15 Things About Selling T-Shirts Online

15 Things I’ve Learnt About Selling T-Shirts Online

Last Updated: November 18, 2016

I’m three and a bit years into selling T-Shirts online, and I’ve just begun to learn a few things. (!)

I wish someone would have been around to tell me this stuff when I was starting out. But sometimes it’s best to learn things the hard way.

Here’s my purpose with this article: to help the young designer or illustrator get a clearer picture of the key principles that have the biggest impact on your success selling T-Shirts.

If you can grasp and apply these principles, I believe you will be streets ahead of your competition.

Like any business (and be in no doubt – as soon as you start trying to make money from something, you are starting a business) – making money from T-Shirts online takes hard work and dedication. But working hard on the wrong things is not going to be effective. With a clear understanding of what matters and how to achieve your goals, you are much more likely to succeed.

So let’s get into it!

1. Nobody Cares About Your Original Work

Nobody Cares About Your Original Work

This can be a hard pill to swallow for designers, illustrators and artists – so I thought I’d get it out of the way early on.

Of course – unless you’re stealing someone else’s work – everything you create is ‘original’, at least to some extent.

So what I mean by ‘original’ work is the kind of thing that YOU want to create, as opposed to something that OTHER people want to buy.

Another way of putting it might be to say that ‘Artsy-Fartsy’ doesn’t sell well when compared to novelty, pop culture and humour. (For more on this, see Key 3 in this article: Zero To $10k A Month In Passive income from T-Shirts: 3 Key Principles).

How can you tell the difference between the two?

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is somebody already buying something like this (my original work)?
  • Has anyone bought something like this from me already?
  • Am I able to reach the audience that is already purchasing this kind of thing?

It is a lot easier to sell something to someone if they want to buy it – and are actively searching for it.

But it’s really hard to present some original work to someone and get them to purchase it. You have to hope that they:

a) like it

and

b) like it enough to be willing to pay for it (in some physical form – t-shirt, print or whatever)

This doesn’t mean ‘original’ work is a non-starter.

You should just know it takes a long time to get attention and traction with original work – so building it up to a point where it is bringing in regular income is going to take a lot longer (than focusing on creating designs that cater to existing trends, markets and customers).

2. It Pays To Be First, If You Are Also Best

It Pays To Be First, If You Are Also Best

Being the ‘first to market’ with a certain design or concept is valuable.

Of course it’s hard to predict what designs are going to ‘big’ or what will ‘blow up’ in some way. That’s why you need to keep your output levels high (ie. Design Daily).

But fairly regularly over the past few years I have spotted opportunities and been ‘first’ to the market. Those designs have gone on to deliver thousands of dollars of ‘passive income’ over the years.

But if my design wasn’t good enough, I would have been quickly out-gunned by my competitors, and long-term I would have lost a lot of sales.

So don’t just be first – be first and best. That’s what it takes to dominate the markets you are playing in.

3. It Can Also Pay To Be Second (If You Are Better)

It Can Also Pay To Be Second (If You Are Better)

Sometimes the first design to the market isn’t the best. (see above)

And that’s where it can make sense to be second (as long as you can also be better).

It can be easier in some cases to make a success of being the second to market – because you may already see some validation in the market from the sales of the first guy.

You also can see exactly what is selling, and can make something that’s guaranteed to better.

Am I advocating copying someone else’s ideas or designs? No, not at all. I simply mean that when you have an original idea or concept for a design (at least, you think it is original), you shouldn’t always be put off from it simply because someone else has already done it. If you can do it better – do it!

So don’t write an idea or niche off just because you aren’t literally the first one there. You can almost always do something better than the first guy, and win the long-game this way (because over the long term, quality matters more than whether you were ‘first’ or not).

4. It’s OK To Re-Use Stuff

It’s OK To Re-Use Stuff

When I first started creating T-Shirt designs I thought of every single one as a piece of art.

As such I didn’t even consider creating ‘variations’ of designs, or of re-using art or elements across other designs.

But guess what: artists re-use stuff all the time.

And hey, I’m not painting the Sistene chapel, I’m designing a T-Shirt that will sell for $25 or less.

So when I have an idea that could be expressed in multiple ways, or a similar design that I could re-use the artwork on, I began to do just that. Much less work for potentially a much greater return.

Of course you can’t just re-use one design forever. But when it makes sense to do so, don’t shy away from re-using art in multiple designs. After all, the customer is unlikely to see them all, they’re just going to see the one they want (and hopefully go ahead and buy it).

5. The Idea Is More Important Than The Design

The Idea Is More Important Than The Design

This one can scarcely be overstated.

The world is full of incredibly talented artists who produce amazing work – but aren’t able to translate that into a decent level of income for themselves. And the same is true in the T-Shirt world.

