How to Start a T-shirt Business Online: The Complete Guide
Let me preface this article by saying these tactics are not just for Christian t-shirts. If you want to sell t-shirts online, in any niche, this article is for you.
T-shirts are one of the most popular products sold by entrepreneurs. Competition is fierce, but finding a niche you are passionate about can give you an edge when starting a t-shirt brand.
As an entrepreneur who has dropshipped, vinyl printed, and screen-printed Christian t-shirts and sold them online, I would like to share my experiences with other entrepreneurs who are looking to start an online business selling t-shirts in the Christian niche or any niche.
So, let’s start with the question…
(you can skip directly to any of the sections by clicking them below)
How do you start an online T-shirt business?
- Define the Target Audience for Your T-shirt Brand
- Name Your T-shirt Brand and Design a Logo
- Create Your First Set of T-shirt Designs
- Decide How to Print or Make Your T-shirts
- Promote and Sell Your T-shirts Online
- Build a Customer Follow-up Plan for Your Brand
Before you start thinking about designs to sell, it’s important to consider who you want to sell to. There’s an important reason that I list this one as the first step and I’ll explain shortly.
There are so many general t-shirt brands on the market in every niche. If you can narrow your audience a bit, you will have a better chance of creating a tribe around your brand.
For example, if you are a woman, thinking about selling to women, then that is your target: Women.
From there, what age range are you thinking about targeting with your t-shirt brand?
If you have an interest in sports, then you could target specific sports fans, or sports fans in general.
Targeting people that enjoy exercise as a hobby is interesting if you create simpler designs that look good on wicking apparel. The “iron sharpens iron” designs are already being made by several brands. But there are very few brands that are leveraging wicking or dry-fit apparel to do it.
Remember, if you have the same interests as your target audience, it will make it easier to come up with designs that connect with your target audience. And since you are the target, you will have an idea where your target audience hangs out on and offline.
Naming your t-shirt brand is a hugely important step. There is a reason that I combined these into one step. Here are a few tips to help you come up with a memorable name and domain name that aligns with your shirt brand.
First off, if you are planning to sell anything online, I can’t tell you how important it is to come up with a name that is relevant to your brand, is impressionable, and aligns with an easy-to-type domain name for your website.
The reason that determining your target audience first is so important is that it sets the tone for many of the remaining steps, including your brand name.
If you plan to mostly sell online, it is so important to nail the domain name. Even if you start selling first with a marketplace like Etsy, you always want to spend the $12 and stash your domain name away for later.
Here are a couple of considerations when selecting a domain/brand name:
Choose a domain with a .com extension
The reason is simply that .com domains are what most people remember. So if your brand name is “316 Tees”, many people will try to type 316tees.com in the URL bar or Google search. If your domain is 316tees.net or 316tees.co, it’s just one more obstacle that your visitors have to overcome to find you.
Do not use hyphens in your domain name
If you find the “perfect” domain but discover it is not available, there might be a temptation to just add a hyphen. For example, 316-tees.com. Most people never assume the hyphen, so they will type the domain without. Those visitors will end up on the other 316tees.com.
Make sure your brand name idea isn't taken
If the .com is already taken, and you avoid the hyphen and alternate extensions, you should be safe here. But either way, you want to be able to create branded materials, printed logos and more. You can’t use an already trademarked term. But you also wouldn’t want to try and compete with someone in the same niche with a similar name.
Similarly, if you are ever thinking about trademarking your brand (most brands don’t) make sure your name isn’t infringing on another trademark.
Several years ago, I acquired the domain, ShiningArmor.com (I no longer own it). I had an awesome logo created. The designs were initially parody designs (which I no longer advocate- but we can discuss that later). See my models below (lol):
Without going into great detail, a certain big athletic brand with Armour in their name sent me a cease and desist letter when they spotted my shirts for sale on Etsy after I applied for a Trademark online.
I could have fought it. I might have won. But at that point I had almost no investment in the brand yet. So the decision to pivot made sense at the time.
