Many people start decorating t-shirts at home for themselves, family and friends to wear. Then, maybe like you, they realize more people are asking them for custom t-shirts: for a bridal party, for a school club, for a family reunion or for sports team fans.
What’s the next logical step? Launching a t-shirt business, so that you can profit from the branded merchandise you’re so good at creating. However, when you’re moving from at-home hobbyist to small business owner, there are lots of things to consider before you make the leap.
The Experts Weigh In On Launching Your T-Shirt Business
We asked veteran t-shirt business owners and other industry experts to offer their best advice (and lessons learned) for newbies, who want to get their t-shirt shop off to an uber-successful start.
Q. What’s the most important piece of information I need to succeed if I’m starting a t-shirt business?
Lee Romano Sequeira, Co-Owner, Sparkle-Plenty.com: Go back to the basics by doing your market research first. Just because your friends and family love your idea, and obviously, you do too, you should survey people who’ll give you an honest opinion. Keep in mind that it's better if your survey group doesn't know you, so they’re more unbiased.
Some t-shirt shop owners do this research by creating a survey link and then asking people in their target market to respond. For example, you can connect with people who are your ideal buyers in Facebook groups. If you’re targeting mothers or pet owners, join the Facebook groups where they hang out.
Another tactic is to take advance orders to see if folks who love your t-shirt shop idea will put their money where their mouths are. Pre-ordering will show you if your idea has legs—and then you can run with it.
Kristine Shreve, Director of Marketing and Outreach, Applique Getaway: Like Lee said, know who’s in your target market. And, no, your market can’t be “everyone.” Your market may be determined by geography, by the type of work you like to do, or by a particular interest or community affiliation, but you need to narrow it down by some trait or qualification.
Second, figure out where your target market is and go there, online and in real life. You won't make sales if you don't reach your target market, and you can't reach them if you don't know where they like to hang out. A lot of t-shirt business owners neglect to do this research and end up wasting a lot of time and money selling to people who don't want to buy what they have to sell. Avoid that, if at all possible.
Third, find reliable t-shirt suppliers and supplies vendors. Again, do your research. Find communities of business owners, online or off, who do what you want to do and pick their brains. What suppliers do they use and trust? How does a new business get established with suppliers? Talking to your peers can save you a lot of time, energy and money.
Q. If I know that people will buy my t-shirts, what are some of the other things I should think about?
Erich Campbell, Program Manager, Commercial Division, Briton Leap: Remember that the “business” part of the t-shirt business equation is critical. As many decorators, myself included, find themselves in love with the process and creativity, without sales, marketing, management, maintenance, operating processes and policies, we won't long have the opportunity to employ ourselves doing what we love. We need skill in our craft, but we require the foundation of basic business skills and resources to be our best.
The next most important piece of information is to remember that you’re in business and need to think accordingly. You need to know your markets and pursue them. You need to measure your outcomes. You must manage expenses, and of course, get those t-shirts decorated. Success in a creative business is holistic; the creative side, the craft can't happen without basic business operation.
Jane Swanzy, Owner, Swanthreads.com: Like Erich said, know your costs to operate your business. Make a spreadsheet of your t-shirt shop’s expenses (like rent or mortgage payment, utilities, blank shirts, decorating supplies, packaging supplies, shipping costs, marketing costs and so on), plus how much you want or need to make so you have a basis of what to charge for your decorated goods. If you don’t know how much it costs you to do business, it’s very difficult to be profitable.
Howard Potter, CEO & Owner, A&P Master Images: First, make sure you get a qualified CPA, so you maximize your home business write-offs that Erich and Jane recommend that you track, such as your mortgage, utilities, cell phone, internet, vehicle and more.
Q: What are some mistakes a new t-shirt shop owner should avoid?
Kristine Shreve: As I said earlier, neglecting to do research and determine who and where your target market is can lead to wasted time, effort and money as you sell to people who don't want to buy your great t-shirts. Avoid that if at all possible.
Some new t-shirt business owners get so caught up in what the possibilities are that they want to do everything. A lot of wasted money and time later, they discover that they don't like doing some things or can't be profitable doing some things, but at that point the knowledge might come too late. Do your research and narrow your options so you can be as successful as possible from day one.
Another mistake is starting social media profiles, but not building communities. If you post the same tired “buy my stuff” message time after time, people won’t engage. People buy from people and companies they like and trust, so use social media to build a community, not to bludgeon people with sales messages. Share images of you wearing your t-shirts or show a quick video of how you decorate one, to get people excited about your brand.
Jane Swanzy: Like Kristine said, don’t try to be all things to all people. You’ll spread yourself too thin. Figure out what you do (and don’t) want to do so you won’t waste your time or money on something that doesn’t make you happy or bring in money.
Erich Campbell: I also want to reiterate that point: Consider your market before taking on a new decoration process or technique. If it doesn't serve a need that’s immediately marketable to your buyers—or that you have a solid sense you could build a following for—be cautious about buying supplies or equipment to serve what’s often a creative urge, rather than a true business opportunity. We should still chase our passions in our t-shirt businesses, but we should do so with our market in mind.
Next, make sure you have insurance to cover your equipment, at the very minimum. If you’re based at home, update your homeowners insurance to include an umbrella policy, too.
Choose a local bank that can work with business accounts, including a checking account, lines of credit and equipment loans, along with a building mortgage (if you decide to move into a commercial location).
I’d also recommend finding a reputable attorney who understands small businesses. You should look at forming an LLC when you start your t-shirt decorating business, and a lawyer can help with that. They’re also there for the lonAlso, don't cut your marketing or self-promotion budget first. When things are lean, time and resources should still be looking toward deeper penetration and acquisition; show solid customers or fans new products, send event reminders, and display opportunities. In other words, keep working on marketing and discoverability.
The only way to get busy is to get orders, and that requires keeping your work in their minds. Pulling back on marketing is stealing fuel from the engine that keeps your t-shirt business turning. If you bury yourself in craft and production and forget marketing and sales, you’ll often see your overall incoming stream of work diminish. Keep making and showing your t-shirt designs, and keep getting it in front of your market.
The Big Takeaways
When you’re starting your t-shirt business, the biggest and best advice our experts shared is this: Know your target market. Are you designing and decorating the t-shirts they’ll line up to buy on repeat? If you get that right, and you’re able to price your t-shirts for profit when you know your costs of doing business, you’re off to a great start in your brand-new business.
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