Starting a tee shirt line is one of the most common business ventures that young entrepreneurs embark upon.
Anyone can watch episodes of Shark Tank and convince themselves they have what it takes to make it big in the world of apparel. Let me tell you from experience, starting a tee shirt line is a lot harder than it looks on TV.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
3 Lessons I Learned About Starting a Tee Shirt Line
My name is Tim Stoddart. This is my second feature on Motivation Grid. My business career started in an unusual place… I got sober. You can read about my story and the lessons that addiction taught me about business. I had no idea what I was in for, but my experience has brought me where I am today.
After gaining some real success with online marketing, I thought I was the man. Nothing could stop me.
I’ve always dreamed of having my own clothing company, so I started a sober lifestyle streetwear line called New Lyfe Clothing.
Sure I thought, this should be easy. What could possibly be so hard about printing and selling some tee shirts?
Well, it turns out there is a lot that goes into it. My father always told me that a truly wise man learns from other peoples mistakes, so I hope that anyone reading this can learn from the mistakes I have made so you don’t burn through money like I did.
Let’s get started!
Lesson # 1 – Learn your Shipping Rates and Build a System
If you are looking to piss people off, one of the best ways to do this is to sell them a product and not follow through on your commitment to fulfill their order.
E-Commerce is much different than retail. The user experience exists solely on your website. There is no ambient music coming from the speakers on the ceiling, there are no helpful representatives to guide you through picking out an outfit, and there is no way to buy a shirt and walk out of the store with it.
When someone pays for a shirt online, they are taking a leap of faith. They are trusting you, a total stranger, to make good on your promise to send them their goods in a timely manner. There is a lot that goes into it.
- Packaging matters. Spending the extra money on custom poly bags or boxes is worth it.
- Protect your inventory. If you have shirts sitting on a shelf with no poly bags it is inevitable that they will get dusty.
- Shipping rates are complicated. Should you use USPS, FedEx, UPS or a combination of all three? Do you want to ship overseas? I highly suggest you figure this out before hand.
Most importantly, you need to automate your system. The biggest mistake I ever made in the beginning is telling myself that I would ship out the shirts “as soon as I could.” I had no plan or system and I found myself panicking to ship out 20 shirts that were a week past due. Most of these people never bought from me again.
But, when I committed to shipping my shirts out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, the entire dynamic changed. No matter what I had going on, those were the days dedicated to shipping. I made it clear on the site when the customer could expect their package. I didn’t promise speedy delivery. I was honest and clear about expectations.
I learned that people don’t mind waiting, what people really hate is waiting when they didn’t expect to.
Lesson # 2 – Learn How to Create Beautiful Images
People generally don’t shop because they need things. They shop because of how it makes them feel.
In the world of apparel, the best way to trigger an emotional response is through photography.
I know what you’re thinking. You could just go buy a camera and start snapping pictures of your friends wearing your shirts. You could do that, but if that is your frame of mind you are missing the point.
Off the top of my head, here are some important elements to learn.
- General photography.
- Product shots vs. lifestyle shots.
- Modeling and finding the right models that fit your brand.
- Natural light vs artificial light.
- Image sizing.
- The list goes one.
Your images need to tell stories.
Sure, it’s just a still shot but it’s so much more than that. Who is this person in the picture? What does he or she represent?
What kind of person are they and most importantly, is that they kind of person your ideal customer wants to be?
Stew over that one for a bit.
The most important lesson I learned is that it’s okay not to get every picture perfect on the first try. When I started this line, I wanted everything to be perfect. I didn’t understand that in the act of doing, I was also practicing.
Don’t stress yourself out too much about the imperfections of your images and just keep getting better and better. I never used to think photography was really an art form until I decided on starting a tee shirt line.
Practice. Practice Practice.
Lesson # 3 – People Aren’t Actually Buying Tee Shirts, They Are Buying an Identity.
When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was skateboard. I had some real behavior and self -esteem issues, so school was hard for me. I would walk in the door after school, grab my skateboard and be out until 9 PM.
Looking back at it, I see what it was about skating that I gravitated towards so much. I was an outsider and I felt comfortable in the grungy culture of skating. I was daring, I was rebellious and I finally found a tribe that I fit into. Skating helped me a lot, and it shaped my identity.
What we wear, is an extension of who we are.
I didn’t care if the clothes I wore were bought at a flee market. If the shirt had Tony Hawk on it, I wore it. When you are starting a tee shirt line, be sure to take this into consideration.
Keep your ego out of it and avoid making shirts that “you think are cool.” No one cares what you think, the important question is, who would spend money on a piece of their identity?
This is why niche brands work. Yoga, entrepreneurship, fitness, the “Life Is Good” line. All of these are lifestyle brands that shape the identity of the person buying them. You have to know what your line represents before you can expect to build a following.
Yoga, entrepreneurship, fitness, the “Life Is Good” line. All of these are lifestyle brands that shape the identity of the person buying them. You have to know what your line represents before you can expect to build a following.
Even today, I fight this internal struggle. Sometimes I get sick of working in the sobriety culture. But the fact is that there are millions of people in this country who are passionate about addiction recovery and when they want to buy a tee shirt to express that, they come to me and spend money.
One Final Thought
Notice, none of these lessons had much to do with the tee shirts themselves. When starting a clothing line, you can’t undermine quality. When people get their packages in the mail, they are excited to open it. Nothing will kill your brand like an underwhelmed customer.
Nothing will kill your brand like an underwhelmed customer.
This isn’t a scheme or some kind of get rich quick idea. This is about real people, buying real products in exchange for their hard earned money. I highly recommend finding a printer, or manufacturer that you trust and that makes a quality product. You don’t have to be Gucci, but you do have to be real.
Out of all the business ventures I have, my clothing line is still the one that is the most fun. There’s a glamor about it that I won’t deny. It makes me feel cool and I love telling people I have a successful brand.
But at the end of the day, it’s not about the parties or the hot girls that wear your shit. It’s about making people feel something. It’s about extending yourself and building something bigger than you.
It’s hard work. Very hard work. If you are not willing to sacrifice your time then you will fail. The question you need to ask yourself before you start is simple.
What are you willing to do?