How to Start a T-Shirt Business
We’re sure you’ll agree that figuring out how to start a small business or side hustle with only a little bit of free time and a small bank account is a hard proposition.
Not to mention finding a business idea you can do with a product people actually want.
Luckily, we live in a time where t-shirt sales are exploding, making it the perfect time to start a t-shirt business.
As we become a more casual society, t-shirts will continue to grow in popularity. They offer a great way to express yourself – from political statements, civic pride, nerd pride and so on.
On top of that, the diversity of apparel available now is amazing.
Gone are the days of all-cotton shirts that shrink and iron-on decals that feel like someone plastered wallpaper on the chest (not to mention that start peeling off on the first washing).
Today, it’s possibly to produce professional, custom t-shirts out of a garage, spare bedroom or even your living room. You can even do this in an apartment.
All it takes is a quality heat press and the right knowledge.
You don’t need to be an artist.
You don’t need to be a business whiz.
You don’t need to have a ton of spare time on your hands.
By the end of this article, you will have the knowledge you need to start your own t-shirt business.
What you won’t find:
This isn’t one of those shady tutorials for “how to start a t-shirt business” that is completely hands-off. You know the ones. Where you use the company’s artwork, they print and ship the shirt. And they see most of the profit.
Guys, here’s the problem:
ANYONE can do that.
You will have absolutely zero competitive advantage.
You can start your business and your next-door neighbor can do the same thing and suddenly – your revenue potential is cut in half.
What you WILL get in this article:
Actionable advice on how to start your t-shirt business by the end of the day with minimal money and minimal time.
Links to ongoing, FREE education to help you start and grow your t-shirt business.
An introduction to your new partner, Transfer Express, that has been in the business of creating t-shirt entrepreneurs since 1978.
Are you ready to learn how to get started?
STEP ONE: Decide What You Want Out of Your T-Shirt Business
Planning and research are, perhaps, one of the most critical stages of starting your own t-shirt business.
Don’t worry – this won’t take long…but you DO need to go through this stage.
First and foremost, decide what you want from your business.
People get into this business for many reasons.
A few of them are:
- Paying off their student loans
- Having extra money on the side
- Hoping to have it eventually be their main source of income
- To have the ability to stay home with kids and still contribute to the household finances
Completing this step will help you decide which customers to go after, how much you need to invest in marketing and equipment for your business, and what the maximum number of t-shirt orders you can take on in a week is.
STEP TWO: Figure Out Who You’ll Sell T-Shirts To
Just like with any small businesses, the easiest and most logical place to start is with people you already know.
Are any of them Little League coaches? Are they actively involved in the PTA/PTO? Or maybe they own a business themselves and need shirts to use as uniforms.
Or perhaps you know someone with a retail store that could carry your fashion line of t-shirts (vs. a more group style of selling shirts – such as to teams and companies).
You will probably want to set up an online presence, but the smart money is to test the concept out first. Competing out there in Google-land requires knowledge of search engine optimization and online advertising.
It’s best to start with your current sphere of influence and work the kinks out of your process.
Believe it or not, the worst-case scenario just might be hitting the jackpot and getting swamped with orders right out of the gate.
One thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that the most successful t-shirt businesses we see are ones who focus on some sort of niche.
As we mentioned above, it’s important to have a competitive advantage. The most successful t-shirt businesses find a niche market.
STEP THREE: Give Your T-Shirt Business A Name
This is less important if you want to do this part-time. However, you may find that you quickly grow and wish to make it a “real” business.
It’s tough to do that down the road.
You’ll want to find a name that’s available as a website and on all of the social media properties you want to use.
While you can certainly go to each social network and check individually, it’s an arduous process. There is a fantastic, free tool that can check everything all at once called Namech_k (Like “namecheck” without the “ec”). Go to namechk to see if your company name idea is available.
Something to keep in mind is that you may want to expand beyond t-shirts at some point.
It’s not uncommon for businesses of this type to sell trophies, embroidery and promotional items as well.
As you come up with a name, be sure it’s not too limiting.
Another trap we see people run into is trying to get cute with the spelling.
If you have a huge ad budget and can make sure people know there is an unusual spelling of a word, go for it.
But generally speaking, try not to get around a business name being similar to yours by spelling something in an unusual way.
STEP THREE: Make Your T-Shirt Business Legal
Definitely do your research in this area.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to secure an LLC through your state. In most states, this fee is only around $100.
We aren’t accountants nor lawyers, so consult one and/or due your due diligence online.
