Thinking of starting a t-shirt company? You might want to read about my experience before continuing.
My name is Justin and two and a half years ago my fiancee and I started a t-shirt company named Anomalous. Well, rewind a bit further. From a very young age there have been two things that interest me more than anything else. Art and entrepreneurship. Two of the most conflicting ideologies when it comes to trying to make a living. If you’re here, I’ll assume that you, at the very least, share one of those two qualities. However, most of you probably share both.
I realized that designing a t-shirt was a lot like painting on a blank canvas or drawing on a fresh sheet of paper. There are restrictions, as there are with any art medium, but for the most part you have the freedom to do what you’d like. That enticed me. What I failed to realize is that slapping some ink on a shirt and blindly creating an attractive website doesn’t equate to a solid business plan and ongoing sales. It’s a mere fraction of what it took to start and run a t-shirt line.
I’m not here to tell you how to keep your new, fledgling brand afloat. That is something that I do not have experience with. What I am here to do, though, is explain how NOT to start a t-shirt company.
Rule #1: Think!
*Note: None of these are in any specific order. Take from them what you will.
Think. This is probably the most important. And obvious. But we didn’t. Oh, we thought we wanted to own a business. We thought it should be t-shirts. We even thought of a cool, trendy name with a pretty neat message (“You’re different. And so are we.”). But we didn’t THINK about anything that would be involved. We envisioned drawing up a whole bunch of designs, creating a fancy website, and selling a million of them. There are so many nuances to owning any business. This one is no different. We were flat out wrong. We thought about nothing.
Inspiration is easy, but it’s also dangerous. Inspiration can cause spur-of-the-moment decisions. Let things soak in, but on the flip side, don’t battle yourself. There’s a fine line. Watching a video like the one below was something that propelled us to make certain decisions we probably weren’t ready to make.
Rule #2: Plan Everything
It’s hard to watch the video above and not feel like you can take over the world with your little doodles and vector images. The fact remains that companies like Johnny Cupcakes are one in a million. They find fame through luck and bunch of other outlets that aren’t necessarily available to the average person. That’s not saying you shouldn’t try or expect great things. But you shouldn’t expect them right away. There’s a difference.
This is where planning comes in. From day one, keep your pen and paper handy. Write down absolutely everything. We thought we were writing down everything. We weren’t. We were more worried about organization and looking the part than we were actually caring about the important things. A business plan isn’t a joke.To this day, I still don’t know how to write a real business plan. But that’s okay. You don’t have to. You can figure it out. There are plenty of online resources and templates that can help you out. I stumbled across my “business plan” from Anomalous only a few weeks ago. It’s half done. Very indicative of why I’m writing this article and not filming artsy videos.
You don’t now how your brand is going to do. Not on day one. And certainly not on day 366. But you need to plan like you do. Write out projects. Objectives. Goals. Everything. Do it. And do it now.
Rule #3: Brand It
I’ll tell you a little about our brand… or lack thereof.
My fiancee and I try to be good people. We enjoy helping others. Our idea was to assign a different charity to each design we created. One shirt, one charity. A nice idea. But in order for an idea to become a reality, it must be executed. And execute, we did not.
I registered the business name and we drew up some designs. Why is that a mistake? Oh, right… there was no LOGO! The single most important part of your company. A logo. And we didn’t bother to make one until well into the designing process. “Just design one before opening up shop,” one might say. Errrrrr. Wrong. Your logo defines your shop. It says everything about who you are. Your colors. Your style. Are you gritty? Are your chic? Maybe you’re gritty and chic. Maybe your colors are cinder and black, but your logo is script. That’s okay. As long as it’s telling of who you are.
My fiancee is a wonderful letterer. She draws up some excellent fonts. One night in particular, I had the epiphany that we needed a font at that very moment. I finally felt the need for a brand identity. So I asked her to draw something up after a few failed vectors.