It’s unfortunate that small brands have big headaches if they step into the yard of a big brand. But that's how it goes. So make sure you do some due diligence before you establish yourself and start investing time and money.
Choose a short name that’s easy to remember
There’s a reason why most Fortune 100 brands have short brand names. They are easy to remember. They are easy to display on thousands of different types of digital and physical branding materials. The shorter your domain name, the better. Try to keep it under 15 characters if possible. Shining Armor (as an example) is 12 characters.
Years ago, the brand C28 Clothing (who was responsible for the NOTW line) had the URL: C28.com. Three letter domains are hard to come by, but C28 came up with their name with inspiration from Colossians 2:8, which says..
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”Colossians 2:8
This just shows how you can be creative when coming up with a name for your brand. C28.com is easy to type in and remember so this was a great domain name.
Write down a list of at least 20 domain ideas, then check availability
I always write down ideas on paper.
First, write down your ideas as words or phrases, then you can put them together as potential domain names. Once you have domain ideas, go to Godaddy.com. Enter each domain (with the .com extensions) into the Godaddy search bar. As domains are not available, draw a single line through them.
When you are finished, hopefully, you have 3 or 4 domain names that are available. Now it is time to make a decision based on which one you like. If you like something a lot, go ahead and buy it. Even if you change your mind, you are only out a few dollars. But that way, no one else can nab the domain while you are making a decision or preparing your store.
Create a Logo
Once you decide on a name, you need a logo for your brand. There are several logo design companies online. You should expect to pay $80-300 for a nice logo. Many designers charge more.
I’ve used several over the years, including having friends design logos for me. TheLogoCompany.net is one I have used in the past.
DesignCrowd is one of my favorites in the last couple of years. With Design Crowd you can create a logo project, add as much information as you have about your concept, then get 15-20 designers send you their draft of your concept. You only pay for the one you select. From there you can get revisions until you have the perfect logo.
I have also used Fiverr. But be very careful on Fiverr to find a designer with at least 200+ high reviews. Even then, have a good idea of what you want. Otherwise, their final deliverable will not likely meet your expectations.
This next step has nothing to do with having artistic skills or designing your own t-shirts. The purpose of this exercise is to get some ideas on paper. It also helps to give a designer a better idea of what you are thinking, so that you are on the same page from the start.
Get some paper and a pencil. Now that you have an idea of who you would like to target and what your brand theme is about, sketch out three designs on paper that you could envision selling to this audience.
Make your sketches small. Four inches by four inches is plenty large to get ideas on paper.
Move to T-shirt Design Creation
Now you can use these design concepts to create your first designs. If you are a guru in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator then you know what to do. Go to work.
If not, you will need to have someone create your designs digitally so you can get ready to print your shirts.
I recommend DesignCrowd again to make your first designs. The process is the same as for a logo. Simply send your idea to DesignCrowd and multiple graphic artists will create a first revision design. You decide which one to go with and then they finalize the design per your specs.
If you want to create a simple text design using fonts and stock graphics, you can create some pretty cool designs with an online tool called Canva. With Canva you can start with their templates, then replace the text with your own. Manipulate and edit the font size, colors, and more.
You can then export the file and save it as a design. It's really that simple. If you are using Print on Demand as your printing platform of choice, you will want to save a PNG file, around 12" wide at 300 dpi.
There are so many variables when trying to decide how to fulfill your t-shirts. I will discuss some of the best options, then go deeper into this section in a separate blog post.
Screen print and Ship Your Own Designs
Screen printing is the lowest cost t-shirt printing method as long as you print a medium to high quantity. Typically large brands screen print their designs because it is the lowest cost for companies who want to grow and scale.
For smaller, startup brands, however, screenprinting your own designs means you need to print enough stock of each size, anticipating which sizes you will sell the most of.
The biggest drawback (from my experience) is smaller startups can easily print 7 designs x 100 shirts per design (minimum) but if the designs do not take off and sell, you are stuck with a lot of t-shirts.
In addition, with this method, you have to factor in the time to package the design, cost for packaging, time to ship, and more.
