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1. Is a t-shirt business profitable?

How to start a print on demand t-shirt business (step-by-step)

Starting your own t-shirt business might be simpler than you think. With a bit of technical know-how, you can follow a few straightforward steps to create an online t-shirt business that’s cost-effective and profitable - all while avoiding the hassles of a brick-and-mortar operation. 

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Selling t-shirts online is a profitable move, and you can start an online t-shirt business with just a handful of designs.

  • Learn how to build a successful t-shirt business online in 10 steps.

  • Print on demand services like Gelato eliminate some of the biggest hurdles to online t-shirt store success and profitability.

Is a t-shirt business profitable?

profitable t-shirt business

Yes! Running a t-shirt business online is a great way to make money. In fact, selling t-shirts online is one of our top product moves for 2023. When you open your online t-shirt store, you’ll enter a $4.3 billion market expected to grow over 10% by 2030.

Individuals and families are significant drivers of that spending. Corporations are also expanding their use of custom shirts to increase brand visibility and reach potential customers. New statistics show t-shirt businesses selling just under one t-shirt per member of the human race in 2023.

Starting a t-shirt business online also means your startup costs will be minimal compared to brick-and-mortar expenses like rent and utilities that can obliterate profit margins. Starting an online t-shirt store is also a relatively straightforward process. You won’t need to look for the perfect location or wait for paperwork to clear: you get instant access to your t-shirt store when you sign up. That’s valuable time you can put back into your marketing or t-shirt designs.

But even with all these advantages, whether you make money selling t-shirts online ultimately depends on your t-shirt designs, the overall quality of your custom t-shirts, and the strategies you use to sell t-shirts online.

How many designs do I need to start a t-shirt business?

The number of t-shirt designs you need when you open your online t-shirt business depends on your target market and starting budget. As a good rule of thumb, expect to offer between five and 10 of your own t-shirt designs when your online store opens. 

How to start a print on demand t-shirt business in 10 steps

We’ll level with you - there is no secret formula for running a t-shirt business online. But following the steps below will help you create a business plan for your ecommerce store that sets your new t-shirt brand up to grow.

1. Determine your niche


Finding your niche is more than an expression - it’s critical to formulating a winning online t-shirt business plan. If your t-shirt designs don't fill a specific niche, they will likely be lost in the highly competitive t-shirt industry.

Do Your Homework

Consider your skills, interests, and hobbies while browsing competing online t-shirt businesses on Amazon, Etsy, and Shopify. Keeping your passions and abilities top-of-mind as you do your research will help you identify market gaps and formulate a unique selling proposition (USP) for your t-shirts.

Visit competitors on social media platforms and read comments. Who’s engaging with their brand, and how? Can you get their attention and drive them to your online store?

2. Understand your target audience

target audience

Your t-shirt market research will provide critical insight into your potential customers' demographics, hobbies, behaviors, and more. Use this information to refine your target audience by crafting detailed buyer personas around factors likely to affect their t-shirt buying habits, such as t-shirt quality, price, and seasonality.

3. Choose a print on demand service 

print on demand

Working with a print on demand (POD) partner for your online t-shirt business eliminates the headaches of doing everything yourself, as POD vendors create and ship your t-shirts only when you make a sale in your ecommerce store.

Running your t-shirt company with a print on demand business partner saves you the hassle of inventory management and shipping.

When searching for potential print on demand suppliers, consider the following:

  • Pricing Strategy: Will your online business still have healthy profit margins after employing its services?

  • Customer Service: Will they help you resolve issues quickly to keep your customers happy?

  • Shipping Locations: Where will your t-shirts be produced? How will shipping costs affect your pricing strategy and profit margins?

  • Product Range and Quality: Does the supplier offer high-quality t-shirt fabrics? Can they fulfill men’s, women’s, and children’s t-shirt orders in various styles, colors, and sizes?

  • Technology: Do they offer integrations with popular ecommerce platforms like Shopify, WooCommerce, and others?

Gelato is a premier partner for creating high-quality t-shirts, and our hyper-local production and delivery model keeps t-shirt shipping costs manageable. Gelato also offers native integrations with Etsy, Shopify, WooCommerce, Wix, Squarespace, and BigCommerce.

We’re the faster, smarter, greener partner for your POD t-shirt company.

4. Select your t-shirt

shirt selection

Not all t-shirts are created alike! Look through your POD partner's inventory to determine which of their t-shirts best fits your online t-shirt business. Focus on these three elements:


Most t-shirt sellers select cotton, polyester, or a blend of both for their material base. 

Cotton is soft, comfortable, and durable. If your niche involves eco-conscious customers, offer organic unisex t-shirts made with 100% certified organic ring-spun cotton. This unique fabric is grown naturally without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or genetic modification. Its production benefits the environment, the farmers, and the communities where it’s produced.

The main drawbacks of cotton t-shirts are their tendency to shrink and fade after more than a few washes. Polyester is better at retaining its size and color over time but tends to pill and hold odors. It can also make wearers uncomfortable in hot weather.  Blended fabrics combine the benefits of cotton and polyester but are often expensive to source and can create quality control challenges.


The fashion industry groups t-shirts into weights based on the thickness of the t-shirt’s fabric. Lightweight t-shirts are soft, breathable, and comfortable. They’re ideal for outdoor activities, workouts, or layering with other garments. Midweight t-shirts offer a good balance of durability and comfort and are less susceptible to shrinking and wrinkling than lightweight shirts. Heavyweight t-shirts are durable and long-lasting. They're best suited for workwear and cooler weather.