Now, let me stop right there. You don’t need to be a graphic artist to own a t-shirt company. There are plenty of hand designed lines out there that don’t let their designs touch a computer screen until they’re getting ready to be printed. And that’s just fine. But you’ll be paying a small price in terms of color separation and art set up. A suggestion? Learn your basics. Take a crash course on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Either that, or hire a designer/artist
Back to the story. She drew up a few prototypes within about five minutes. I didn’t like any of them. After five minutes. Such a long time to wait. Perhaps I should’ve realized that we don’t live in a movie and that the first design to hit the paper wasn’t necessarily going to be THE ONE. A few sketches later and she drew up something I thought looked neat. So we went with it. I scanned it in. Didn’t vectorize it at all. And we had our hand drawn logo. The only problem was that, to me, it was only neat. It wasn’t fantastic. It wasn’t something we were both in love with. I spent the next year disliking it more and more. And the last thing you want to do is change your logo a year into your company’s life. We did. And our company was dead a month later.
Like I said… this is how NOT to start a t-shirt company.
Graphic Design Tutorials
Give yourself a head start. If you aren’t a designer and you don’t plan on heading to school to become one, use these as a resource. You’ll thank yourself later.
- Jeremy Shuback’s Photoshop Crash Course Jeremy Shuback gives a 4 hour Photoshop presentation that will blow your socks off. It’s weird not to have socks on after it, but it works!
- Tutvid Nathaniel does an incredible job in his tutorial videos.
This was something we struggled with for a very long time.
I’m a very impulsive person. My fiancee is not. What she is, however, is very easygoing. I’d lost my job in December of ’09. Anomalous was up and running by February 3rd of 2010. Coincidence? No.
We’d just had our daughter in May and were struggling to pay rent in our one bedroom apartment. The job prospects were little to none. We went for it all. Our first order of t-shirts went on my credit card in the amount of $3,500 dollars (more on how asinine that was later). In the end, we finished down a little bit more than $3,000 in the red. The damage wasn’t awful, but that’s because we were smart enough to pull the plug before we were completely in over our heads.
Do yourself a favor and save some cash and do it the right way. If you’re putting it on a credit card, make sure you get approved for 0% APR. With something as bootstrappable (a word I just made up) as a t-shirt company, there is absolutely ZERO reason to screw yourself over. And learn your taxes. In NJ, clothing isn’t taxable. It’s considered a necessary item. We were lucky that we chose t-shirts, because sales tax is a pain. With that said, there were plenty of other legalities and tax issues that came along with owning a business. I chose to register my business using my name as the DBA. I figured we would register as an LLC if things got serious (which they never did). Do yourself another favor. Cough up the couple hundred bucks and register as an LLC. They may be a pain in the butt to dissolve, but you’re a whole lot more protected.
Learn about your write-offs. These are important. Use your state’s guidelines. There are plenty of things you can save a ton of money on if you simply do the research. Gas and mileages from craft, art, and music festivals, business meetings (with printers and store owners and the like), printers and ink, stationary, computers, office space (sometimes), inventory, etc.
*Not all of those things may be a tax write-off, depending on where you live. This is not legal advice, just a simple heads-up that these thing are out there to be researched and understood.
Sub-rule, or Rule %4.5:
Keep track of everything!
I just spoke about tax returns, and that’s really the tip of the iceberg. Keeping track of everything will make your life much easier in the long run. Something we didn’t do well, either. Organization reigns supreme. Keep your finances in check. Keep a business checking account (which we actually did) so that you can show exactly what you put in or what went out. Keep all statements. Keep receipts from hangtag orders, etc. Keep track of how much inventory you have, from the t-shirts, right on down to the mailers you ship them in. Everything should be accounted for.
Rule #5: Start Small.
Okay, there is a lot of debate on this particular subject, but I’m going to tell you what did NOT work for us. Twelve initial designs, on both unisex and women’s t-shirts, some different colors, styles, or material. Horribly. Bad. Idea.
The point of establishing a brand is to gain a following. In order to gain a following, you have to be nearly perfect. I don’t mean perfect as in, the best company ever created. I mean perfect as in, the most perfect company for your style. And only you have your style, unless you’re blatantly ripping someone off, which will not work (and won’t work for long if it works initially). So unless you have a high bankroll, a phenomenal branding idea with tons of flow, and breakneck designs that you’ve worked on for years and years (and already have a great following of fans, which is absolutely possible… but extremely rare), stick with a few designs off the bat. Get people excited about your company. And for dog’s sakes, put out a logo shirt. Your art can be great, but there are plenty of great artists who are sitting at home not making a dime (I’d like to think I’m a decent artist that doesn’t make much of a living in that respect). People need to become fans. They need to be your legions. They need to spread the word like wildfire. Put out a few designs and put out a logo shirt – or at the very least, a shirt that is a play on your logo. Some get away with not doing a logo shirt initially, but even then, they have a bread and butter design that becomes the face of the company.
