There is truly no shortage of side hustles you can try to make money. Some are really no more than second jobs in which you can set your own hours, others are a good way to leverage your existing skills in order to take home a extra couple of hundred dollars each month. A few, on the other hand, have the potential to grow into genuine, independent businesses.
Let’s see how this applies to how to make money selling T-shirts:
- You don’t require much cash to get started. The minimum up-front investment needed to make money selling t-shirts is only about $300, or less if you prefer. You can therefore walk away from the whole project without, ah-hem, losing your shirt. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to commit more resources over time, you may well end up with a profitable enterprise to call your own.
- Selling T-shirts is a smoothly scalable business; you can sell either one or a thousand T-shirts per week without changing the way you do things all that much. Many hands-on side hustles are limited to the amount of time you’re willing to devote to them; with T-shirts and similar merchandise, you can often pay others to do some of the work for you. The sky is potentially the limit. Most importantly, you can expand your operations gradually, testing the market’s preferences and new techniques as you go along instead of committing to one do-or-die plan from the start.
- This kind of work allows you to monetize your creativity. In an increasingly automated and outsourced world, style and imagination remain two unique factors that separate successful enterprises from mediocre ones. If you prefer, you can also make use of the creative talents of others, or sell your own designs without ever necessarily touching a T-shirt.
- You can have a lot of fun while you make money selling T-shirts. Almost all successful side hustles and businesses involve a lot of hard work, but this becomes much more palatable when it involves attending trendy events, meeting interesting people, and seeing your ideas come to life in physical form.
If the above appeals to you – low initial investment, room for growth, space to express your creativity, and a relatively pleasant working environment – selling custom T-shirts and similar items may be right up your alley. It’s worth remembering, however, that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. You’ll need some people skills, a propensity to take action even when the way forward isn’t entirely clear, the ability to focus on details while keeping the big picture in mind, as well as a number of other character traits. If you’re not sure whether you’re up to the task, your options are to try some other way of making money, start small and see how things go, or take on a partner who has some of the skills you lack.
That having been said, it’s still much better to try and fail rather than to never leave your comfort zone. Let’s look at how to make money selling T-shirts in a little more detail; by the end of this article, you should have a pretty good idea of all this entails and whether it’s worth trying.
Table of Contents
- 0.1 How to Make Money Selling T-Shirts: First Steps
- 0.2 Deciding on a Business Model
- 0.3 Checking Out the Competition
- 0.4 Make Money Selling T-Shirts: Getting Started
- 0.5 Obtain Your Designs (and Respect the Copyright of Others)
- 0.6 Getting the Necessary Licenses and Permits
- 0.7 Choose a Supplier or Process
- 0.8 Make Money Selling T-Shirts: Keeping the Ball Rolling
- 0.9 Improving and Expanding Your Design Portfolio
- 0.10 Explore Different Sales Channels
- 0.11 Figure Out Online Marketing
- 0.12 Adding Product Lines to Expand Your Range
- 1 Can You Really Make Money Selling T-Shirts?
How to Make Money Selling T-Shirts: First Steps
You’re probably eager to jump right in and get started. Let’s take a deep breath first, though: a little planning can avoid a lot of false starts and wasted effort. Mapping out the road ahead should take you no more than a couple of hours and may well reveal opportunities and risks you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Deciding on a Business Model
The term “business model” covers a lot of ground but is easy to understand intuitively: it’s basically just a description of your plan on how to make money selling t-shirts online, at music festivals, to companies, or whatever. You have a great deal of latitude here and may even decide to try more than one thing at a time, but you should be able to clearly define:
- What you intend to sell: novelty items, branded T-shirts to advertise businesses, or perhaps just the designs you come up with.
- How you intend to sell it. What is your target market? You can make money selling t-shirts out of the trunk of your car; you can potentially make more by letting customers order online…if they’re able to find your products on the internet.
- How much are you going to charge for your wares, and how much are they going to cost you? The latter part – expenses – should be broken up into the cost of goods, or in other words your materials and labor, as well as overheads – what it costs to keep the lights on, so to speak.
A formal business plan, like you would submit to a bank as part of applying for a loan, typically runs to several dozen pages including addendums. You don’t need to go into that level of detail right at the beginning; unless you’re investing more than a thousand dollars into this project, you can more or less wing it. You need to be pretty clear in your mind on what exactly you plan to do, though; if a friend asks you a question about how your proposed T-shirt business will operate, you should be able to answer without hesitation.
