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.
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.