Vinyl Print and Ship Your Designs
I will keep this one brief but e-mail me if you have questions about any of these. I bought a big vinyl cutter on eBay, a $1200 heat-press, about 100 rolls of different colors and styles of vinyl and sold a ton of shirts on Etsy.
That was about 5 years ago. But all-in-all, the problem was that vinyl is not scaleable. It takes a LOT of time to cut each design and to weed the designs
It is a really fun way to print your own shirts whenever you want. Although you are color and design limited, you can creatively do some really cool one and 2 color prints.
Today, since the small Cricut cutters have been out for a few years, it's easy enough to go pick up a cutter and some vinyl rolls at Michael's and see how it works.
But vinyl is best for higher-priced Athletic apparel. If you decide to do an athletic Christian T-shirt line, and you plan to create Christian athletic jerseys, then vinyl might be just for you. The margins are good if the retail prices are a lot higher.
Back in the Tim Tebow football days, it would have probably been a really good time to print up some John 3:16 jerseys. Even today, with the number of people that wear athletic apparel, there is a market. You just have to create a solid strategy around this printing method.
This is one of the most popular and newest methods today for brand new startups. Print-on-demand shops are basically t-shirt fulfillment companies that have DTG (direct-to-garment) machines allowing them to print your one-off t-shirt orders as you get them.
It is similar to drop shipping. But with YOUR unique designs. The best of both worlds! POD allows for higher margins and less competition.
This is a huge advantage for entrepreneurs who want to test out new brands on their site because you can create 20 designs in multiple different sizes without having to stock any product.
These shops are fairly new (within the last 3 years) but the quality and pricing have gotten pretty competitive, which is great for someone who is starting out.
Shopify helped fuel the growth of these companies because of the massive amount of T-shirt stores that are on the Shopify platform, which opened the door for Shopify to partner with the brands as ‘apps’ on the eCommerce platform.
The disadvantage of this method is that your shirts ship out according to the POD platform's backlog of orders. For example, in June of 2020, right before Father's day (a huge t-shirt sales time for marketplaces), print-on-demand shops got way behind because of a massive surge in orders caused by COVID-19 and Father's day.
Many POD shops were closed down due to COVID, and online sales began to spike early in the year due to in-person sales being suspended.
Some POD platforms (like Printful) were 4-6 weeks behind at some point, which is unacceptable, pandemic or not.
That said, the wave finally passed, POD shops opened up and hired more staff to catch up.
Fortunately after learning from their mistakes, Christmas 2020 sales have hit the highest numbers ever, and POD shops seemed to have mostly kept up with the demand.
Printful vs. Printify
The advantages to Printful are larger print areas, ability to send pack-ins to customers, custom neck labels, and global shipping by a single fulfillment company. Disadvantages are high price and slow shipping times when demand is high.
The advantages to Printify are lowest price in the market, fast turnaround and shipping times, and great print quality. Disadvantages are no custom pack-ins, few options to print custom labels, and less flexibility on global shipping.
The difference between these two are that Printful has their own fulfillment centers. Printify, on the other hand, partners with print shops. If you go with Printify you can select which print shop you prefer to use.
Our vote is Printify, especially for new brands. Their pricing can't be beat.
In this section, I am not going to list all the dozens of platforms there are. I will just be listing the ones I have found to be the best. But if you have a question about a platform, let me know.
Etsy is mostly a handmade goods marketplace. In other words, the original intent of Etsy was to allow small businesses to sell products like crafts, handmade and hand-carved art, and more. Over the last few years, Etsy has allowed quite a bit more in the marketplace, but they still don’t allow the sale of items not manufactured by the seller (for the most part).
About 5-6 years ago, Etsy was a relatively small marketplace. Entrepreneurs could go to Etsy and see which products were selling the most. This is a huge advantage over an eCommerce site, but it opens the door for thousands of entrepreneurs who steal ideas and start their own stores.
That said, Etsy is still a great marketplace for many types of products, especially products that cater to women, since women make up the majority of the target audience on Etsy.