Some examples of this kind of business model are:
- Come up with witty, clever slogans, put them on custom T-shirts and sell these at informal markets and through a website such as Shopify.
- Print up a bunch of themed shirts for one single event in your town, then quit.
- Sell T-shirts with prints of famous paintings on your art blog.
- Put your graphic design skills to work and allow other people to use your creations for a fee.
- Focus on high-quality garments for corporate giveaways with a minimum order quantity of 20 or more.
- Buy some equipment and learn the necessary skills, then allow people to bring their own designs to you for printing.
Each of these can, potentially, work out well for you. In the beginning, the important thing is to describe your intended product and target market as precisely as possible. This will almost automatically lead to a plan of action, as well as allowing you to assess your probable sales and spending.
Checking Out the Competition
One of the great things about this kind of business is that anyone can learn how to make money selling T-shirts. Unfortunately, that also works against you: it’s very unlikely that you’ll be the only game in town.
You’ve probably already decided, in a kind of instinctive way, what niche you’ll be targeting. This is often the very first step in creating a business model. Now, it’s time to see whether anyone else has already had the same idea.
Almost certainly, someone has. If they haven’t, you’re bound to face copycats sooner or later, especially if your efforts bear fruit. Let’s say that you plan to sell T-shirts with mandala designs that appeal to the yoga crowd – a fairly novel idea, sure, but one that will make you a small fish in a very large pond. One of the secrets on how to make money selling t-shirts online is that the most successful sellers tend to be the most visible on platforms like Etsy – becoming one of the 10% or so who make serious profits is easier said than done. If you try to go with something like the classic “wolf howling at the moon”, you have essentially no chance.
Similarly, you can probably find several companies selling custom T-shirts in your geographical area. Don’t be too discouraged by the mere existence of competition, though. There’s a good chance that you can still snag a piece of the pie using the following strategies:
- Offer value-adding services like graphic design,
- Be cheaper than your competitors or offer high-quality products at a good price,
- Practice effective marketing, especially to a niche market,
- Sell something truly unique rather than another “me too” product,
- Own a unique brand story, such as using only sustainable materials.
Make Money Selling T-Shirts: Getting Started
Many people come up with good ideas with which to make money. Not all of them develop this rudimentary concept into a workable plan, and fewer still actually take the necessary steps to put it into action.
Indeed, the whole project of starting a profitable business, even a relatively simple one like where you attempt to make money selling t-shirts, can seem intimidating. The key is to approach it step by step instead of trying to do everything at once. If you take care of the fundamentals first, the rest will follow almost automatically.
Obtain Your Designs (and Respect the Copyright of Others)
If you’re able to come up with clever, innovative, and amusing designs on your own, you’re already a step ahead of the pack. You don’t need to restrict yourself to cute and funny themes, either. One of the greatest examples of how to make money selling T-shirts comes from the company Iconspeak: their products are printed with an array of pictures a traveler can point at in order to communicate while traveling in a foreign country.
In case creating something visual is a little out of your wheelhouse, it is also possible to buy a wide variety of designs at a reasonable price. You can put up a flyer at your local college’s art department or seek out freelancers on platforms like Fiverr, Dribbble, and Behance. You may also browse websites like Flickr, Deviantart, GraphicRiver, and Designious. Don’t, however, make the mistake of thinking that anything you can find on the internet is free to use, especially if you plan to make money selling t-shirts with that design.
Realistically, pirating the creative work of independent artists is unlikely to result in serious legal or financial consequences. The bigger problem is that doing this shows the world that you’re unprofessional and untrustworthy. This can seriously impact your relationships with suppliers and designers later on; if you sell your goods through a website such as Etsy or Shopify, you could also find yourself shut down due to infringement complaints.
Legal action can be very costly if you try to rip off large companies, though. In some cases, you may even be prosecuted on a felony charge. Did you know, for instance, that Ferrari makes more from their merchandise – T-shirts, keyrings, baseball caps, and so forth – than they earn from selling cars? They’re more than willing to pursue legal action against anyone trying to undercut these profits.
As a rule, it’s just good practice to remember that you can’t use a design for commercial purposes unless you’ve paid for it. You’ll also need to figure out how commercial licenses work and what limitations they carry. Note that even some designs you may think of as being in the public domain, like fonts, memes, and photographs of buildings, may be subject to copyright.