Securing an LLC can do two things for you – offer some protection for your personally should something go wrong and businesses are more likely to give you wholesale pricing.
You should also consider getting a Tax ID.
There is a ton of information online about both of these items, so we won’t spend a lot of time on it here.
You may also want to go to the bank and set up a business checking account. The reason for this is that most banks will not cash a check made out to your business name through your personal account.
It does help separate your personal and private financial life and is worthwhile for most people.
You can work around this by only accepting cash or PayPal, but remember, YOU and YOU ALONE are responsible for collecting and filing taxes for your sales.
Keep track of all business expenses so you can get all of the write-offs you can at tax time.
Decide on your comfort level as to if you feel you require a CPA to file your taxes for you. Many small businesses find that using QuickBooks accounting online is all they need. The software can help you put aside money to pay your taxes and even manage payroll if you get to a point where you have employees.
One of the best resources around is the United States Small Business Administration. You can find much more in-depth information about the ins and outs of the legal side of starting a small business and we highly recommend you check them out.
Easy View is an online program (exclusive to Transfer Express) that provides 12,000 layouts and pieces of clip art that you can customize with zero design skills to create your own t-shirts.
The software has a 30-day trial and is free to use.
To stay active, simply place an order to reactivate your account if your trial is up.
You can read more about that here.
To sign up, you simply provide your name and email address, as well as answer a few simple questions.
The whole process takes around 5 minutes.
No credit card info or credit check is required.
Just sign up and boom – you’re officially up and running.
When you sign up, you’ll get materials in the mail you can use to promote your business. One of these items is an Idea Book® that you can show your potential customers.
Easy View is exceptionally user-friendly and requires little to no instruction.
If you are someone who learns better being shown step by step, just visit the Transfer Express Media Library (free of charge) to watch a few videos about using Easy View to its fullest.
If you’re more of a hands-on person, get in there and start testing out the creation of your custom designs.
You’ll likely come across people offering crazy things like a year of artwork for $100. We think this is absolutely crazy.
Every t-shirt business owner should have access to a system that allows them to create their own custom artwork and they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
As a quick aside, if you do happen to have graphic design skills, know someone who does, or have a customer who has their own artwork, you can absolutely upload that and produce a transfer from it.
We call that Easy Prints Plus® and you can read more about it here.
STEP FIVE: Purchase a Professional Heat Press
A heat press is just what it sounds like. It’s a commercial machine designed to clamp down on apparel or other items to adhere a heat transfer to the item.
Heat transfers have adhesive on them and require a precise time and temperature setting, as well as an exact pressure. The combination of these three items is what ensures the transfer will adhere properly – not just for today, but for the numerous amount of washing the item will endure.
It’s tempting to purchase a cheap press online or worse yet, be tempted into thinking you can use a household iron.
Let’s dispense with this right now.
An iron will not produce results.
As mentioned above, the “recipe,” if you will, is time, temperature and pressure. An iron simply cannot give you that.
Cheaper presses are all over the internet.
You’ll see packages with a bazillion attachments for $300-$500.
We can’t encourage you enough NOT to go this route.
If you go with a cheap press, here are some things that can go wrong:
- “Cold spots” in the transfer when you press it. This means the transfer won’t apply well and won’t hold up over time. This will damage the business you’ll have worked so hard to build up.
- Inconsistent temperature – again…the transfer won’t apply properly and you may waste both transfers and apparel.
- The heat plates, known as platens (pronounced platt-enz), often don’t line up properly on cheaper presses.
- The inability to set the pressure precisely (measured in pressure per square inch – or psi). The “recipe” for applying a transfer properly has three ingredients – time, temperature and pressure. You’re going to see us say that many, many times.
- The press will get too cold between shirts and you’ll slow down your production time.
Hotronix presses are the gold standard in the industry.
These can be ordered online and shipped to you very quickly. Any of the versions are good, but a mid-level press is a good place to start and will cost you around $700. This press is more of a hobby press and appropriate if you’re going to do this part time.
If you want to make a more serious business out of it, you’ll probably want to look at the 16×16 Auto Clam Heat Press ($1325.00 – you can apply for financing if you’d like to spread out the payments). It’s meant more for production runs and is portable to take to on-site events.
Keep in mind that while this may sound like a lot of money right now…
we recently had a customer (who does this part time) tell us it only took 2 orders to pay for his press.
As a bonus, if you order a Hotronix press from Transfer Express, you will also receive a Marketing Kit (normally around $50).
