“It’s Not Art – It’s A Business” – An Interview With Print-On-Demand T-Shirt Artist Tobe Fonsecaby Michael Essek · Updated: July 1, 2020
Tobe Fonseca is a real T-Shirt Artist OG – with over 10 years experience in the Print-On-Demand T-Shirt world.
Tobe was kind enough to share his experiences and advice – especially around what it takes to grow a sustainable business from your T-Shirt designs in the world of Print-on-demand – and about the transition from being a one-man-band to overseeing a team of other illustrators.
Read on and enjoy!
Q: Can You Tell Us About Yourself? Who Is Toby Fonseca?
Hey, sure. I’m Toby, short for Tobias Fonseca – I was born and lived with my family ’til I was 29 in the southern Brazil and for the past two/three years I’ve been a digital nomad, working and traveling.
I’ve been doing t-shirt designs for the past ten-ish years and I started it as a hobby until I got some designs chosen by Threadless, La Fraise, Camiseteria and others.
That’s when I’ve decided to go full time designing t-shirts.
Q: When did this turn into a full-time job for you?
After I got some prints in some T-shirt sites I’ve seen that it was more profitable than my job at the time – I worked with advertising – and It was way more pleasurable.
I’ve been working with t-shirt for almost twelve years, maybe thirteen!
Professionally though I think it’s around ten – when I finally got the courage to go full freelance.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you? How much time a week do you spend creating vs other stuff?
These days I’m more like a manager and the creative director of the studio – so always when possible I try to find a good coffeeshop to start my work in – it definitely starts with a Latte.
I use Asana to manage my team and creative work, plus Gmail and Whatsapp to clients and Zeropaper to the money stuff.
I work at least three hours a day, everyday. The month has some peak dates where I have to create designs, pay people, sign some contracts – so it can take a huge amount of time to be done.
Q: Tell us about the setup of your business. how many people do you have working with you, and what roles do they perform?
We have five people in our team currently.
As I said I’m the manager/creative director, to complete the team we have Fabiana who does all the files management – upload, archive, mockups – Hanara who does weekly the market research with a report that will guide the concepts of the week – Andre, the amazing illustrator who executes the work, at least two designs a week – And Bruno the lawyer and also a good friend and business advisor.
We work with six months contracts so sometimes the team is bigger with more illustrator depending on the demand.
Q: What are the biggest income generating sources for you – POD sites, other platforms, commissions, etc?
At this point it’s POD sites, we are trying to shift that but that’s where we have build our business.
After that directly clients/freelance work/licensing.
Q: For new designers and artists who are just getting started, where would you recommend they start selling their art online, and why?
I would say start with the big ones (Society 6, Merch By Amazon, Threadless) to test their audience, but go to as many as time allows them to.
We work with 70+ websites that sells products with our designs we sell in 20+ of them, but only 5 are responsible to 80% of our income – but you have to find yours. Every site demands a specific kind of art.
Q: You have a very versatile style, producing everything form cute cartoons through to detailed technical sketches. What is your favourite style to work in?
Yeah, we try our best to reach every niche we find on our way. But my favourite would be poetic and minimalistic, that’s what I like to wear.
Q: What do you think an artist needs to have or do to be successful selling shirts online?
Perseverance. Effort beats talent big time.
I’m not the best illustrator out there, but at the beginning I worked my ass off as much as my body allowed me to and I was able to beat way more talented guys out there.
Q: Your work must get copied and stolen a lot. How do you deal with that?
Oh yeah. Tell me about it.
So, if I can reach the business/website where it has been sold we’ll always try to get some compensation through the law system – it’s easier and faster in Brazil.
Depending on the business we have had some success in Europe and America too. We are trying to get some partners in China to combat that.
Q: You maintain a solid presence on Instagram and Facebook. Can you offer artists some advise about managing social media and the value of doing that?
Be real and constant. It’s better to stay in just one social media and do well than to try to be everywhere and actually not being anywhere.
Be honest, answer the people, and post interesting stuff. There is no secret I think.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about the business of art?
Something that changed the way I see the t-shirt world is that it’s not art, it’s a business.
We have to make profit, we have to learn what people want to buy – that’s our job.
The journey of an artist is different – and harder – than a journey of a designer/illustrator. Be aware of what you want for yourself and your career.
Q: You’ve gone ‘from artist to studio’ – managing others and running a succesful creative business. What do you think are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Realising I was trying to sell art as a businessman.
I was struggling as an artist, making art and resenting the world for not buying it – it changed when I learned how this t-shirt world works, it’s not art.
If you are an artist, that’s great – I still doing my thing now and then, but the prospect of making money with that has changed.
Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to do big money with art, but the dynamics are completely different. It took me almost eight years to understand that, don’t make the same mistake.