So many great artists and designers who produce great work are making less per month than other artists and designers who are ‘just ok’.

What’s the difference?

Well, there’s a number of factors. But the ‘idea’ is probably the biggest.

By idea I mean the concept behind the design. This includes knowledge of a market or trend (the motivation for someone to buy).

If you have a working, solid knowledge of a market – then your ideas and concepts are likely to be clearer (more ‘on point’). And with a clear brief, you can produce a coherent and complete design. When you put the two together, you will make sales.

6. You Must Act In Order To Improve

You Must Act In Order To Improve

It’s impossible to get better at anything without working at it.

You can study all you like. You can listen to every podcast and watch every tutorial. But until you actually DO something, it means nothing and produces nothing.

I thought I would make a good T-Shirt designer, and I thought I would be able to sell some shirts. It wasn’t until I started designing that I realised how difficult this actually was, and that I need to improve both my abilities and my output in order to reach my goals.

So stop reading articles and blogs and start doing.

Bonus point – the articles, blogs and podcasts you consume actually become a lot more useful once you have started producing something (because they are giving you advice that you can actually put into practice). So flip the switch from consumer to producer and watch yourself improve.

7. You Can’t Know What Will Sell

You Can’t Know What Will Sell

Predicting the future is nigh-on impossible.

I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve produced a design that I thought was killer. I mean I thought the idea and concept was strong, it was ‘on trend’, and the design was suited perfectly.

But then…nothing.

Nobody wanted it!

And of course on the flip side – designs that I didn’t care for at all and that barely made it out of Photoshop have gone on to ‘blow up’ and make huge sales.

In light of this fact – there’s only one strategy that makes sense: high levels of production. It’s okay to get excited about a particular design, but don’t get all emotional and over-invested.

You are there to supply a product to the market – and they will tell you what they want with their wallets. You can’t force them, educate them, or persuade them that this other design is actually the one they should want. Give the people what they want!

8. You Can Make Educated Guesses About What Will Sell

You *Can* Make Educated Guesses About What Will Sell

I said predicting the future was nigh-on impossible – but I didn’t say it was completely impossible!

With a bit of experience and analysis you can fairly quickly understand what is selling and why. And why it is selling now.

And if you think ahead to what is coming down the tracks (holidays, big events) – you can put your noodle to work and come up with ideas and designs that have a much higher chance of selling.

I’m not saying you can predict the next big trend – that really is witchcraft and wizardry. But you can gauge and understand the current climate, and spot repeating patterns that may point to what might be big in a few months time. I’ve managed to do this numerous times over the past year, and it isn’t beyond the wit of the average person – once that person knows where to look and what to look for.

9. The Stuff You Like, Other People Also Like

The Stuff You Like, Other People Also Like

When it comes to dreaming up and analysing ideas for Shirts, there’s a tension between the subjective and the objective.

Subjective: Do I like this idea? Do I find it funny? Is it the kind of thing I would wear?

Objective: Is something like this already selling? How strong is the market? How likely am I to be able to get in front of that market?

You need to strike a balance between those two approaches – but often it if the subjective stuff that leads to the big wins, at least in my experience.

So don’t discount your experience and the ‘warm and fuzzies’ you get when considering ideas. If you find it funny and it provokes some kind of emotional response from you, chances are it will produce a similar response from someone else (hey, the internet is a big place).

And thanks to that lovely internet and sites like Amazon and Redbubble – you actually stand a chance of getting your design in front of those people.

10. Talent Does Not Translate To Income

Talent Does Not Translate To Income

Your income reflects the value you provide in the marketplace.

Your talent is only relevant insofar as it contributes to that value.

Talent as a designer comes a distant second to hard work, volume of work, knowledge of the market, the ability to spot opportunities, and so on.

It can hardly be overstated: so many people making money from selling print-on-demand type products online are very poor designers. The designs are poor, but people still buy them. This alone should tell you the importance of ideas, marketing and targeting over the relatively minor details of design.

If you’re a designer, that might hurt to hear. But there is of course a value in design – especially when you get to the higher budget markets and stop playing in the shallows.

11. Everything Is A Business – Treat It As Such

Everything Is A Business - Treat It As Such

When I started designing T-Shirts it was kind of a hobby. I was testing the waters and seeing how it would go.

But anything that generates income is (or at least has the potential to be) a business.

And if you want it to actually become a business and produce returns like a business – you need to treat it as such.

Businesses don’t operate the way I did when I started. Businesses don’t just produce work ‘as and when’ they feel the motivation to do so. Factories don’t stop because the owner doesn’t feel like it today, or because the workers aren’t feeling inspired.

They have goals. They have numbers they need to hit. They have systems and processes in place to help them reach those targets. You need to have the same!