We’ll talk about that later on in this article.
If you choose to go with another line of presses, you run the risks mentioned above.
Many times, you have to adjust the t-shirt transfer application instructions to accommodate the less precise control – which can waste transfers and apparel (translation: waste money in the long run).
STEP SIX: Order An Easy View T-Shirt Marketing Kit
The Easy View Marketing Kit really is a t-shirt business in a box.
- Price Guide
- Ink Color Selector
- Window Cling
- Application Wall Chart
- An Idea Book™ with your company name
- A sample generic (black and white) Idea Book™
- A $10 off coupon
- 30 Display samples for you to practice pressing
- A t-shirt to get you started
The cost is $49 if you haven’t purchased a Hotronix press.
As we mentioned earlier in this article, it’s included with Hotronix press orders from Transfer Express.
It’s fully guaranteed.
Return it within 30 days, and you’ll receive a full credit.
This Marketing Kit acts as your travelling showroom.
If you’re at a soccer game, have it in the car in case you find out the team needs shirts. It’s a truly indispensable part of a starting a t-shirt business.
We find that customers who order a Marketing Kit have a much higher success rate than those who do not.
STEP SEVEN: It’s Time to Sell Some T-Shirts
You now have the press, know how to design shirts, know how to order transfers and apparel — but that’s not enough.
You have to get out there and SELL to make your business successful.
Here are some tips:
Make sure you order business cards – There are great sites like Moo and others who print business cards very inexpensively and have online design software much like Easy View that allow you to design your cards without having to hire a graphic designer.
Carry your business cards with you at all times and hand them out liberally.
Get in touch with local groups like your school district, sports teams, the recreation center, nonprofit groups and so on. Most of them order apparel on a regular basis.
With transfers, you aren’t limited to t-shirts. You can also customize jerseys, gym bags and much more.
More on that later.
Secure social media properties and post regularly. Encourage friends and family to “like” your pages so you can build an audience.
T-shirts are fun!
Your friends won’t feel pressured and will likely be very happy they know someone who can customize apparel for them anytime they would like.
You’re going to be a great resource to have in their network.
When it comes to pricing your shirts, it’s a worthwhile hour to watch the extensive webinar we did on this topic.
You’ll also get invitations to free webinars (usually once a month) to teach you marketing and other how-to topics to help you start and grow your t-shirt business.
None of this education will cost you a dime. Not now. Not ever.
STEP EIGHT: Learn a Little About Apparel
The good news is that you don’t have to become an apparel expert, but you do have to know a little something about the make-up of different types of materials to be in the apparel decorating business.
When it comes to t-shirts, there are a ton of different blends of materials.
For the most part, the biggies are 100% cotton, 100% polyester and 50/50 blend (which is 50% cotton and 50% polyester).
The reason you will want to have a little familiarity with apparel is that different types of transfers go on different types of materials.
For instance, if a certain transfer type needs to be applied at a higher temperature and for a longer amount of time, that might scorch or melt an all-polyester (or all-poly, as we say in the business).
If your customer is dead set on using an all-poly shirt, you’d want to use a different type of transfer than if they wanted a 50/50 blend.
When you sign up through Easy View, you will automatically get access to ordering apparel (and other items, such as tote bags) at wholesale pricing.
No need to go out and fill out a bunch of additional paperwork.
When you log into Easy View, the pricing for each apparel item will show up on the website and can be added to your cart.
Over 99% of the apparel ships the same day as it was ordered.
Obviously, there are cutoff times (generally 5 pm ET), but you don’t have to worry that you won’t get your apparel in a timely manner.
Inventory is in real-time, so back orders aren’t something to stress out about (something the apparel business is unfortunately imfamous for).
If you are unsure which item to order, all you have to do is contact our Customer Success team (more on that in the “What if I Get Stuck” section below).
STEP NINE: Learn What Heat Transfers Should You Order
Transfer Express carries a plethora of different transfer types – anything from transfers that can go on athletic wear to glitter to puff.
It can be a little intimidating, but honestly, most people use Goof Proof®. It’s the easiest to use and is appropriate for a wide range of materials.
But let’s start from the start.
Transfer Express transfers come in two main flavors – screen-printed transfers and digital transfers.
The screen-printed transfers contain all of the colors you need to do your job on one transfer – so no need to worry about lining up each color like you would if you screen-printed a shirt directly.
The pricing is, however, dependent on how many colors you use in your design.
A way to get around this is to use the actual shirt as a color.
