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1. Is a t-shirt business still profitable?

How to start a profitable t-shirt business in 10 steps

If your wardrobe is 90% t-shirts, we have good news: you can turn your passion for nifty tees into a bonafide business. A t-shirt business is a lucrative opportunity for creative hobbyists and ecommerce entrepreneurs. The t-shirt market has steadily risen in revenue by nearly 26% over the past decade.

Now is the time to cash in on an online t-shirt business; fortunately, launching your business online has always been challenging. Regardless of your technical skill or design prowess, you can get your t-shirt design ideas into customers' hands in ten simple steps. Here’s how to turn your passion into profit with a successful online t-shirt business start-up.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Starting an online t-shirt business is profitable, especially with the help of modern-day print on demand (POD) services.

  • Five elements entrepreneurs must consider when starting an online t-shirt business.  

  • Entrepreneurs must find a reliable POD provider and select a t-shirt niche through market research.

  • Know how to gauge and leverage capital thresholds when starting a t-shirt business.

  • Several factors shape a profitable t-shirt business, including product designs, materials, and selected ecommerce platforms.

Is a t-shirt business still profitable?

t-shirt business

When considering whether to launch an online t-shirt business, you may wonder if the market is still profitable. While a quick look at your closet will reveal that t-shirts are still very much in fashion, it’s also helpful to know they remain a profitable venture due to the increased variety of customer segments and expansion of production resources, such as print on demand (POD) services.

With higher online shopping rates than ever, the growing US t-shirt market brought in $38.88 billion in revenue in 2022 alone and will reach roughly $50.59 billion by 2027. With rising demand for creative designs, the US custom t-shirt printing market will grow at an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.1% from 2023 to 2030.

Custom t-shirt printing has become a mainstay across today’s ecommerce marketplaces and platforms. Personalized products, like t-shirts with unique phrases and graphics, have become popular across multiple customer segments, with one in five willing to pay 20% more for a custom product. A custom t-shirt printing business is arguably more profitable now than standard tees!

Required capital for launching a t-shirt venture

Like any venture, starting an online t-shirt business successfully demands careful financial planning. Consider the costs of high-quality t-shirt printing, design creation, and establishing an ecommerce store. Whether you set up your screen printing operations or outsource to a third party, budgeting for these expenses is crucial to launching your t-shirt business in this competitive industry. However, with a POD business model, you need not worry about upfront investment as you pay only when the customer places the order.

Allocating your time for the venture

Time allocation is crucial in starting your t-shirt business. Dedicate adequate hours to creating unique t-shirt design ideas, researching the latest trends in the t-shirt industry, and managing your ecommerce website or platform. For example, spend a few hours each day reviewing online product forums or feedback sections of high-selling brands or even seek inspiration from social media platforms like Pinterest boards or Instagram “Explore.” Proper time management can make a crucial difference. Effectively balancing time spent on t-shirt design and marketing is vital to developing a profitable and successful online company in the dynamic custom t-shirt business. And, if you think you’re hopeless at efficiently managing your time each day, why not use a scheduling assistant software to structure your day? Doing this will help you delegate time to important tasks, allowing you to sell more t-shirts online and grow your t-shirt company.

Allocating financial resources for the venture

Financial resource allocation is pivotal for a t-shirt printing business; make every dollar count! Budgeting for costs like t-shirt materials, printing equipment or services, and an ecommerce platform is essential—factor in expenses for your website, marketing, and potential inventory for your online t-shirt business. Investing wisely in areas like t-shirt design and efficient ecommerce solutions can significantly impact the success of your t-shirt company. If high upfront cost is a concern, a print on demand business model is an economically viable option for entrepreneurs with a limited budget.

How to create a successful t-shirt business in 10 simple steps

Want to turn your passion for t-shirts into profit? Rising entrepreneurs looking to begin a small business selling t-shirts online must navigate the proper steps to set up a storefront. Check out these ten steps to launch an online t-shirt business and optimize for profit.

1. Research the market

market research

Market research is vital to understanding the best direction for your growing business. First, tap into tools like Google Trends to reveal which t-shirt-related topics people search for most frequently and which are most popular — like ‘vintage band t-shirts’ or ‘funny quote t-shirts.’ Social media platforms, like Instagram and Pinterest, can also help uncover trending new t-shirt design ideas.

