traction with your audience. But after a while, it’s best to move toward a more independent setup.
Note that we talk about dropshipping here as one way to get started with selling t-shirts online. But here at Foundr, we always recommend eventually manufacturing your own products, as this is how you create a sustainable business for the long-term.
But, some people want to get their feet wet with a side hustle to see if ecommerce is something they want to dive into 100%. Dropshipping POD (print-on-demand) t-shirts can be a way to dip your toe into ecommerce, earn your first dollars, and gain some confidence without investing too much.
Test Your Designs
While getting started with a t-shirt company is technically easy, there’s a little more to it than just creating a design and setting up a shop. To get your business started on the right foot, it’s important to test your designs. You want to validate your t-shirt ideas, just like we test our course ideas before we launch them to the entire audience.
Benny Hsu uses a platform called Cafepress.com to test his designs. Once he realized that his designs were doing well, then he took them to his own store and used Facebook Ads to sell them to his audience.
One of the advantages of using Facebook Ads is that you can create incredibly targeted campaigns to show your t-shirts to people who fit a specific profile.
For example, if I wanted to sell t-shirts related to weightlifting, I could easily select that preference in the ad manager and have Facebook deliver ads based on their own algorithm.
Mastering Facebook ads is the matter of an entire different post, and it will take some time to develop profitable ad campaigns, but they can scale your sales in almost unparalleled ways. To learn more about creating a successful Facebook Ad campaign, check out the following posts:
- The Step-by-Step Facebook Ads Strategy a First-Time Entrepreneur Used to Hit Her First $1K/Mo
- What Ecommerce Retailers Need to Know to Succeed at Facebook Advertising
Another option is to use organic social media, like sharing your designs on your Facebook profile (this can work great if you’re friends with people from your audience), popular Facebook groups in your niche, Twitter, and most importantly, Instagram.
We’ve also written extensively on the art and science of growing an Instagram following, so to learn how you can start generating sales from this amazing platform, check out this post: How to Get More Followers on Instagram (A Step-by-Step Guide).
Finally, you can use the same niche forums and subreddits you used to research your audience to promote your brand. You do need to be very careful not to annoy these audiences, as most are quite unfriendly to marketers. It’s best to play it safe and work on getting known before you throw your t-shirts into these forums.
Benny is an expert at validating t-shirt ideas. That’s how he was able to slowly build his $100k-per-month empire. When I asked him about his testing strategy, he said:
The way I validate it is to upload it and see if it sells. There are many shirts I’ve designed that I thought would sell well only to upload it and have zero sales. My main way of selling shirts now is on Amazon, so I upload a bunch of different designs to different niches and see what sells. That’s the only way I can validate it.
Another idea he recommends to validate a specific design before you sell it is to use an existing email list or Facebook group you belong to and have the people vote on which shirt they like.
Open Your Ecommerce Store
After you’ve created your first t-shirt designs, you’ve tested the t-shirts and validated your designs, it’s time to build your store.
In the simplest terms, here’s what you need to do:
- Get a domain
- Open an account with an ecommerce platform
- Connect your account with one of the t-shirt manufacturers mentioned above
- Add your products
- Start selling
If you want to learn what this entire process looks like in more detail, check out the following posts:
- How to Start an Ecommerce Business: The Ultimate Guide
- How Much Does It Cost to Start an Ecommerce Business?
- How to Start an Ecommerce Side Hustle
Starting a t-shirt business is indeed a wonderful way to test the deep and dangerous waters of entrepreneurship.
It’s a great way to learn what it takes to open and grow an ecommerce business, and how you can learn the necessary skills online entrepreneurs need—namely, customer service, marketing, design, and more.
Because starting a t-shirt business is quite simple, the competition may seem fierce. But if you work on understanding your audience and creating a design that speaks to them, you will be able to stand out and succeed.
Now let’s hear from you:
Are you thinking about starting your own t-shirt business? What questions do you have about this process?