Launching and Running a Profitable T-Shirt Printing Business

Introduction

The idea of printing t-shirts and making a decent income is tempting, but is the business really profitable? The answer to the golden question depends on many things, including how you market your business and the kind of ideas you have. The best thing about t-shirt printing is that you can start small and grow operations as sales increase. This guide aims to cover the basics of t-shirt printing and how to get started and start selling your fun ideas.

Why T-Shirt Printing?

T-Shirt printing is among the few businesses that do not require you to pour in big amounts of money to get started. All you need is a printing machine, blank t-shirts, some creative ideas and a platform to sell your goodies. It’s also fun and gives you freedom to experiment with your ideas while remaining in a small budget.

  • People love t-shirts and there is always a demand for them, anyone you meet is a prospect
  • You don’t need to rent a huge space to get started
  • You don’t need a lot of money to buy the required tools and materials
  • You can do it from your home at your own convenience, whether full-time or part-time
  • You can only print what the customer wants, no piles of dead stock hanging around in the basement
  • T-shirts are low-weight, low-volume so can be delivered pretty easily
  • Good profit margins
  • Although challenging, a t-shirt printing business helps you create job security
  • Ample space for experimentation of radical ideas

Who Should Start a T-Shirt Printing Business?

Let’s face the truth. You cannot charge a premium on a simple graphic t-shirt that anyone can buy off Amazon for $3. You got to have a passion for art and design to create something that customers are willing to pay a premium for. It’s alright if you plan on printing custom t-shirts to earn a decent profit. But you really need to have a talent for design and art if you want to make something special.

You can still make a profit even if you are not a brilliant artist. However, you should at least be able to generate enough ideas on your own to keep things interesting. It’s hard to establish a strong brand around just printing custom-image t-shirts. You have to come up with interesting ideas to keep customers hooked.

Self-Motivation

Many would want you to believe that the t-shirt printing business is the easiest, but it’s actually A LOT of work and can get quite challenging. Every startup has to face obstacles and this business is no different. You have to acquire permits/licenses, find equipment, suppliers, graphics designers and deal with the ordering/delivery process.

Self-motivation is the key in establishing and running this business. If you are not ready to take ownership of everything, this business might not be the one for you. The business requires time and dedication and you might have to work round the clock, especially during the initial phase. This can be really tough if you already have a full-time job and don’t plan on staying up late.

How Much Money is in the T-Shirt Printing Business?

Let’s break down the total cost of printing a t-shirt so it’s easier to get an idea of how much money you can make in this business. Although some say you can easily make $100,00 a year, it depends on so many factors that’s it’s quite hard to accurately predict how much money you can make. Teenagers make a huge chunk of the printed t-shirts segment who want something different that represents them.

The Costs Associated with Printing Custom T-Shirts

Considering the costs and availability of automatic printing machines, T-shirt printing is a smart business even if you print 200 shirts per month and make a profit of $1 per shirt. In addition to the printing costs, you also need to consider individual designs and quantity when pricing your t-shirts. While the actual cost depends on the quality and quantity of blanks, stitching, cuts, color and printing, there are three major costs associated with running a t-shirt printing business as follows:

Printing Machines/ Methods

The main initial cost involved in starting a printing business is the printing machine. There are different types of printing methods and machines that you can consider including:

  • Heat press (a 16×20 inches machines should work well for a t-shirt, cheap, works well for one-man businesses)
  • Screen printing, labor-intensive but produces durable and long-lasting results. More work required when printing complex designs with 4-5 colors
  • DTG (Direct to Garment), Costly equipment, recommended if you want to charge a premium for your designs, produces accurate colors
  • Transfer Paper
  • CAD Cut Vinyl
  • Sublimation

Heat press printing method works well for small-scale and one-man businesses, while screen printing is a better option if you are dealing with bulk quantities. It’s better to start small and buy new equipment as you grow. Screen printing is a better and more cost-effective option if you want to print t-shirts in large quantities. But they can be a problem if you are dealing with a lot of colors and complex designs.

The direct-to-garment printers are essentially ink-jet printers that print directly to the garment. They are expensive in the beginning, but they produce colorful images. They are recommended if you have brilliant design ideas and want to print small orders. The cost per shirt using DTG printers remains almost the same so this method is not suitable for bulk printing.

Prices of basic heat machine start from around $150, while prices of screen-printing machines can easily reach the $2,000 mark. That’s actually the best thing about this business! You can start with a small capital or start big if you have high ambitions.

Blanks

The price of a generic plain blank t-shirt varies from $1 to $4 and mainly depends on quality/quantity of the fabric (cotton in most cases), color and cut. Some suppliers charge a premium for their brand name, while some charge extra for better cut and color.

