So You Want To Make T-Shirts?

*UPDATE 2/20/2013: United Pixelworkers is a little bigger now than when we first wrote this post. If you want to hear how things have changed, read our new post, “So You Want to Make a Whole Bunch of T-Shirts” on the United Pixelworkers blog.

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably a web worker. And if you’re a web worker, your wardrobe is probably stocked with the official uniform of the web trade: the modern t-shirt. You know the kind I’m talking about: the one emblazoned with the logo of your favorite social network/iPhone game/software program, the one with the typography joke, the one with the snarky message. You’ve probably stared into your dresser drawers and thought to yourself, “You know, I could probably make a few bucks designing t-shirts.” I know we did. So we did. And thus, United Pixelworkers was born.

In the months since we launched Pixelworkers, we’ve learned a lot about the highs and lows of making t-shirts: designing them, printing them, marketing them, selling them, stocking them, and shipping them…oh dear lord shipping them. Now we’re passing this knowledge on to you, young Jedi. So, listen up.

The Sobering Truth.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Unless you strike gold, selling t-shirts won’t make you rich. Need proof? Let’s do the math. A basic shirt—one color, one side, on a crappy blank tee—will cost you around $5 per shirt to produce. But you don’t want to make a basic shirt, do you? Of course not. You want multiple ink colors. You want front and back printing. And you don’t want to print on some oversized Gildan or Hanes smock…no, you want the hip, well-fitting, Made-in-the-USA, nearly bankrupt salaciousness of American Apparel. By the time you’re done tacking on all the upgrades, your shirt’s gonna cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 per shirt. Typical retail markup is 100%, so let’s say you sell your shirts for $20. Assuming you charge a few bucks extra for shipping, you’ll clear $10 per shirt. That means you need to sell 100 shirts to make $1,000 in profit. Now I don’t know what your expenses look like, but 1,000 pre-tax dollars don’t even begin to make a dent in our monthly bills. And the truth is, you’ll be lucky to sell even half that many t-shirts. So, the first lesson here is, don’t think you’re going to get rich selling t-shirts. This is a labor of love.

Who’s Gonna Print Them?

Time to find a printer. Hopefully you live in a city with a handful of nearby print shops. Talk to a few, show them your design, ask all kinds of questions. A good print shop will help you out in ways you’ve never thought of. Aside from owning the means of production, they can educate you on innovative print styles, identify potential problems with your design, and give you access to wholesale pricing on a massive selection of t-shirts. If you’re trying to do something non-standard—printing on the inside of the shirt, all-over prints, custom tags, unusual inks—working with a proper print shop is a must. We work with The Cotton Factory here in Pittsburgh, and haven’t regretted it.

Of course, a local shop still leaves you with a few non-trivial loose ends: setting up an online store, shipping product, and dealing with customer service. If you want something a little more full-service, you could go online with places like Spreadshirt or Zazzle. Online tee design sites act as your store, your printer, and your shipper. They take much of the hassle out of the process, but they also take a lot more money out of your wallet (~10% profit instead of 100%), and severely restrict your creativity (you can forget that all-over print). More troubling, the print quality, well…kinda sucks. I have a handful of shirts from Zazzle, and I’d liken them to a really good iron-on transfer. Not exactly premium.

Whatever you do, don’t try to print them yourself. Unless you’re doing a limited run of one-color, one-sided tees, your $50 Speedball screen print set from Michael’s isn’t gonna cut it. Work with a professional.

Setting Up Shop.

Assuming you don’t go with Zazzle (and you shouldn’t), you’re gonna need a place to sell these shirts. There are limited designer-friendly options out there, so like a lot of our web design brethren, we decided to develop our store on the Big Cartel platform. I won’t go into a ton of detail about what it’s like working with Big Cartel, because we already did, and Big Cartel interviewed us about it. If you don’t want to read Nate’s War & Peace on the finer points of working with Big Cartel, suffice it to say it’s a pretty drama-free retail solution. You could certainly do a lot worse.

When designing your site, there’s nothing wrong with using the stock Big Cartel template, but having a hot website won’t hurt your chances of moving more merch. We put a ton of thought into our United Pixelworkers design, and if the industry response is any indication—it’s been featured on Big Cartel’s showcaseSmashing Magazine, the Typekit blog, and Web Design Ledger (twice)—our effort has been noticed.

Marketer, Market Thyself.