The biggest advantage of Etsy is the time to market. You can come up with an idea, create the design and have it on Etsy for sale to be seen by a huge audience faster than almost any other platform online.
But my advice to Christian business owners today is to only sell products on Etsy that you have some proprietary method to create. In other words, t-shirts are (unfortunately) the easiest products to copy and re-create.
But if you sell custom Christian jewelry, hand-painted or hand-drawn artwork or prints, and similar products, you have a better chance of sustaining sales on Etsy without worrying about someone copying your creations.
BUT - we have proven in 2020 that Etsy is STILL a viable marketplace to drive sales fast as long as you can differentiate your designs from other shops on the platform. In other words, "swirly girly" typographic word designs have been done to death and Ii wouldn't even think about doing that.
In fact, while everyone is cTopying everyone else, it's always a smart move to go in a different direction anyway. Create designs that you would wear. Designs that target people close to your age and interests. This way, you KNOW what kind of designs your target will like.
Take inspiration from other "unique" brands. Don't copy, but look at what secular designers are doing that is unique. Then see if that's something you want to try with your Christian designs.
MY BIGGEST PIECE OF ADVICE in this entire guide: Try your designs on Etsy while you are building your eCommerce store, and while you are working on the brand.
- Because it's the EASIEST way to see how your design concepts do.
- It's the FASTEST way (similar to other marketplaces like Amazon, TeePublic, etc.) to get your designs launched and sold.
- It is a GREAT way to sell seasonal designs that you might not carry on your eCommerce store.
Shopify eCommerce platform
There are dozens of eCommerce platforms online. For those who don’t know, an eCommerce platform is an online tool that allows entrepreneurs to display their products for sale on a website.
I believe Woocommerce has the most online users. But the reason for that is because Woocommerce is a WordPress plugin, and there are more WordPress sites than any other CMS (content management system) online.
But when it comes to website speed, SEO friendliness, number of apps and integrations, ease of use, number of online guides and manuals, number of fast loading templates, and more, Shopify is hands down the #1 best eCommerce platform online (in my humble opinion).
The advantage of building your brand on Shopify (as opposed to a marketplace like Etsy) is you own the domain name, and you can build up your brand with less concern about a bunch of new startups stealing your ideas.
The disadvantage of using an eCommerce platform like Shopify is that there is no marketplace ready to buy your products. You have to market your brand, create interest, and generate sales on your own.
The great thing about an eCommerce platform like Shopify is that it has so many apps and integrations. And most of the themes load super fast.
You will pay a monthly fee with Shopify, but it is super affordable for a new brand. Two things the fee buys you are security and regular updates. These are both big concerns on a Woocommerce site where plugins are hacked all the time, and you have to keep up with your own updates.
I said Shopify was super fast. Compare that with Woocommerce (SLOW). There is no comparison. Woocommerce is a giant eCommerce plugin riding on the back of an otherwise awesome CMS platform. It’s like the heavy rucksack on the back of a 21-year-old soldier.
Also, Shopify is integrated with several print-on-demand services. So it’s super easy to get started and manage your business when you couple Shopify with print-on-demand shops.
Again, these are opinions from my experience. What I am not going to do is tell you about all the possibilities you could try. I would rather tell you what has worked best for me.
Determine How You Will Promote Your T-shirt Brand
I could write an entire blog post for this one section. In fact, I will. An overall long-term marketing strategy has many more components. But here I’m just going to talk about a few of my favorite marketing channels.
In the very first section of this post, I discussed determining your target audience. That is a huge part of what goes into your marketing strategy.
T-shirt Marketing on Facebook
If you want to start a Christian T-shirt brand and you have a Facebook account, you have probably seen the massive amount of Christian t-shirt brands that show up on there in advertisements.
The reason there are so many brands is the massive Christian audience that’s on Facebook.
This Christian brand is in my feed right now since I follow Ike White’s Pescador419 Facebook page. This is the organic way to do sell your gear on Facebook:
The above is good if you have a pretty engaged audience, but don’t expect huge numbers from organic posts. Paid Facebook posts are the way to go if you have a little budget to test some ads and audiences.