Slim-fit t-shirts are generally snug and tend to be popular with younger buyers. Regular-fit t-shirts have a classic feel that’s suitable for a variety of body types. Relaxed-fit t-shirts offer more room in the chest and waist area. They’re preferred by older buyers most concerned with comfort.

5. Create t-shirt designs

creating design

Get inspired

Great t-shirt design ideas can come from movies, magazines, album covers, or even other t-shirts! Consider complementary colors and simple font choices until you’ve got enough experience with the rules of good t-shirt design to know when to break them. You can also choose contrasting colors to ensure your t-shirt design doesn’t disappear into the background.

Start sketching

Start by drawing out your t-shirt ideas on paper, then move to design tools like Canva, Gelato+, or Adobe Illustrator to add the finishing touches. If designing t-shirts isn’t your strong suit, consider contracting experienced t-shirt designers who can help bring your own t-shirt designs to life. 

Mock it up

When your t-shirt design ideas are ready, use the Gelato Design Editor to see your graphic on hundreds of digital mock-ups. Upload a vector image or PNG to get an idea of how your design looks on blank t-shirts and how the appearance might change on models with various body types. 

Order t-shirt samples

Once you’re happy with your design, it’s time to order samples from your chosen print on demand supplier to see how your t-shirts look in the real world. This is your chance to make sure you’re happy with all the design elements of your t-shirts. If everything looks good, use your sample to take high-resolution photos for your online t-shirt business. 

Seriously: don’t settle for blurry, potato-quality photos of your t-shirts. These pictures will be one of the most significant factors in whether your t-shirt business can sell t-shirts online, so hire a professional if needed.

6. Validate your designs

design validation

It’s a good idea to solicit feedback on your t-shirt designs through social media. Run a poll or post your pictures to see how people react to your t-shirts - just be sure to watermark anything you post so that your t-shirt designs are copyright-protected! Offering pre-orders will also tell you if people are engaged enough with your designs for you to be able to sell t-shirts.

Getting honest feedback from friends and family should be another priority after you have your t-shirt samples in hand. If you wear your t-shirt to a gathering or event, and people ask where you bought it, you know you’re onto something. Conversely, don’t be afraid to ask people directly for feedback on your t-shirts.

7. Choose a selling platform

selling platform

Before you can sell online, you need to choose where you’ll do your selling! Some of the most common options include:

  • Running your own website. This is the path to take if you want total control over your store’s design and functionality. If you plan to incorporate additional content like videos or a blog, this is a great way to build a space that defines your brand. You’ll need technical skills and a strong marketing strategy to make it work, though. 

  • Selling on social media. Pinterest, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram let you leverage naturally-segmented audiences to build a community around your brand. However, these platforms offer little room for customization, and native selling tools will be limited.

  • Using an ecommerce platform. Opening a store on marketplaces like Amazon, Etsy, Shopify, eBay, WooCommerce, and others gives you instant access to a broad audience of potential customers already primed for buying t-shirts. But these platforms often limit store customization options, which can mute your brand identity and make it harder to sell t-shirts online. An ecommerce website builder will also charge hosting and transaction fees.

8. Set up your ecommerce store

setting ecommerce store

If you’re running your t-shirt business on your own website, you’ll need to procure a domain name that aligns with your t-shirt business name and is easy to remember, type, and share.

Ensure your site and storefront match your brand identity, with your logo and color scheme incorporated meaningfully. Create an aesthetically pleasing layout that naturally guides users toward shopping options. If you’ve opted to open your store on an ecommerce platform, you may not have access to many customization options, but it’s essential to pull whatever levers you can.

9. Add products and launch your online business

adding and launching products

If your samples and feedback have you smiling, it’s time to start prepping your digital inventory. This means integrating your print on demand service (have we mentioned how easy Gelato makes this step?) with your online t-shirt business.

First, get those high-resolution images uploaded to your store. From there, it’s on to product descriptions - which should be no less impressive than your pics. They need to include relevant keywords about the durability of your shirts as well as any relevant USPs like organic cotton, fit, and more. Good, search-optimized product descriptions consider the buying habits, preferences, and needs of your target market to identify potential keywords.

10. Promote your t-shirt store

promoting t-shirt store

Leverage your social media accounts on Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, and Twitter to show off your t-shirt designs and start selling t-shirts. The right influencer collab can drive massive traffic to your t-shirt business, but a steady mix of genuine, organic content and paid ads will help you avoid seeming too sales-y. 

Whether through your site or social media, get engaged followers to sign up for emails, then send out updates on discounts, promotions, and new t-shirt designs.

Sell custom t-shirts online with Gelato's print on demand services

Starting a profitable print on demand online t-shirt business takes more than just a few clicks. However, following the steps above will set you on the path to online success. Start by creating your business plan and partner with a print on demand provider like Gelato to test your first designs. As you find your niche and learn what your customers like, scale your product line with Gelato’s vast catalog and scale your business quickly without large upfront costs.

What makes us different from other print on demand suppliers? Gelato enables localized production of your on-demand products on a global scale. With 130+ local production partners in 32 countries, Gelato has the world’s largest network for production on demand. 

Learn how easy selling t-shirts online can be with Gelato today.


Next steps

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