Digital transfers use full color, so you don’t have to limit yourself – but they do cost more and take longer to produce.
Again, all you need to do is call Customer Success and they’ll walk you through how to pick the right transfer to go with the apparel you’re using and give you tips like using gang sheets to save money.
We recently created a Transfer Selector Tool that asks you questions about your apparel and artwork – and then tells you which transfer type is right for your project AND shows you a video on how to apply.
STEP TEN: Place Your First Heat Transfer Order
As they say, now you’re cooking with gas.
You’ve created a company, bought the equipment you need, learned about heat presses and transfers and even a little about apparel.
You’ve gone out there and spread the word that you’re open for business and now it’s time to place an order.
Don’t sweat it.
It couldn’t be easier.
Just sign into Easy View and create your artwork.
On the right-hand side of the screen, you will see various questions about which fabric you’re using, what transfer type you’d like, etc. Simply fill in those fields and select “review order and add to cart.”
If you also need apparel with this order, click the Transfer Express logo.
A new tab will open with the Transfer Express website.
You will now be able to see the wholesale pricing for blank apparel.
Add those items to your cart and return to Easy View.
Input your credit card and check out.
Both your apparel and transfers will be shown on one screen.
You’ll see instructions to the right and as always, give us a call if you have any questions.
STEP ELEVEN: Heat Pressing Your T-Shirt Order
Don’t be intimidated by this part.
Remember that Marketing Kit you purchased?
It contained samples of various transfers.
If you haven’t practiced on a couple of old shirts, now’s the time.
After you’ve done that, it’s show time.
You will receive instructions with each and every transfer order.
It will tell you what temperature to warm your press to, how long to press your item for and what pressure setting to use.
All you need to focus on is following those directions and placing the transfer in the proper place on the garment.
Are you more of a visual person?
Just check out the YouTube video library to see your exact transfer application in process.
=== Beyond T-Shirts ===
While we’ve focused this article on t-shirts, there are many other items you can customize with your Hotronix heat press – tote bags, jerseys, hats, even costumes! Some items, such as hats, require an attachment for your press, but many of the items can simply use the press you have as is.
=== What if I Get Stuck with my T-Shirt Business? ===
We can’t stress this enough. Our Customer Success Team won’t try to sell you things you don’t need. In fact, they are great resource when you have questions about saving money! They’re people who are passionate about this business that are here to help you with absolutely anything. Never hesitate to give them a call.
=== Wrap-Up/Resources on How to Start a T-Shirt Business ===
We’re here to support you with education on everything from marketing your business to figuring out the best transfer to use on that challenging fabric.
Our goal is to help YOU start and grow your t-shirt business.
Here are some of the resources that we make available to you (with no charge and no obligation):
- The Transfer Express Blog covers a wide range of topics, including; designing in Easy View, marketing tips, project inspiration and more. You can sign up to receive automatic updates by subscribing in the upper right-hand corner.
- You will want to bookmark the Help and Education Page on our website. Consider it a portal to most anything you’ll need. Sections Include:
- Customer Support
- Getting Started
- Easy Prints Plus (which uses your original artwork)
- Easy Prints (which uses our massive catalog of artwork)
- Printing Ideas and Techniques
- Video Library
- Marketing (including flyers you can customize for your business)
- Document/Chart Library
- You’ll receive a short email each week pointing to a resource to help you or to a special we’re running. We NEVER sell your info and rarely send anything promotional. Of course, you may opt out at any time you wish.
- We’re active on social media, and we encourage you to connect with us at any of our social media properties below, but as an Easy Prints Dealer, you’re entitled to join our closed Facebook page – JUST for Easy Prints Dealers. That means you can ask all of those embarrassing questions and be completely open. Easy Prints Dealers helping Easy Prints Dealers (and a healthy dose of our very own Rose Filé, who chimes in frequently to help everyone out in any way she can).
- You should have received a Getting Started Pack in the mail with samples and an Idea Book to use when selling to your customers.
- The Easy Prints Marketing Kit truly is a t-shirt business in a box. It includes:
- Price guide, ink color selector, window cling, application wall chart
- Personalized Easy Prints® Idea Book™ with your company name
- Sample Generic (Black and White) Idea Book™ and a $10 off coupon
- Also includes 30 display samples and a t-shirt to get started
- Customer Success can be reached at 1-800-622-2280 from 8 am to 7 pm ET. You may also email info at transferexpress dot com or live chat with Customer Success.
And there you have it…how to start a t-shirt business.