From here, take the time to assess other t-shirt brands and their most popular products to understand the overall competition better. Once paired with your market research, you can uncover market gaps to fill with your online t-shirt business. For instance, if ‘funny quote t-shirts’ are trending, but your competition does not sell them, this type of t-shirt presents a business opportunity.

2. Nail down a niche and target market

Now that you’ve researched your upcoming t-shirt brand, this is the time to nail down your niche (or specific market segment) and accompanying target audience.

If you’re unsure if your passions make for a profitable niche, run a few social media polls on networks like Facebook and Twitter to gauge the potential consumer demand. This step will also help you identify the target market for your niche. Be sure to capture the demographics of your target market, like their age, style, and buying habits, to better inform your future marketing efforts.

3. Choose a print on demand service

With a t-shirt niche selected, the next step to selling high-quality t-shirts online is to secure a print on demand (POD) service provider. POD is a cost-effective (and more straightforward!) method of t-shirt production in which shop owners can avoid purchasing and holding t-shirt inventory and instead rely on their POD supplier to fulfill, produce, and ship customer orders as needed.

If you plan on offering custom t-shirts, a POD supplier is a must-have to remain productive and profitable. However, to ensure the final product meets your standards, it is critical to research various providers and assess the quality of their products. Your POD t-shirt supplier should offer kid's t-shirts, men’s t-shirts, and women’s t-shirts in different fabrics, styles, and sizes.

Watch for POD customer service capabilities, shipping rates and locations, and sustainability initiatives to keep your online t-shirt business start-up growing faster. At Gelato, we offer localized on-demand production and distribution in over 30 countries, enabling us to provide your t-shirt business with competitive shipping rates and timelines that reduce carbon emissions.

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4. Choose your t-shirt

choosing t-shirt

Manufacturers make all high-quality t-shirts in different ways. After you’ve selected a POD provider, it’s time to choose the t-shirt type you want to print on. While the wide selection of t-shirts can be overwhelming, choosing the fitting tee boils down to the following key elements: fabric, weight, fit, and cut.

Shirt fabric

Consider how you want customers to wear your shirts when selecting your fabric type. Each standard shirt fabric has its benefits and drawbacks that make it more suitable for certain activities, like lounging or exercising:

  • Cotton offers high comfort and visual appeal but is more prone to wrinkling and shrinking over time than other fabrics.

  • Organic cotton is similar in comfort to regular cotton; it is ideal for the eco-conscious customer as it uses organic non-GMO cotton grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers but is at a more premium price point.

  • Polyester offers maximum durability with moisture-wicking properties that are less prone to wrinkling and shrinking but may have a clingy synthetic feeling on the skin.

  • Cotton/polyester blend is more lightweight and less prone to shrinkage than cotton alone, with some moisture-wicking properties of polyester in a more comfortable format.

Shirt weight

Each fabric has a different weight. Lighter-weight shirts, like polyester, are more suitable for warm weather and active situations. Heavier-weight shirts like cotton are ideal for cold weather and casual conditions. When determining the weight of a t-shirt online, look for terms like “Classic” and “Performance” for lightweight t-shirts and keywords like “Heavyweight” and “Premium” for heavyweight t-shirts.

Shirt fit

Shirt fit refers to how a shirt lays on the body. Different body types may prefer extra t-shirt fits; various activities may call for a tighter or looser fit. There are three primary shirt fits to choose from:

  • Relaxed fit offers a broader cut across the chest with larger arm holes and sleeves for a baggier and more comfortable look.

  • Regular fit is straight-cut throughout the chest and waist but broadens at the shoulders for a more fitted but still comfortable look.

  • Slim fit has a narrow cut across the chest and is tapered from the chest to the waist to create a tighter, more tailored look.

Shirt cut

The cut of the t-shirt design typically refers to the collar type. Most t-shirts are available in either a crewneck cut for a classic t-shirt look or a v-neck cut for a more relaxed look. Small business owners who want some design variety may want to consider a ringer cut, which allows t-shirts to be available with contrast color binding at the neck and sleeves for a two-toned look.