I’m sorry to break it to you: ‘passive income’ is pretty much a busted flush. If you want to generate income from your creations then you need to work – and the guy sitting at home watching netflix and producing the odd funny shirt idea isn’t going to be quitting his job anytime soon (I know, because I was him a few years ago).

12. When Barriers To Entry Come Down, Everybody Floods In

When Barriers To Entry Come Down, Everybody Floods In

We live in amazing times: I can profit from the sale of a product sold to someone on the other side of the world. And I don’t need to see them, speak to them, or even know their name or address.

This is great news for creators – whole new ways of doing business have opened up. Even a few years ago this wouldn’t be possible – it would take tens of thousands of dollars just to get started in a market like T-Shirts and make the kind of incomes that many are now making form their bedrooms.

But as those barriers have come down, thousands of people have flooded in. The market has matured incredibly fast, and the income you could make relatively easily a year ago isn’t so easy to come by now.

So you need to be a step ahead: whether that is in quality of design, or some other advantage you hold over the competition.

The opportunities are still great for those willing and able to take them. But you aren’t entitled to an easy income simply because you know something exists (eg. Merch By Amazon). If you aren’t able to produce something better than the next guy, and you aren’t willing to work harder, then your income is going to reflect that.

13. Low Quality Doesn’t Bring Long Term Success

Low Quality Doesn’t Bring Long Term Success

Low quality may bring short term success. It’s certainly true that you don’t need an amazing quality design if you are riding a trend and managed to get on it relatively early.

But you can’t build a strong recurring income that lasts years into the future based on short-term trends.

For long-term winning, you need products that will continue to sell. And good quality work is much more likely to win the long-game – it’s the tortoise that creeps up on the hare.

And I’m not just talking about the quality of design here. I’m talking about the whole thing: idea through to execution.

There is such a thing as ‘low quality’ ideas and there are ‘high quality’ ideas. You need to ask yourself questions to determine which is which.

Low quality will usually mean:

  • design is easily replicable (ie. is text only or with minimal original work)
  • targeting a short-term trend or story
  • unlikely to still be popular months and years into the future
  • unlikely to be shared, liked on social media or wider society

If you focus your efforts on producing high quality work on the back of high-quality ideas, you can expect those assets to still be returning income years down the line.

14. Quality And Originality Is Rare

Quality And Originality Is Rare

If you’re a decent artist, illustrator or designer, then you probably have other designers and artists you follow and like. You may look at their work and go ‘wow – I hope I can create something as good as that one day!’

You may feel, like I did, that your talents aren’t as good as the other guys. That there are people who are so much better than you, so why should you try? You can’t match their quality levels.

Here’s the thing: you’re looking at the top performers. Maybe the top 1% of T-Shirt designers, or whatever it is they do. You don’t follow the not-so-good designers, so you develop an ‘echo chamber’ that constantly reinforces your inferiority complex.

The vast majority of designers, artists and illustrators are not good.

There are thousands of them, and they produce work that you wouldn’t look twice at.

In most cases – whether we’re talking about T-Shirt brands, actual artwork, or concepts and ideas – true originality and quality is really rare.

So if you are even just a competent or decent designer – the market is probably much much smaller than you think. Just by creating a single design, you’ve beaten the millions of people who thought about it but never did it.

By creating a design a week, or a design a day – you are going to be streets ahead of the thousands of artists who did something once, got discouraged, and never tried it again.

And when it comes to real quality and originality in T-Shirts – there are just a few big hitters in a very busy marketplace. So don’t get to thinking that your work isn’t good enough or that you can’t ever hit a home run. The real amount of quality competition is actually much smaller than you think.

And the best thing is – the market opens every day. New opportunities to be grasped, new trends to hop on, new ideas to be created. The barriers to entry have never been lower – so don’t fail for lack of action.

15. It Pays To Slow Down Sometimes

It Pays To Slow Down Sometimes

I know I said being first was valuable, but often with longer-term trends it can pay to take your time – rather than rush in.

Research and preparation is never wasted time. Identifying and predicting trends is valuable work. Oftentimes it is better to spend hours researching a design, than it is to simply spit something out that doesn’t hit the target.

Because you want long-term growth and recurring income, you must prepare the ground properly. You can’t just throw out seed and hope it produces a return. You need to know what the seed is, if the soil is right, what the weather is going to be, how you’re going to harvest the return – etc. etc.

So when you have an idea, don’t be all – “sit down, spit it out, move on”. Instead take some time to analyse and think about what you’re producing and why you’re producing it. These skills are what will separate the short-termers from the long-termers.


I hope you got something out of that.

Ultimately you never learn or achieve much until you get busy working on something. So I hope this article has encouraged you to get started – or ramp up – your own online T-Shirt business.


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Published by Michael Essek