How To Start a T-Shirt Design Business

“This design would look great on a t-shirt!” That thought must cross every sketchbook doodler’s mind at some point. The thing is, there’s a lot more to the t-shirt design business than a sketchbook and an idea. I’m not saying don’t chase your dreams but if you’re serious about starting a t-shirt business, continue reading.

I don’t personally have a t-shirt design business. So why am I writing this post? Because I have spent the last decade working for a clothing manufacturer and I’ve designed t-shirts, making me more than qualified. Also, I’ve been getting more requests for t-shirt designs lately. I guess that a lot of people think it’s a cheap and easy way to make some extra money.

There are basically 5 stages you need to think about, and cost factors to consider for each one. I’ll break these stages down one by one – design, production, inventory, marketing and sales, and reorders.

 

STAGE 1 – DESIGN

The first stage of designing is where most t-shirt design entrepreneurs start. You doodle some awesome logo that would look great on a shirt. Your mind starts swirling with the possibilities. You’ve already thought of all sorts of designs, different shirts, and celebrities wearing your gear. You’ll finally be able to afford the rent and your dreams are coming true! All you need is someone to make your sketch digital.

So you search online or call that freelance graphic designer your best friend’s company used. Then reality comes crashing down. Unfortunately graphic designers also want to pay the rent. Sadly they don’t want to work for free or McDonald’s coupons. The price is not free so it’s already more than you want to spend.

You think it over and maybe you can swing the first logo. Your designer warns you that it’s not the best design for a t-shirt because it has 15 colors, lots of little details, it won’t work on every color shirt and probably looks like someone else’s design. That’s when he tells you that t-shirt printers charge by the amount of ink colors and size. “But what about all the shirts I see with prints all over them?” Those are either sublimation printed or digitally printed, meaning they cost more. Whatever!

 

STAGE 2 – PRODUCTION

So, you dig into your rent money and decide this jackass graphic designer doesn’t know what he’s talking about but you need the digital file anyway. He turns the design into a digital file and you’re off to find a screen printer. You walk up to the counter with your files on a CD and tell the person you need to get this design printed. “Great!” they tell you.

They open the file and see that you have 15 colors and they only have a 7-color press because a print like that would have to sell for $100. Then they tell you that even if you do drop some of the colors it will probably only work on black, navy and charcoal colored shirts. “What about white?” you ask. “Your design has too much white and it won’t show up on the print” they say. Then they tell you that, for your redesign, white also counts as one of your ink colors. “WHAT!” That’s right. White is a color of ink too.

 

STAGE 1 – DESIGN … Again

Okay, back to stage 1. You call the designer and ask him to send you the file in a format that you can edit yourself. At that point the designer is ready to throat punch you because he has to explain that the software used is NOT Microsoft Word or Paint. He tells you it’s Adobe Illustrator and it takes a long time to learn. Oh, and if you want to try for yourself it only costs about $50 a month for a never-ending subscription. You can swing that, right? Except the computer your dad gave you in 2001 isn’t compatible, doesn’t have the processing power, the correct operating system or a powerful enough graphics card. So now you either pay the designer or sell your kidney to buy a new machine and learn a computer program you’ve never even seen.

You pay the designer, again, and swear that you’re going to find a new graphic designer because he’s an asshole!

 

STAGE 2 – PRODUCTION … Again

You’re back at the screen printer with your new, simpler design. It’s not quite as awesome now that it’s been altered and you decide to print it on a black shirt because everyone likes black shirts.

The printer then asks where you want the print and how big you want it. Of course you want it on the chest in the largest size possible. Until they tell you that the extra ink coverage will cost more. “WHAT THE HELL?” So you agree to a print on the left chest, the size of a business card. Great, now the details won’t show up!

Then they ask you what size scale you want. “Huh?” The printer explains that most people print shirts in at least small through double extra large. They also suggest a dozen of each size, and in men’s and ladies’ styles. That’s a lot of shirts! The room starts spinning from the realization that you might have gotten in a little over your head. Then a thought! Maybe you can just do 30, all in large and only in men’s. Just to test the waters you say. The printer tells you they’ll want cash up front on this job. Oh, and they have a minimum order of 35 shirts and it’s going to be $8 a shirt. Why don’t they just kick you in the balls, right?

