How to Start a Home-Based T-Shirt Business

7 Steps to Creating and Selling T-Shirts for Profit

Flow chart graphic of stages of T-shirt production

Emily Roberts / The Balance

In the late 1980s, Bert and John Jacobs were on a road trip to sell their T-shirts to college students, without much success. During one long drive, they discussed the media’s focus on negative stories, and thus was born Life is Good T-shirts, a $100 million business.

In the T-shirt industry, where creating, producing, and selling your product is relatively straightforward, a solid idea is all you need to get started. It's also much cheaper than it used to be. Legend has it that back in 1985, after graduating from college, Catesby Jones maxed out his credit cards to start the T-shirt company Peace Frogs.

Today, with digital printing, online marketing resources, and vast distribution networks, starting a T-shirt business is easier than ever. Print-on-demand and drop shipping eliminate the need for space for inventory. Even so, creating a T-shirt that speaks to the masses requires more than just a great idea; it requires a plan. 

Here is a roadmap for starting your own T-shirt business from home.

Create Your Concept

First and foremost, put some work into creating and refining your concept. You may be simply creating a T-shirt, but you're also creating a business, so keep image, branding, and company identity in mind.

The Jacobs brothers may have had a road-trip epiphany, but they struggled with their T-shirts until they finally hit on a basic premise—Life is Good. Jones chose the frog as a symbol of peace and good luck. These entrepreneurs took their original ideas many steps further to develop full themes, concepts, and characters.

Spend time brainstorming and expand your idea in different directions. It can be difficult to know whether a design or slogan will resonate with the public, so you may need multiple versions.

Design, Test, and Tweak Your T-Shirts

As you refine your design, focus on the practical aspects of your T-shirts. Create a high-quality, high-resolution design that works in various sizes. Images that look great on your computer may look different on cloth, so consider hiring a designer who is familiar with these issues.

To gather broad feedback on your T-shirt designs, ask friends or family to weigh in, or recruit a focus group through an online forum.

Before investing time and money, conduct market research to determine whether your T-shirts will appeal to buyers. First, identify your ideal buyer, and then seek out members of that market to get feedback on your idea. You want to know whether they'd buy your T-shirts, and also what price they'd pay.

Plan Your Business

Although selling T-shirts sounds straightforward, without a plan you’ll end up wasting time and money. Your business plan outlines your product, the ideal market, your financial projections, and sales goals.

You can create and start selling T-shirts online in a matter of minutes, but if you plan to make a living at it, you should form an official business. The important first step is to choose a name. Your name should reflect your T-shirts but not limit your ability to expand on a full line. Take similar care when choosing a domain name for your website.

Get Licensed and Trademarked

Along with a business name, you'll need to determine your business structure (e.g., sole proprietor or LLC) and obtain any necessary licenses and permits. If you sell T-shirts through your own website or in person (e.g., at fairs or markets), then you may need to apply for a sales tax permit through your state’s comptroller’s office.

Even if you're doing business completely through an online forum, you may still need to obtain licenses or permits. Check the terms of your forum and your local business office for specific requirements.

Research thoroughly to make sure you're not infringing on another company’s copyright or trademark. You don’t want others profiting off your design either. Look into protecting your designs, logos, and/or slogans with copyrights or trademarks. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the U.S. Copyright Office can provide more details.

Select a Printer and Materials

When it's time to make your T-shirt tangible, there's a wide range of production services to choose from. You'll need to make decisions about the physical aspects of your T-shirts, including material, ink, durability, quality, and basically anything else a clothing shopper would care about.

Compare multiple local printers and online print sources to estimate how much it would cost to produce your T-shirts at various levels of quality. Keep in mind your profit margin; increased cost upfront will translate into a higher price tag for your customers.

Online T-shirt printers are numerous, but a few of the more popular sites are:

Price Your Shirts

After you've scouted printing and materials sources, review and compare different T-shirt-creation options to find the price you can afford. Your cost upfront will depend on the size and number of colors of the design, the type of printing you choose, and the quality of T-shirts you select.

When pricing your T-shirts to make a profit, you'll have to cover all your expenses: printing and production, marketing, services or supplies, and all other overhead.

Keep in mind what the market will pay. If you price your T-shirts too high, you could end up with a lot of unsold inventory.

Market Your Shirts

There are many ways to market your new T-shirts, but they all start with visibility for the target buyer. By this point, you have a good sense of the best buyers for your T-shirts (e.g., age, gender, common interests, etc.), and where you can find them. Social media has become a major advertising tool, and services abound to help you make your product visible on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and others. If your target buyer is a zombie-loving high-school student, market your T-shirts where zombie-loving high-school students hang out, online and off.

You can sell your T-shirts on your own business website, through online marketplaces such as Etsy, and even at face-to-face events like trade shows, craft fairs, and local bazaars.