Also, printing tons of designs from the beginning can make your inventory a nightmare. If you’re like us with a shoestring budget, you’ll only be able to order a limited amount of sizes and styles. Instead of being able to order a dozen of each size (or more), you’ll be getting 3 or 4 of each size. Add in the fact that XXL is a real life size that real life people wear (and XXL and XXXL and… you get it), and that you have to pay an additional $1 a shirt in most cases, and you’ll want more bang for your buck instead of having to make special orders to satisfy the larger crowd. Also, something a lot of people do not seem to think of when choosing materials and sizes is the neck tag. The more materials, the more varied the necktag orders will be. And if you get them printed directly into the shirt, you’ll need to have multiple screens made (more $$) in order to satisfy the different materials your shirts are made of. And you can’t bypass this out of laziness – it’s the law. Like, the actual law. Not the unsaid law. Well, it’s an unsaid law, too. Just freaking do it.
Rule #6: ESTABLISH A PRINTER.
I repeat: ESTABLISH A PRINTER.
I should write this entire section in capital letters because it’s absolutely essential to a t-shirt brand. This was the single most bitter area of our entire endeavor.
Think about this simply. Your shirts are your canvas and your printer is your brush. 99% of screen printers out there (and literally mean 99%) are house painters, not fine art painters. These are people that bought a printing press, installed the clip art editor that came with their 1997 Gateway computer, and started printing crappy quality shirts, jersey, and uniforms for local schools, companies, and sports teams with crappy quality inks and crappy quality attitudes (can you tell that we’re bitter?). These guys don’t need to have any real graphic design and printing experience because the Hanes Beefy t-shirt with the thick plastisol ink displaying “Local 560 Annual Spring Picnic” was good enough to use for one day and then become a housecleaning rag. Then, someone with real artistic aspirations approaches said crappy quality printer with crappy quality attitude, and he tells them, “Sure! I can do anything you want!” They listen, because, really, do they know any better? Not to mention they’re seeing $3 a t-shirt and drooling at the idea of saving some money. I promise you, you are saving nothing. You are costing yourself more money and time in the long run, both in printing costs and in reputation costs. No one is going to be happy (yourself included) paying $25 for an indy t-shirt that can double as a snowboard.
Another problem with a crappy quality printshop, is that most of them have workers that are even worse than they are. These are guys that haven’t a clue what they’re doing and don’t really care to learn. I can not tell you how many shirts we had to return to our first two printers (first two in the span of three months. Try running a business that way. You can’t.) because they had ink splatters, inky thumbprints, or, you know, gigantic holes from being stretched too roughly over the palate (the flat surface of a press that t-shirts are printed on). They’ll deny it. The crappy quality printer/owner will then deny it, and you’ll be up dookie’s creek without a paddle.
I got into an all-out screaming match (and I’ll admit I have a temper, but this was absolutely provoked) with a printshop owner because he claimed that minor discrepancies are a part of the process (which they are – most companies allow a 5% screw up rate. Screen printing is far from a flawless process and the more accustomed with the process you become, the more you’ll understand that). By discrepancies, in this case, I’m talking about the ink stains and holes that I mentioned previously. We went at it for nearly half an hour with the guy throwing things at me like “I just filled an order for Vera Wang!” Luckily, I actually did the one thing I preached about in Rule 4.5. I kept track of everything. We sat down with our initial 250+ shirts and scoured them for blemishes that were worth complaining about (minus the 5%). We wrote down every single thing, which I was able to show him, point blank. At the end of it all, he relented and refunded me nearly 1/3 of the original price. Not bad, except that I had to take my work elsewhere, get reacquainted with a new printer, get all set up, and then go through that same process all over again. And, yes, nearly the same bleeping thing happened with the second printer.
The way to go about it is simple. Reputation, reputation, reputation. You will most likely not be able to find someone in your immediate area. It’s sad but true. Unless you live in NYC or another urban area with an artistic, understanding shop, you’ll be resorting to an online shop. I can vouch for one in particular, lucky for you, and I will do so below. However, do this at your own risk. One man’s treasure can also be another man’s trash. You may have never heard it that way, but in this case it’s absolutely true. Do your homework and make your life and business so much easier. ESTABLISH A PRINTER.