 

STAGE 3 – INVENTORY

Since you don’t have the money to cover the cost of printing the shirts yourself you start looking into the online shops. You upload your design to their website, agree to a payment plan and you’re off! The cash should be rolling in now. Except it isn’t. You sell one shirt in 3 months and get a check that can buy you one of those fancy imported beers at the pub.

So you sell your car, since you’re still contemplating the kidney sale for the new computer system, and call the screen printer back. Three weeks later you go to pick up your new t-shirts. They might not be as grand as you had originally imagined but they’re yours. You did this! It’s a great feeling. Once you get back home you place your 3 boxes of shirts on the kitchen table, cut open the box, and marvel at your new enterprise. And as the weeks move on, so do the boxes. To your living room, then bedroom, and finally the closet. Thank goodness you didn’t get the full size scale. Your closet is only so big.

Now if you did go all in on this adventure your shirts would most likely be stored in your garage. Lined up all nicely and stacked. Until you have to dig out the double extra large shirts at the bottom of the stack. And before you know it you realize you’re left with way more smalls than larges, your white shirts are mixed with the black shirts and you have no idea how many you actually have in what size or color. Your immediate future has a weekend with you counting, sorting and trying to figure out a system to make this work.

 

STAGE 4 – MARKETING AND SALES

So here you are, 5 months into your super awesome t-shirt design company and the only shirts you’ve sold are to your dad and girlfriend’s brother. You wear one all the time to try and promote your new brand but other than that you have no way to sell these things.

It dawns on you that maybe you need a website. All the other t-shirt brands have websites. Reluctantly you call back the designer, who takes a few extra days to get back to you. When his website quote comes in you crap your pants. Not only is it more than you thought but he wants it paid up front. WHAT AN ASSHOLE! The hell with that price!

So you spend a month researching and downloading free website templates from open source programs. After all your time and effort on building your own website you realize a few things. Your logo doesn’t fit or look right, you hate the website’s colors and don’t know how to change them, your photos look like they came from a camera phone in 1999 and even you don’t know how to find the shirts from the navigation bar. It was a noble effort.

So you call back the designer, again, and explain that you have the groundwork done and you just need him to make some small adjustments. Of course, he has never heard of the free software you used and tells you no. It would have to be a new-build because it would actually take less time. “FINE!”

Then he asks you for your domain and FTP server access. Huh? What the hell is this guy talking about? The designer explains you need to purchase a domain name and hosting services for a website to work. He will build the files for the site and you have to pay for the domain name and service to have them work online.

This is a few hundred dollars on top of the thousand he wants for the website design, on top of what you spent on the shirts, on top of what you paid to have your sketch designed … twice. What the hell, who needs two kidneys anyways?

After you heal from the operation you awake to a beautiful website with your logo and shirts up online and it looks GREAT! This is it! Orders will be rolling in, except they don’t. Because no one knows it exists. You call your designer after a few weeks and no sales. He tells you that you have to advertise. He says something about ad words and SEO stuff. You’re still dizzy from the recovery but have enough balance to know this is going to cost you more money.

You have to turn to a life of crime to make the cash to advertise your new site. After 2 years, a few thousand dollars, the loss of a kidney, and a slightly used ski mask, you did it! You sold your shirts! You almost made enough money to cover the cost of the whole ordeal. Yet you’re still not living the good life you imagined.

 

STAGE 5 – REORDER

So what now? Now it’s time to start all over again. You have orders still coming in for the shirts you no longer have. You have to rebuy that first shirt. That’s the good news. The only expense now is the printing. You already laid the groundwork to sell them. Now you need a new design, a new shirt. How long can that one design last?

So it begins, again. You doodle up a new sketch but now you’re armed with some know-how. Time to call that graphic designer again. Time to make some real money.