5. Design your t-shirts

t-shirt design

Now that you’ve locked in your t-shirt types, begin drafting your t-shirt design ideas. With your target audience and discovered trends in mind, sketch out or create digital mock-ups of your designs, which is the perfect step to leverage your POD provider. (Gelato even offers our creators a Design Editor tool with hundreds of digital mock-ups and varying model types!)

When drafting t-shirt design ideas, playing around with elements like fonts, colors, and design placements can be especially helpful in producing a few samples. Remember to have only a few design elements on a single product, as they can quickly cause the t-shirt to appear cluttered and overwhelmed.

Once you have a design or two that you’re happy with, consider ordering a few samples to ensure you’re pleased with the final product. Sample t-shirts help you view your products in person to determine if they require edits before selling them online. If you’re happy with your samples, snap high-resolution photos for your online store.

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6. Validate your t-shirt designs

If you ordered design samples but are still wondering if they fit your online t-shirt business, further validate your designs with feedback. Share your samples with family and friends to gain their opinion, or watermark your design files and share them on social media, preferably where your target market can see them.

Be sure to request feedback in the comments and even post an accompanying poll for users to discreetly approve or disapprove of your designs. This step will help gauge general demand and help you ultimately decide to sell the product. If the response is positive, offer pre-orders on your t-shirts to drum up consumer interest.

7. Choose your selling platform

As you embark on your online t-shirt business, you may need help with ecommerce marketplaces versus ecommerce platforms. Either option will offer a selection of ecommerce options with pros and cons you should know before signing up. As you choose your desired selling platform, you will likely choose between the following:

  • Custom websites provide sellers with their domain and offer complete control over design elements and functionality but will require extensive technical skills or professional assistance compared to ecommerce platforms.

  • Ecommerce platforms like Shopify or WooCommerce provide a custom business domain and access to pre-developed website design templates and tech support. However, users have limited customization options and must pay monthly platform fees.

  • Ecommerce marketplaces, such as Etsy and Amazon, provide sellers with their storefronts within the market to access current platform users. Marketplace sellers are subject to monthly fees, including listing and transaction fees.

  • Social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok are great for targeting a specific audience and building a brand following. Still, they have the most limitations for storefront customization and general selling capabilities.

8. Set up your online t-shirt store

setting online store

Whether you’ve chosen to operate your business from a marketplace or a platform, you must set up a storefront for your t-shirt company. Typical setup needs include creating an account, setting your preferences, and integrating necessary ecommerce plugins with your chosen sales channels.

From here, customize your storefront with a catchy and memorable name relevant to the t-shirts you plan to sell. With the help of a design professional or online tools like Canva, be sure also to develop a stand-out logo that you can cohesively use across all your sales channels to help boost discoverability.

With your t-shirt design ideas, you can also begin uploading your product listings and setting individual prices. Compare your desired price points with competitors to ensure you don’t overprice your t-shirts but still fall in line with a fair profit margin that covers POD supplier and design expenses.

Remember to include high-resolution images accompanied by keyword-driven product titles and descriptions to enhance discoverability on search engines and marketplaces. Likewise, don’t forget to include relevant product details (like shirt fabric, fit, and cut) that support the customer experience and purchase decision.

9. Market your t-shirt business

Marketing your online t-shirt business is 100% necessary to boost discoverability and long-term growth. Clothing brands like t-shirt businesses often succeed with social media marketing to gain the attention of a target market. Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook also offer paid ad services to boost followers and brand awareness quickly.

Another marketing tactic often used by clothing brands is influencer marketing. Reach out to social media users with a strong following that aligns with your target audience. If they agree, you can send these users samples of your products for them to share your designs with their network and boost your brand exposure.

As you increase your following, don’t neglect the power of a strong email list. Direct your social media followers and future shoppers to your brand website or a separate information form where they can provide their email addresses in exchange for ongoing information on promotions, giveaways, and new product releases.

10. Monitor and optimize your store

Once you launch your online storefront and begin taking orders, your last step toward long-term profitability is ongoing monitoring and optimization. Tools like Google Analytics can help you monitor business metrics like website traffic, bounce rate, and conversion rates to make more calculated decisions on optimizing your site and adjusting your marketing strategies.