When it comes to T-Shirt screen printing, not all companies are created equal. Screen printers come in all shapes and sizes and finding a solid one can be harder than you think! From inexperienced “garage shops” with one manual press to experienced “industry shops” with 500 shirt minimums, quality and price run the gamut. We used this screen printer and they did an incredible job and I was amazed at how meticulous they are. Our order had the neck tags removed properly and carefully (unlike previous printers, who simply cut them but left the hidden part of the tag under the seam so it was completely noticeable). There wasn’t one discrepancy. They also print posters, hangtags, and a bunch of other cool stuff. We had buttons done by them and they came out great.
Rule #7: Money. Not The Same As Capital.
I’m going to divide this section into two: Bootstrapping and Pricing.
I mentioned this a few sections back. Bootstrapping is essential. We bootstrapped in all the wrong areas. We bootstrapped our time instead of our money. While time does = money, it doesn’t always = debt. Bootstrapping time and not money can = debt. It makes sense in my head.
In the beginning, time is endless. It needs to be. And if it isn’t, you’re not doing it right. You can not, can not, CAN NOT build a business without the proper time. If you’re rushing to make money because you’re out of a job like I was, you need to supplement. It just doesn’t work any other way. Trust me, I wanted it to work another way. I hate working for other people. I willed it to work this way. We set an unrealistic launch date for Anomalous. It was so ridiculous that we were taking product shots up until half an hour before the launch. Try editing and touching up photos of 24 different designs in half an hour. We had to push back our launch a full day. Not a great start.
I did take away some great skills from rushing and learning quickly, however. Becoming skilled in web and graphic design was a result of starting Anomalous (more on your website later). I took that and made some good money on the side of my regular job. It’s a nice little skill to have to make extra money while starting a brand.
Bootstrapping your money is important, as well. But there are areas where you absolutely can not. Printers are one of them. You’ll spend upwards of $10 per shirt if you’re doing the whole nine. Printing cost, American Apparel shirts (the go to for most t-shirt companies, though Anvil and Alternative Apparel make a decent alternative (bad unintentional punt) and also have a nice organic selection) tag removal, tag printing or sewing, shipping, etc. This is not the place to cut costs. Packaging material is important, as well. You need to protect your investment. Having to re-send a ruined shirt eats into nearly your entire profit.
Where you can cut costs, however, is on things like hang tags (which can double as business cards if you have a hole puncher and some string), home office (your regular, run-of-the-mill computer is just fine when starting out), and anything else that doesn’t effect the quality of your product. You’ll learn as you go along. We wanted the best of the best of everything. And it just cost us more and more money. We tried bootstrapping on things like craft show and music festival fees. We went for the cheaper events. That’s not saying you can’t make money at those type of events (we made $400 at our cheapest event – $70 for the table), but you can find a balancing point. The more expensive events generally get more attendance and traffic, but the overpriced events are just trying to make money on its venders. Again, do your research.
Most companies seem to stay in the low to mid-$20’s category. There are some more expensive brands, but they seem to build as it goes along. We started with our cheapest shirt at $24 and our most expensive at $32. It wasn’t horrible, but it was fairly expensive for a t-shirt. Factor in $5 for shipping, and you’re paying a lot of money. There is no mold for this. It really relies on how much your printing costs are. You always have to factor in your wholesale costs. If you plan on getting into stores, you’ll need to set a wholesale price. The algorithm is generally as follows:
Cost x 2 = wholesale x 2 = retail.
It’s not always so cut and dry, but that’s a general rule. Play around with your price before hand, but stay consistent once you set them. You’ll need to be confident once you do put it out there.
Rule #8: Your Website Should Kick Ass.
Well, it should look like it kicks ass.
At least to the layman. Ours didn’t. At first. It was gaudy and ugly. Now, a cheaper website set up doesn’t have to mean ugly. A great web design firm tried to charge me $6,500 for a website. Hey, that’s right on par in terms of pricing, but it was too much for us. I learned it all myself. The problem (eventually a positive) was that I wanted to learn it all. It’s my nature to try and be great at something. In this case, I didn’t need to be. I just needed to be sufficient. There are a ton of free and premium templates out there that will make your site look professional.