The cost of blanks would obviously dictate the final price of your finished products, but it’s better to stick with generic brands in the beginning instead of sourcing branded ones such as Nike blanks. You can order a few pairs of different designs such as the V-neck and the round-neck (sample) and avoid ordering wholesale or even experiment with colors such as this.

 

Many in the t-shirt printing business forget to remove labels of the blank t-shirt manufacturers. We strongly recommend cutting them neatly as you would not want a label of another brand on your own ideas.

Labor and Utility

You can do most of the stuff associated with t-shirt printing yourself, at least in the beginning. That’s why you can get away with the labor costs until your business starts growing. It does not take a lot of time to print a t-shirt and a single person can print up to 20 t-shirts per hour (left chest logos). However, it does take quite some time to make and dry screens (if you are using a screen printer). You can still manage this by coating more than one screen at a time, pre-cleaning and reclaiming screens proactively.

If you are doing screen printing from home, the major utility cost would be electricity, which should not be a concern for most startups. Another main recurring cost is related to building, managing and maintaining your website, which could be anything from $10 to $50 per month. You’d have to consider the utility costs such as the rent, heating and other operational costs if you are thinking of starting a medium-to-large-scale business.

Advertising and Marketing Costs

Using traditional advertising methods to market printed t-shirts isn’t a viable option for startups. You might think platforms such as Google AdWords are cost-effective and help boost sales. However, these methods can cost you a lot of money and make the profit margins slimmer.

Affiliate marketing is a great way of marketing your t-shirts as you only have to pay if there is a sale (usually around a 10% commission). You pay commission to your affiliates if they help you make a sale and the good news is that anyone can be your affiliate. Affiliate marketing also makes it easier to track sales as all affiliates are given unique links to your site.

The Cost of Wastage and Returns

Many of your customers would return the t-shirts due to a variety of reasons, including bad quality of the fabric, inconsistent printing or no love for the image used. These returns would increase the cost and start chewing up profit margins. You’ll also start to get wastage if you ordered a lot of different colors, sizes and designs so it’s better to start small and only produce the sizes and designs in demand.

Silk Screens and Ink

A mesh screen costs around $25 and you can reuse the same screen over and over (about 20 times). It costs about $1.5 to make a screen, but make sure to keep screens ready for surprise jobs as drying them is the most time-consuming part of getting them ready.

Depending on the image and covered area, a gallon of screen-printing ink can get you thousands of prints, which translates into roughly $0.05/shirt. It’s highly recommended to shop around and buy premium quality plastisol ink otherwise you might end up using ink modifiers to get a consistent print.

Selling Printed T-Shirts Online

While almost anyone you encounter on a daily basis (especially your family and friends who won’t even return a t-shirt if they don’t like it) is a potential customer, you need a steadier sales stream to make your t-shirt printing business profitable. Online stores are a great option in this context and help you reach millions of potential customers. Creating an online store is not easy and there are a variety of platforms that help you create one such as Shopify.

Create a Business Plan

A profitable t-shirt printing business is a lot more than printing ink on blanks and creating an attractive online store. It all starts with thinking and you need to come up with ideas that make your business unique.  While it’s might not be possible to plan for everything in advance, do your homework and write down anything that comes into your mind.

You can use online templates if you don’t know how to write a business plan and make sure to write down all the important things such as your short term and long-term objectives, and how you are going to achieve them.

Create an Immersive and Engaging Website

You can easily find a ton of great templates for your online store and a variety of eCommerce platforms to get started. The website does not have to be flashy and should show your t-shirts in-line with your business (without going overboard). Social media can also be of great help in this regard so try getting as much genuine fans as possible.

Branding

Let’s get some things straight. In most cases (unless you are printing on branded high-quality t-shirts) a printed t-shirt is just a $2 t-shirt with a custom printing on it. You can sell it for $15 or $20, but in the end it’s just a low-end t-shirt. That’s why it’s hard to build a brand around low-cost t-shirts. You can upgrade to a premium or more expensive brand of blanks, but you would not want to do that in the beginning. Your target market is people who are looking for affordable t-shirts with custom printing.

However, this does not mean that you should ignore branding altogether. Take your time and name your business something that’s relevant and communicates the brand ideology. Design a logo before going online, which makes your band recognizable.

Take a Graphics Design Crash Course

You don’t need to be a professional graphics designer to establish a t-shirt printing business, but you should at least learn the basics. Take a quick course on a software that you plan on using such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. You might have to hire a designer, which would add up to the cost and slims down the profit margin.

The Wrap Up

Establishing and running a startup can be challenging, but starting the right way can help you avoid most of the pitfalls associated with starting a new business. T-shirts are always in high demand, are versatile and faster and cheaper than other garments to produce.

These factors make the t-shirt printing business a viable option, especially for people with artistic skills and graphics designing experience. T-shirt printing business might be the right one for you if you are self-motivated, have a flair for design and are ready for all the hard work that comes with establishing and running your own business.