Customer feedback will also be crucial for continuous company growth, as customer reviews allow you to identify operational flaws or products that could impact the customer experience. Be sure to follow up with customers via email after they purchase or encourage them to leave a review on their overall shopping experience and purchased products.

Five key factors to remember when starting an online t-shirt business

Launching a t-shirt business online involves crucial considerations. Key elements include selecting suitable t-shirt printing methods, creating appealing designs, ensuring product quality, building a solid brand identity, and efficient inventory management. Each aspect plays a vital role in the success of your t-shirt business, from the initial t-shirt design process to eventually selling your t-shirt designs online. Effectively navigating these elements can lead to a profitable and sustainable t-shirt business.

1. Methods of printing on t-shirts

When starting an online t-shirt business, choosing the proper printing method is crucial. Options like screen printing and direct-to-garment printing have their own advantages. Screen printing is ideal for bulk orders and simpler designs, offering durability and cost-effectiveness for larger runs. Direct-to-garment, however, is better for complex, colorful designs and smaller quantities. Understanding the nuances of each method, like the start-up cost and the quality of print they offer, is essential. Your choice will impact the production process and the type of designs you can provide in your t-shirt store, influencing how you sell t-shirts online.

2. Your t-shirt designs

The heart of your t-shirt business lies in your t-shirt designs. They should be aesthetically pleasing and resonate with your target market. Research current social media or fashion publication trends and create unique designs that stand out. Whether focusing on graphic tees, funny slogans, or niche-specific themes, your designs should reflect your brand’s identity. Utilizing design tools and hiring professional designers can help create high-quality, eye-catching designs. Remember, compelling t-shirt design ideas can be a significant driver in attracting customers to your online t-shirt store and can play a crucial role in the success of your ecommerce store.

3. Ensuring t-shirt quality

Quality is paramount in the t-shirt industry. It’s vital to source high-quality t-shirts that offer comfort, durability, and printability. The quality of your t-shirts, i.e., material composition, weight, stitch, and overall fabric quality, can significantly influence customer satisfaction and repeat business. Always consider these factors when choosing your t-shirts. Quality t-shirts enhance the overall look of your designs and ensure that your products withstand regular wear and washing, thereby maintaining the reputation of your t-shirt company. Furthermore, high-quality t-shirts can set your online business apart in a crowded market, leading to positive reviews and customer loyalty.

4. Building your t-shirt brand

Branding your t-shirt company is more than just creating a logo. It involves establishing a brand voice, a visual identity, and a unique selling proposition. Your brand should communicate the story and values of your business, appealing to your target audience. This can include themes of your designs, the ethos behind your t-shirt business, and how you interact with customers. Building a robust online presence through ecommerce websites and social media is essential in today’s digital age. Branding goes beyond selling t-shirts; it’s about creating an emotional connection with your customers and maintaining it through both pre and post-sale responsive service.

5. Managing your t-shirt inventory 

Effective inventory management is crucial for a t-shirt company, primarily if you use something other than a print on demand model. You need to have enough stock to meet demand without overstocking. So, utilize inventory forecasting tools and sales data to make informed decisions about stock levels. Print on demand services can efficiently manage inventory for those starting up, as manufacturers only print products when customers place their orders. This approach minimizes the risk of dead stock and allows for a wide range of designs in your ecommerce store.

Build an online t-shirt business quickly with Gelato

Turning blank shirts into a thriving online t-shirt business has always been challenging. From conducting market research and selecting a niche to choosing your print on demand provider and creating a storefront, the above ten steps can have you running a full-fledged t-shirt empire in no time. You can also read our t-shirt business starter kit. With the right effort, your online t-shirt business powered by print on demand services can become highly profitable.

As you navigate your POD service options, check out Gelato’s expansive catalog of t-shirt products. From men's polycotton crewnecks to children’s organic tees, we have the style and fit for every customer. And with production and delivery in more than 30 countries, our sustainable business model allows for speedier delivery with a smaller carbon footprint — yes!

Launch your t-shirt company today when you start selling with Gelato.


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