The day I discovered shopify was one of the greatest days of my business life. Shopify makes it easy to setup for website and collect payments and they have a large selection of themes and plugins. Read the article here on why you should choose shopify for your clothing company.
Your website doesn’t have to do a ton. It doesn’t need to be flashy and full of scripts that will knock a customer’s socks off. It just needs to show your products off in a way that is in line with your brand. Make sure everything flows and matches and represents what you’re trying to come across as. A few links are all you need:
- Your Homepage: Some cool pictures, a welcome message, and your products is all you need
- About your company: You can have a short write up on your home page but you should go more in depth on its own page
- Gallery: Your product in action!
- Shop: There are plenty of e-commerce themes and templates out there, but one blows them all away – shopify. Shopify is an online shopping cart CMS (content management system). It allows you to edit code and match it exactly to your website. It starts out $15 and goes up from there.
- FAQ and policies: A page or two noting your most frequently asked questions and the policies in relation to returns and exchanges, etc.
- Contact: A way to get in touch.
Get yourself a Facebook business page and a Twitter account. We got on the Twitter train late (granted, this was ’09, when Twitter was infantile-ish). A piece of great advice? Get yourself genuine Facebook fans. We invited everyone and their mother. My fiancee’s younger sister’s entire high school graduating class was one of them. We had nearly 1000 fans in a few months. It was exciting. Except that none of them really cared. We threw a “tee-party” (crafty, right) and invited all of our Facebook friends. We got about 100 people “attending”. Five showed up. Two of which sat there the entire time and gawked at my sister-in-law and talked our ears off about Lord Of The Rings or some other crap. It was torture. I went upstairs and nearly cried about how much of a failure we were.
Most people will click “like” when asked to. Again, you want genuine fans. 200 real fans are worth more and will contribute MUCH more than 1000 fake fans.
In summary, make your website usable and fun. Don’t go overboard. It’s just another thing to stress yourself out about. You don’t want to be side-tracked with any more stressful additions than need be.
Rule #9: Be Fresh
There is nothing worse than being cheesy. I really believe that. Especially as a brand. We’re pretty granola people. We’re both almost strictly vegetarian. We buy mostly local or organic. We recycle and reuse things. We are minimalistic in our lifestyles. When creating our “brand”, we figured it was necessary to use all of that. I don’t mean one or two of those things – I mean all of it. We were a brand of browns and greens. Trees and grass. We had designs that preached recycling and erasing your carbon footprint. Some of them were pretty cool. Others, not so much. Like I mentioned earlier, we really rushed a lot of our designs and never finalized anything. It was a pump-them-out mentality.
We were somewhat unique and original, but the green fad has been played on for a long time now. Peace signs are dead. And there is no worse business strategy than chasing a trend – especially one that is already done for.
There is a simple resolution to this. BE FRESH. Be the trendsetter. And as soon as you are, evolve it. If you’re original and fresh, you’ll never run into a problem. Get the creative juices flowing.
Rule #10: Have Fun
Just as important as anything else is to have fun.
By the end of Anomalous, my fiancée and I were at each other’s throats. To this day, she’s extremely hesitant to start another business with me. And I don’t particularly blame her. Anything we disagreed about was initially taken offense to (primarily by me). We pretended to wonder why things weren’t working but we knew exactly why. I remember looking her in the eyes one night in particular and asking, “If you saw our clothing in a store window, would you buy it?”
That was the moment we knew it was all over. Granted, there were a few kick ass designs that I still wear today, but they were few and far between.
I can’t promise you anything, but I can imagine that if you avoid most of the pitfalls that I’ve spoken about, you’ll find yourself in decent shape. Running a company can be a blast. There were times (when our blinders were thick) when I knew this was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It still is. The problem is that I’m completely gun shy at this point.
You’ll never avoid every single thing that I’ve mentioned. And that’s okay. No business is perfect. But you’ll have to compensate for your mistakes quickly. Be fast on your feet. Intuition is important.
Do it right from the start, and you won’t have to worry about looking backwards while walking forward. Then maybe you can write an article called “How To Start A T-Shirt Company, Successfully.”
Written by Justin Merm
I’m Justin. I’m a writer, artist, and a father. Not necessarily in any order. Except the last one first. I’ve owned a failed t-shirt company and am a designer by trade. I used to work for Apple. It really, really sucked. I’m a jack of all trades and I like to ramble incoherently about all of them.
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