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How to Start an Online Custom T-Shirt Business

If marketers had their way they would have tattooed every inch of your body to display their messages on it, that’s where custom t-shirts comes in.  Think of the idea of a walking billboard of your message or design, what’s not to like?  In fact in recent times marketers have taken a special liking to t-shirt advertising. As per a research report from Grand View Research, t-shirt printing market size was valued at 3.4 billion in 2019 and is expected to register a CAGR (Compound annual growth rate) of 9.6% over the forecast period of 2020-2027. Looking at this healthy CAGR of 9.6% and looking at the fact that this business doesn’t require massive upfront investment or deep technical know-how, what could be more lucrative than the business of creating custom t-shirts for corporate events, and individuals? So without further ado let us tell you how you can quickly start your t-shirt business in few steps

  1. Decide whether to be a mass market player or a niche player?

This decision needs to be made for any business you want to start. T-shirt design and printing business is no different in this regard. You could either be a generalist by becoming a one stop shop for all t-shirt design and printing needs or you could be a niche player among a few specialized vendors by focusing on only a segment of customers. Both are valid strategies with inherent pros and cons.

Now-a-days more and more entrepreneurs are opting for being niche players. It’s easy to set yourself apart if you are a niche player. Being niche means that your initial upfront investment will also be low as your marketing spends and inventory would be low. The essence of being a niche player is that you discover an unserved or underserved customer segment or come up with a new idea which can create a new customer segment. The easy way to test whether your idea is new or not, is to search on Google with your idea as keyword. If the search engine doesn’t return many relevant results then most probably your idea is new.


  1. Create a T-Shirt design portfolio

Before people start coming to you with their requirements, you must have something to show to them to build your credibility and give comfort to those customers who will take a chance on you. To do that you must have a ready design catalog created either by yourself or through a professional designer.  Needless to say that you will save tons of money if you create the designs yourself at least in this initial phase.


  1. Validate your T-Shirt designs before their official launch

It’s important that you validate your t-shirt design before their official launch. Many times it’s far easier for others to catch some obvious flaw in your idea as they are not that close to the idea as you are. Online discussion platforms like Reddit could be a good way of doing this. You can create t-shirt sample designs, watermark them and then post your sample designs onto the relevant sub-reddits, and you’ll receive genuine feedback from people who are interested in your products. The people, who give positive feedback on your post, are your potential customers whom you can reach out to when you launch your products.


  1. Invest in branding

Often people new to the business ignore this aspect but as seasoned marketers say- branding is that aspect of marketing which often gives returns disproportionately higher than the initial investment made in it, you will be better off by giving branding the attention it truly deserves. You must invest a little in getting a professional logo for your business and give proper thought to the design and color combinations which you would like to associate with your business.


  1. Get a professional looking website

For an online business, website is still the best channel although later on you can think of having mobile apps and other digital channels too. If you decide to create your own website through platforms like WordPress, etc, you must ensure that you have a sleek and professional design and not a clumsy one looking like a school project. Your potential customers will have very little patience with a broken or unprofessional website. Any incompetency in website design will reflect on your actual business of designing and printing t-shirts too.


  1. Get your first customers

Once you have in place a professional website, a decent portfolio, a meaningful logo you can now focus on getting your first customers. There are several tactics to do this like Word of Mouth, SEO, Social Media Pages, Viral Marketing, Stalls in Events etc. You can use one or more of these tactics depending upon your budget and strategy (whether to cater to niche or mass market).


  1. Ensure production quality

You have won a battle once a customer has liked your design and placed an order with you but you still need to win this war. You have to ensure quality delivery against this order. A good design is worthless if it’s not printed properly. If printed design fades or cracks in couple of washes you can bid good bye to any repeat order from this customer. Remember acquiring a new customer is far more costly than getting a repeat order from an existing customer. Great brands are built on customer loyalty and you must always be careful about your brand reputation however small your business may be. There are various printing options to explore like screen printing, heat transfer printing, and direct to garment printing. You can contact a local printer, give him some trial orders and see whether the printing quality is up to the mark or not.


  1. Opt for a quality Print on Demand Fulfillment Supplier

If you want to avoid the cost and hassle associated with carrying your own inventory you can opt for a quality Print on Demand supplier. These suppliers will print the t-shirt designs that you sold and then ship it directly to your customers.