I took a screenshot of the 1st paid post in my feed this evening. It is a tactical brand I’ve never heard of. But the numbers and engagement are quite impressive. The ad is impressive as well:
What is so great about Facebook targeting?
Think about this for a moment. Let’s say you want to sell red tennis shoes. Who is your main audience for these? Hm. Not sure I would have to do some research. (or use Google ads)
How about fishing lures? Ok, this is a little easier. My audience is probably mostly men who like the outdoors. That opens things up a bit when I want to build content on my website, like the best fishing spots in each state. Make sense? (In this case Google ads + Facebook would be strong)
Did you know that some 70% of Americans identify as Christian? Yes, that is a huge number. In fact, there are about 327 million people in the U.S. That leaves about 228 million people that identify as Christian. Even if that number was only 25%, it’s still a lot of people.
You could even narrow the age segments down to the target audience you want (Millenial, GenZ, Generation X) and would still have a large target audience.
So what does that have to do with Facebook? Well, Facebook has some pretty cool targeting options.
Or how about targeting all the people who like specific Christian groups or non-profits? No problem. Facebook is proven for paid targeting.
For organic targeting, not so much. The engagement rate is so low these days. Build your company page, sure. But don't try and spend all your time posting and trying to build your brand on Facebook unless you're leveraging paid targeting.
T-shirt Marketing on Instagram
I've been marketing online since 2003. I have owned several eCommerce stores, worked for Fortune 100 companies and more. But until 2020, I had never even had an Instagram account. I know, crazy.
So I started one in 2020, and while my follower account is slow-growing (much different than if I had joined up 5 years ago) I have had the highest personal engagement with my brand than in any other social network EVER.
So what's great about Instagram? When it comes to T-shirts, it's a no-brainer. This could be your strongest organic social platform. And if you do just a few dollars a day with an occasional boosted post, you will like the results!
Instagram is also perfect for t-shirt giveaways! And t-shirt giveaways are perfect for growing s brand!
What does a t-shirt giveaway post look like?
It's easy. You post a great pic of a t-shirt you want to giveaway. Post the rules and the length of the giveaway. Encourage user to comment on the post and tag their friends to enter.
Even though we have a low follower count, this post had 59 comments, most of them were tagging three friends on instagram. All evangelizing your brand with 1 t-shirt giveaway.
I have also had several partnership opportunities already, as well as some great new friendships.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If I was only going to do ONE thing, I would market my Christian t-shirt brand on Instagram. In 2020 and beyond.
T-shirts and Google Ads
Google Ads are extremely effective for many brands. They are also very competitive and can get expensive.
But for the right product, Google Ads is an excellent place to get laser targeted leads with high intent to buy – on your website.
For Christian T-shirts (or any product) I always, at least, try Google Ads for a couple of reasons.
First off, you spend the money on Google Ads to get data you can use to market your brand, especially to inform your SEO (search engine optimization) strategy.
There are certain bidding methods you can use (Phrase match is my favorite) that will send you good potential leads and give you ideas on certain keywords you can optimize for.
Your Google Ad data tells you that many visitors are actually typing “Gym Christian t-shirts”, landing on your website, and buying 2 of your sports designs. Maybe ‘Gym Christian T-shirts’ wasn’t a keyword you thought about. But now you know that you probably want to SEO optimize for that search term for the athletic products you carry.
Because the clickthrough rate is much higher in organic search results compared to paid search results (usually 6-7x higher), you can hypothesize that if you rank #1 or #2 in Google for these terms, you should be able to sell a lot more of these organically.
The second reason I like to try Google Ads is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe it’s a good channel for your product. Maybe it’s not. But why not spend a few hundred dollars to make sure?
If it pays off, you make an early return on your investment. If it doesn’t, you use the data to determine your best selling designs, the best keywords, use the opportunity to test live customers, and more.