Getting the Necessary Licenses and Permits
Some states, cities, and counties allow you to operate a small business as a sole proprietorship – i.e. in your personal capacity without incorporating a company – without a business license as long as your sales remain below a given level. Others require you to register any kind of commercial activity. In general, this process is straightforward and completely pain-free, as well as costing less than the fines you might otherwise have to pay. Don’t neglect this even if all you’re interested in is how to make money selling T-shirts online – internet businesses are subject to the same rules as any other.
In addition, you’ll generally need to get permission to operate a stand on city land and certainly if you want to sell your wares on private property. If your whole business model is based on being able to set up shop at a particular fair or event, you should make finding out about their requirements a priority.
Choose a Supplier or Process
Finally, we now get to where the rubber really meets the road. All the great ideas in the world won’t help you if you can’t produce a saleable product or pay someone else to do this for you.
Though the supply chain for a T-shirt business is pretty uncomplicated, this is still arguably the most important decision you’ll have to make. In terms of how to make money selling t-shirts, your profitability depends almost entirely on how many you sell, how much you charge for each, and how much every shirt costs you to make. In general, printing your own T-shirts is somewhat more economical than using an established supplier, but only if you’re producing and selling plenty.
Setting Up Your Own Workshop
If you plan to go this route, the following techniques are possible choices, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Note that each doesn’t work equally well with all kinds of fabric; if you plan to use 100% cotton, for instance, you’ll be disappointed with the results you can get using heat transfer printing.
- Painting by Hand: Capable of producing truly unique and memorable T-shirts, but very time-consuming.
- Screen Printing: Produces a very high-quality, long-lasting, and vibrantly colored product, but requires one stencil for each color you plan to use. Only suitable for printing a hundred or more shirts at a time.
- Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printing: Capable of accurately reproducing complex and detailed designs, such as photos. Unfortunately, DTG printers are expensive and really only suited to producing one-off designs.
- Heat Transfer Methods: The design is first printed on special paper, either at home using an inkjet or by a company specializing in producing dye sublimation transfers, then heated and pressed against the fabric to permeate the fibers. This works well for a few T-shirts but is uneconomical for large batches.
- Vinyl-Cut Printing: Graphical elements are cut from a thin sheet of plastic which is then heat-fused to the fabric. Though a cheap option for large orders, this technique restricts you to relatively simple designs with only one or a few colors.
As you research each of these methods in detail, you may be discouraged by how much you’ll have to spend before ever getting started unless you’re willing to accept some pretty major limitations. The vast majority of small businesses selling T-shirts, however, don’t own any of this equipment except perhaps for a couple of plastisol sheets and a steam press. This is a good idea as it lets you print individual, custom T-shirts quickly and also allows you to test out new designs – a graphic that looks good in two dimensions may not work well once you take the curves of the human body into account. They contract out the work of day-to-day production, though.
Outsourcing T-Shirt Printing
Unlike with most manufacturing businesses, the real assets of a company supplying custom T-shirts are its intellectual property: designs that people love and perhaps a brand some will recognize. The printing machinery, if any, is secondary and in fact optional.
Letting someone else do most of the work generally costs the same or less as sourcing your own unprinted shirts and taking on the printing yourself (unless you manage to sell impressive volumes, which almost certainly won’t be the case at first). It also takes care of much of the learning curve: you won’t need to figure out what consistency of ink works best with screen printing, nor order a thousand blank T-shirts only to find out they feel cheap.
In fact, outsourcing allows you to make money selling T-shirts online without ever having to handle the physical product. This is akin to dropshipping or vending white label goods: all you need to concern yourself with is the cosmetic design and marketing. The rest of the process can be entirely automatic. When a customer places an order through your website or Shopify store, for example, it can be sent directly to your supplier, who takes care of manufacturing and delivery for you.
The following companies can all supply you with T-shirts, other apparel, and more printed on demand. Most of them support a dropshipping model; many also offer free design tools and other goodies. Printful, for instance, can generate free “posed” photos so you don’t have to pay a photographer and model; some other websites offer a similar service for a small fee.
Make Money Selling T-Shirts: Keeping the Ball Rolling
As mentioned in the previous section, some people have certainly figured out how to make money selling T-shirts online without lifting a finger after doing the initial setup. If you want to boost your profits, however, you’ll need to keep upping your game – a little extra effort may pay big dividends, especially if selling custom T-shirts is something you want to do in the long term.
Improving and Expanding Your Design Portfolio
It’s a truism in the business world that keeping an existing customer is much easier than recruiting a new one. If someone has bought a shirt from you and liked it, they’re likely to buy another – but only if you can show them something new. Don’t get complacent, even if your existing stock is selling well: add new designs, especially on the same theme and from the same designers who’ve already proven to be popular.