As with any online consumer business, this business also has marketing, production and shipping as its essential parts and as an entrepreneur you have to pay proper attention to all three of these parts. You can carefully choose your partners who will take most of the hard work off your hands but keeping them on a tight leash is always your responsibility and any slacking in that may cost you dearly.


  1. Ramp-up your online presence

As you start getting more and more customers and you make an effort to know more about these customers either through your own surveys or through further investment in market research, you will discover the other online channels (apart from your flagship website) your customers prefer.  It could be the case that your customers are active on some social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat etc and are totally absent from some other mediums or they don’t spend time searching for T-shirts through Google. As a consequence of this influencer marketing and advertising are more suited to your needs rather than search engine optimization. Once you have mapped out where your ideal customers like to hang out online, you can start to set up and build your online brand presence there.


  1. Build Reviews and Feedbacks

Customers who will come across your t-shirt brand online will invariably look for some reviews. As we know, if you leave customers to their own devices then they are not very likely to take the trouble of leaving a review online unless they are really dissatisfied with your product. You need to make an effort to persuade your satisfied customers to leave a review for you online. You can think about launching an incentive scheme to encourage people to review your products.


  1. Keep Investing in your t-shirt brand

Once your business gets going, it’s easy to ignore the need to make a continuous investment in your brand building. Brand awareness can be the difference between success and failure of your new business. The right branding can establish your business as trustworthy and differentiate you from the rest of the pack in your space. This will also help you enormously with your marketing efforts.

The basic elements of a brand are look and tone of voice. More often than not, your logo and website will be the first thing a new customer will see when searching for new T-shirts, so these components of your business need to make a good first impression. Often the voice of your marketing campaigns will also be governed by the tonality of the writing on your website so you need to put a lot of thought in it.

  1. Leverage to expand, meet emergencies and unexpected opportunities

Most of the entrepreneurs fund their start-up either through savings or through borrowings from family and friends. But once business gets going and you see new opportunities for growth, these traditional funding sources prove to be insufficient. It’s also not advisable to re-invest all your profit from the business right back into the business unless you support this investment with some leverage to balance out the risk and reward. Now if you have reached this point where you have to think about the above, it’s time to apply for small business funding. Whether you turn to a bank or apply with an online lender, there are several financing options available for your business –

Small Business Loans

Normally a small business which has actual paying customers and can prove existence of real operations can easily get loans from different lenders. You can repay this loan over time on a schedule mutually agreed upon with the lender. The schedule could be weekly, monthly or yearly depending upon your convenience and lender’s willingness. In addition to principal payment you also have to pay interest and any fees. As you must know that there is always a cost associated with any external funding for a business.  Small business loans can be taken for any business purpose, for example, funding an expansion, purchasing equipment for your business, or for use as working capital.

Vendor Financing

An operational business invariably establishes relationships with customers, vendors and suppliers. While customers pay you, you have to pay your suppliers. In a perfect scenario this cash flow would be smooth and you would rarely need any external funding on account of any disruption in this cash flow or to cover the costs of your inventory and supplies. However, this isn’t always the case.  Emergencies can come in many forms like a sudden seasonal surge in sales, or a delay in payment or no payment against few of your major orders. Any problem in cash flow may result in you struggling to pay your vendors and suppliers. To overcome this you can contact lenders that offer vendor financing. With vendor financing, your vendors will be paid the full amount for their products or services while you’re able to pay off the expense over time. This saves you from having to pay the full cost from your pocket for the inventory, supplies, and services you need to keep your business running smoothly.

Lines Of Credit

The other often used form of financing by businesses is called a Line of Credit. In this form of funding, you can access funds from a lender, within the limit set by the lender, as and when you need them. You can draw multiple times within this limit. This is a revolving form of credit so as you pay up against any draw down the funds will be replenished by the lender so that you can draw down again if any need arise.  Of course, as with any form of credit, a cost will be associated with this form also, and you have to pay back the principal along with interest and fees.



Selling custom t-shirts and shirt printing is a competitive business. Like any consumer business, marketing plays a key part in making this business successful. For a small online t-shirt business, you can pick up most of the necessary marketing skills. But as your business expands you can also think about hiring digital marketing specialists on some of the top freelancing platforms like Fiverr etc. As the room for error is less in this business, you need to plan well and adhere to the points mentioned above as much as possible. It’s a great time to be in this business, so put on your design hat and get going. If you face any difficulty, we are always glad to help you out. Please leave your comments below to let us know about your successes, failures, or any roadblocks.

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