Q: Tell us what it’s like creating with a team, vs just an independent designer.
As an independent designer I had to handle everything and at some point I understood that I was doing my best and I didn’t have enough hours in the day. That was my shift point. I needed some people to help me.
The first one was the lawyer to take care of the contracts of the rest, them the file management/uploader which still saving me to much time.
One big problem is finding the right people, but after you do it’s really amazing to see things working almost by themselves. I’m lucky to have amazing people working with me.
Q: You’ve had some big hits on a lot of the biggest t-shirt sites. What do you think are the ingredients of a succesful pop culture t-shirt?
Well, I’m closer to discovering these ingredients, due to ordering your book which I have yet to receive! (wink) [editors note: book is in the post!]
In my case I have always put my money on quantity: more designs eventually lead to a best seller. I’m trying to refine that a bit and putting more effort on research to try to improve the odds.
Q: You are a prolific creator, you seem to create new stuff almost daily. Can you tell us a little bit about how you work? Photoshop/procreate – and the process you go through before, during and after creating something?
When I have to create it’s basically Surface Pro/PSD/Manga Studio.
The illustrators who works with me these days use all kinds of tools like iPad/Pro Create and Cintiq – so their techniques are very plural here.
Anyway, we try to have at least 20 new designs monthly. This may slow down as we are putting more effort into research/concepts lately.
Q: What do you think the future hold for independent artists creating work for print-on-demand type platforms? Do you see significant changes coming down the line?
I honestly have no clue.
I worked with full payments before and when the market changed to royalties I thought that would be my end – it was a blessing in disguise though.
But at this point it feels like that the market is saturated and they are squeezing the artists margins more and more, in some ways it’s good because it’s pushing us to create our own sales channels, so let’s see how it goes.
Q: Any other comments or advice you’d like to share with aspiring artists – or the Tobe of 10 years ago?
Know where you want to be in 10 years and work as hard as you can till you get there. Persistence beats talent. Research, work smarter and harder.
Q: Any resources, books or other stuff you would recommend for new coming artists?
The 4 Hour Work Week from Tim Ferris is my bible.
Q: Finally, what are your plans to grow your business from where it is today?
Developing our own channels, our own t-shirt brand, having more control over our audience, prices and everything.
Writing our eBook about t-shirt business – which will be out soon. Optimising the studio, I want it to work fully by itself so I’ll be able to have more time for other business and personal life.
My Takeaways & Thoughts
- Bigger Is Safer. Tobe has been doing the T-Shirt thing for over a decade – from the early days of Threadless competitions to today’s current Print-on-Demand world. He understood that in order to make this into a strong business he needed help, and he’s been able to successfully make that shift from a lone operator to a manager of a whole team of people. Even though hiring others might seem risky – it’s actually sometimes the safest way to grow a sustainable business.
- It’s OK Not To Do It All. Tobe isn’t doing much designing anymore – instead he has hired talented illustrators to create on his behalf. Some people may see that as somewhat misleading, or even ‘cheating’ – but it has allowed Tobe’s business to keep growing, and to publish designs in a variety of different styles. The progression from artist to ‘manager of other artists’ is a long established tradition – and customers care a lot more about the finished product than who actually put the pen to paper. After all, do you think Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger do much designing anymore?
- Persistence and Consistency Above All Else. Tobe is prolific (I see over 1,000 designs on his Redbubble alone) – and that scale of work can only be developed with an incredible amount of consistency and persistence. Tobe is right that it’s often the hardest working and most consistent of designers who are still standing a few years in – often beating the most naturally talented. If you want to create a full-time income from your T-Shirt designs – then focus on keeping your creative ‘in-tray’ full with new ideas.
- Finding your Style. Tobe’s portfolio includes a wide variety of styles – and as he says, different sites and audiences respond better to different styles. With thousands of designs up and selling on over 70+ different sites – you can see it takes a lot of effort and time to figure out what works where. But once you do, you can narrow your focus on what really hits for you.
- Protecting Your Work. Tobe is using the legal system to get compensation for stolen work where possible – which is not something a lot of designers are doing or would really know where to start. As the Print-on-demand industry grows – and as the issue of stolen and copied art becomes a bigger and bigger problem – I think we will see some tools coming to tackle this head on. Independent Artists and Designers should be protected from copycats, and I’m cautiously optimistic that this will increasingly become the case thanks to new solutions appearing to address this.
Thanks again Tobe for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions.
we look forward to seeing more from you – in particular your upcoming eBook about the T-Shirt business!
If you’d like to show some appreciation to Tobe – please consider purchasing from his stores below – and be sure to subscribe to him on social media.
Tobe’s Stores and Links:
- Threadless Artist Store
- Tobe Interview With Threadless