You can also do market research before launching a new product. The simplest version of this is just to listen to your customers: if someone leaves a bad review, take it as an opportunity to improve rather than as an insult. Another technique you can try, from the world of web design, is called A/B testing. Essentially, this means offering two slightly different versions of a design you think people will like. Once they’ve voted for one over the other, either by buying more of it or in some kind of survey, you can tweak the most popular style and perhaps repeat the process until you have a sure-fire winner.
Explore Different Sales Channels
Even in a connected world, the easiest and most rewarding way to sell custom T-shirts is probably still face to face at a market stall. For one thing, you can choose your location to get in touch with exactly the kind of people who will be drawn to your designs; interacting with them on a personal level will also give you new insights into what people are searching for.
Sooner or later, though, you will want to look into how to make money selling T-shirts online, too – many vendors prefer to use this method exclusively. You can create your own website, but this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. You will need to offer a variety of secure payment options, and there’s little chance that potential customers will find you. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can read up on Carrd and SquareSpace, both of which simplify this process somewhat.
It’s far easier, though, to join an existing platform that can take care of the financial aspects for you and make marketing much easier. We’ve previously mentioned Etsy and Shopify – both are good choices. Ecwid, BigCommerce, PinnacleCart, and Shift4Shop may also work for you, depending on what your target market is and how much time you’re willing to spend on generating online sales.
Finally, don’t forget to approach local businesses, large and small. These are often looking for branded clothing either for their own staff or to use as marketing material. They typically demand a high degree of professionalism but are less concerned with price than most retail consumers. If you make sure enough of them know who you are and what you can do for them, you can almost certainly snag a couple of orders for a hundred or more T-shirts at a time. Existing retail outlets, like skateboarding and other niche stores, may also be interested in working with you, especially if you can supply custom T-shirts on a consignment basis.
Figure Out Online Marketing
The hard truth about people who make money selling T-shirts is that these businesses pop up like mushrooms only to die off like flies. Why is this?
The simplest explanation is that many people, in love with the idea to begin with, start with no clear plan covering all of the major bases: creative work, manufacturing, and marketing. The latter is what really makes the difference in the highly competitive custom T-shirt industry.
Whether you’re thinking of how to make money selling T-shirts online or prefer to meet your customers face to face, social media is crucial to getting the word out. This is especially true if you offer a range of designs that are all connected by some theme; if you can get someone to follow your brand online, they’re almost certain to buy from you sooner or later. The simplest way to achieve this is to join niche interest groups and mention your products without coming off as spammy. Don’t give people reason to think that you’re a bot, instead, concentrate on being helpful and establishing real connections with other members.
Aside from this kind of informal networking, there are numerous other techniques to master, including using paid advertisements effectively and getting your website to feature prominently in search engine results. If you’re serious about learning how to make money selling t-shirts online, working through a short, free course on digital marketing will be time well spent.
Adding Product Lines to Expand Your Range
Eventually and with some luck, it could be that your online store or offline sales channels get to the point where they’re generating consistent sales. Your brand could even start to get some traction in certain circles. When this has happened, you may want to start looking beyond making money selling T-shirts only. In addition, you will be able to market yourself to companies as a kind of one-stop-shop for all their trade show and general marketing swag needs.
There are a variety of other custom goods that can slot neatly into your T-shirt business, all of which can be outsourced:
- Baseball caps and other apparel,
- Phone cases,
- Stationary such as pens, notepads, etc.
The only limit to the directions in which you can expand is your own imagination. If your T-shirt line revolves around barbecuing, for instance, you could easily find a supplier of customized grilling tools and add these to your store.
Can You Really Make Money Selling T-Shirts?
Many serial entrepreneurs love to claim that “anybody can start a business”. This may be true, but it’s certainly possible that the people who say this have forgotten how uncertain, demanding, and sometimes downright scary the process can be the first time around.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to figure out how to make money selling T-shirts. This means that this kind of business is the perfect opportunity to get your feet wet in the entrepreneurship pool. If you’ve always dreamed of being financially independent, it could be that right now is the time to take action. In some cases, people have earned 5 or 6 figures after making only a trivial monetary investment. Many others, of course, made very little money or none at all. The difference often comes down to being able to supply what people want: be ready to pounce on any opportunity you discover, but be prepared to ditch designs that simply don’t work.