T-shirts & Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
It would be silly for me to write a big eCommerce SEO section when a proven expert has already written one. Brian Dean (Backlinko) wrote the 2020 Definitive Guide to eCommerce SEO. You can access the guide free right here: https://backlinko.com/ecommerce-seo
Start by reading Brian’s guide and implement the basics on your website.
Although there are over 200 algorithmic factors that go into how Google ranks a website, my experience tells me that there are 2 definitive factors that move the needle the most: Content and Backlinks.
Build solid content. Build ethical backlinks. It takes some time. But organic rankings will come.
I started my first eCommerce site in 2003. I reached #1 (for my money keywords) in Google within just a few months. The result was massive traffic and sales that followed.
Although SEO has changed greatly, organic traffic is still the best method for long-term online sales.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Build solid content. I'm telling you. Create a Christian Apparel Blog. Build relevant blog posts. Make them awesome. Talk more about your product collections. What is unique about each collection? Link them to your other pages, products, etc. This is the most important thing you could do to really build a long-term SEO strategy for your website.
Don't go crazy with backlinks. One best practice from marketing and SEO expert Sujan Patel is to build content, wait a couple of months and see which content is ranking in the top 3 pages, then build links to that content.
And keep building content. Keep adding products. Keep following best practices.
Most of all, BE PATIENT. It takes a long time (4-5 mos) for Google to really recognize your hard work with rankings and traffic. So put in the work, and sell shirts on Etsy or another marketplace while you work, and wait.
Have a plan in place to follow-up with your customers. There are several email service providers you can choose from. Shopify has integrations with a few of the providers as well. Read this blog post on the Shopify blog to learn more about email marketing and how to get started.
Many of today’s eCommerce platforms give new brands a distinct advantage when it comes to a holistic eCommerce customer experience. Their apps and integrations are built with a customer-first approach.
Be sure to ask for reviews in follow-up emails. If you don’t ask, most people won’t take the time to leave a review. Make it super easy for them to do or it won’t happen.
More reviews = higher conversions. Think about buying products on Amazon. How often do you look for what other people have to say? For me, the answer is always.
It is extremely important to communicate well with your customers. The happier your customers are, the more likely they are to leave reviews. And the ultimate best customer experiences create brand advocates.
For example, I have bought t-shirts from brands who sent me a handwritten thank-you note – along with a couple of branded decals in the package.
Other brands use unique packaging to create an experience. For me, it’s about an experience that doesn’t cut into your margins.
Tip: When you start out, you have time to write some handwritten notes, and pay for 1000 decals to giveaway.
Remember that customers love free swag they didn’t expect to get. And it might get your brand decal on some MacBook laptops or a car window.
Either way, that is extended marketing that you only pay pennies for.
Amplify Your T-shirt Brand
You’ve now gone through the entire process and sold your first shirts. Congratulations!!
Leverage Shopify's apps to start building an email list. Start email automations, segmentation, cart-abandonment emails, discount and sales announcements, and more!
And, I am saying this again, which means it's important. BUILD GREAT CONTENT. I cannot stress this enough. Contact me about any content strategy questions. I will have an upcoming post on this soon.
Get pictures of your designs on models. Models can be young kids from church or college students. I had my friends’ kids (and my daughter) wear my designs and we had a photo shoot at an old historic train station.
It’s a lot of fun, and these pics are great in your marketing material and on the website (be sure and get everyone to sign releases, even if they are friends).
With those pics, you can create Lookbooks, even online catalogs.
Once you are consistently selling, and your process works, create new designs. Build slowly and consistently and have fun.
Don’t get frustrated if your first designs don’t take off or things aren’t going as great as you’d hoped. You will get there. Learn from your mistakes. The wisdom gained from mistakes is your best weapon to grow your business and be a success. Use your learnings to your advantage and success will come.
My final piece of advice for Christian entrepreneurs is to help others. Be helpful to your customers. Listen to them. Help people who want to start their own business. Love others every day. This will differentiate your business more than any other marketing or business technique ever will.
Visit our “Top 10 Online Christian Clothing Stores” blog post where we share some of our favorite brands. If you have a Christian T-shirt brand you would like to promote, let us know in the comments of that post.