Once your store is live, you’re gonna need a way to get the word out. If this is a serious business venture for you, you might want to put some money into advertising. A run on The DeckFusionDaring Fireball, or Dribbblewill get your shirts in front of a lot of eyeballs, albeit at a salty price. Our marketing plan, if you can call it that, was to give shirts away. A lot of them. We’ve given shirts away in Dribbble contests. We’ve given shirts away on Twitter (a giveaway every time we hit another 100 followers). We’ve given shirts away at conferences. We’ve given shirts away to prominent web personalities with the hope that they’d pimp us. As you might imagine, this strategy hasn’t made us very much money, but that wasn’t our intent. We started United Pixelworkers to raise our profile in the web design industry, and I have to say it’s been successful. To date, here’s a fairly comprehensive list of the people who have promoted Pixelworkers in some public way: Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Benjamin, Mike Monteiro, Doug Bowman, Ethan Marcotte, Jared Spool, Tyler Thompson, Tiffani Jones Brown, Andy Rutledge, Jeff Croft, and Nathan Bowers, among many others. Not bad.

Welcome to Retail.

The minute you start selling things to the public, you enter the world of retail. As a retailer, you’ll immediately have to make decisions about all types of things you never thought of. How will you ship your product? What’s your return/exchange policy? What happens if someone’s shirt gets lost in the mail? What if someone wants a refund?

Now I know what you’re saying, “I’m not a retailer, I’m a designer. Making t-shirts is just a hobby.” Guess who doesn’t care? The customer who just paid $25 on a t-shirt and shipping, that’s who. They just spent full-time money on your part-time hobby, and they want to know when their t-shirt is going to arrive. Amazon and Zappos have set the consumer expectation level absurdly high, where items ordered online today can arrive tomorrow. If you’re an independent designer with a day job stuffing mailers on your dining room table, chances are low you’ll be providing the same turnaround. That’s OK. Will it take a few weeks for your shirt to get to them? Say that, in big letters. Just be honest with your customers, communicate with them often, and make sure you let them know how and when you’ll be shipping their goods. Customers are reasonable people when you level with them. They only turn into vitriol-spewing slanderers when you massage the truth, or worse, don’t tell them anything.

Shipping is Hell.

If shipping isn’t the worst part of online retail—see the section below on inventory—it’s close. While I’ve made friends with my local postal workers since starting Pixelworkers, the post office is one of my least favorite places to go. I have to make a special trip to get there, it’s closed on every conceivable holiday, and when I hold up the line shipping a box overflowing with vinyl mailers, I get laser beam stares from the townies who just stopped by for a book of stamps. And that’s after I spent an hour writing addresses, affixing mailing labels, stuffing bags, and re-checking every order to make sure I’m not shipping a XXL to the girl who ordered a S. Shipping international is even worse…every package going to another country needs a customs form.

Some advice: forget about FedEx or UPS. Ship all your packages with USPS, and tell them to send it as cheaply as possible, with no tracking or delivery confirmation. One t-shirt should cost about $2.50 to send anywhere in the country, and no more than $6 to anywhere else on Earth. As bad as shipping is, it’s a necessary evil. Grin and bear it.

Inventory is a Deeper, Hotter Hell.

If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember this: do everything in your power to avoid maintaining inventory. Nothing is as frustrating, costly, and wasteful as trying to predict the t-shirt buying habits of your customers. For example, Pixelworkers features a NYC t-shirt and a Pittsburgh t-shirt. You’d think the most populous city in the country would outsell our beloved Rust Belt hamlet, and you’d be wrong (and so were we). So now we have a hefty stack of unsold NYC shirts (in vibrant International Zeldman Orange). Sizing is even worse. You plan for mediums, larges, and extra larges; then one week, you get a run on XXLs. In fact, the entire process of maintaining inventory is so nerve-wracking that we’re completely revamping our sales model to accommodate an inventory-less system for 2011. We’re moving to what I call the “John Gruber System.” Take t-shirt orders for a defined period of time, then print and ship all the orders at once. I encourage you to do the same. It may take a bit more time for your product to reach your customers, but this isn’t insulin. No one needs your shirt tomorrow.

Still Wanna Make T-Shirts?

Of course you do. You’re not so easily deterred, are you? Just remember, you’re probably not gonna retire off of your t-shirt profits, but if you make the process as efficient as possible, you maximize your chances of turning a small profit. Speaking of profit, do us a favor and buy a Pixelworkers shirt. Our current designs are on sale until they’re gone to make room for new designs. New cities, guest designers, country tees…it’s all coming in 2011.

If you have a question, or anything to add, leave it in the comments.

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