10k A Month Selling T-Shirts Online

Zero To $10k A Month In Passive income from T-Shirts: 3 Key Principles

Last Updated: April 10, 2017

I’ve been selling T-Shirts online for 3 years.

In that time I’ve sold at least half a million dollars worth of T-Shirts.

In my first month (August 2013) I made about $50.

Last month (august 2016) I made $13k.

10K a Month T-Shirt Income

If you’re looking for a ‘get rich quick’ scheme then you’ve probably already gathered that this isn’t it. Three years is a long time – though I’m pretty sure that if you followed my steps and advice you could reach these numbers (or much better) within 2 years or even less.

So what’s the secret?

No secrets really, but there are a few key principles that have helped me, and I think they will help you.

But reader beware: this isn’t going to be the ideal opportunity for everyone, and there are no ‘turn-key’ solutions here.

The people who are especially well-placed to take advantage of this opportunity are:

  • Designers / Illustrators / Artists who have competent design abilities. (ie. you know your way around photoshop/illustrator, and have been earning some money from your artistic skills for at least a year or so – even if not full-time).
  • The hardcore hustler. Even if you aren’t a designer, and have absolutely no online following, I believe you can make decent money from T-Shirts if you are prepared to knuckle down, outsource, learn, and above all do a lot of ‘grunt work’ – repetitive, boring tasks that don’t seem to be actually achieving anything. It may take slightly longer, or be a bit more expensive for this type of person – but it’s still there for the taking.

(Note: if you’re a designer who is also a ‘hustler’, you are in the ideal spot to take advantage of this opportunity).

So let’s get into my three keys for success in the world of selling T-Shirts online!

Key Number 1: Licensing Over Clothing ‘Brand’

First some basics – 90% of my current income comes from licensing my artwork.

This means I give a website the right to print my design(s) on physical products and sell them to their customers – on the basis that they pay me a royalty per Shirt sold (usually between 10%-25% of the product price).

So I am not technically the ‘seller’ of the T-Shirts – at least not for 90% of my income. I am simply the provider of the artwork – and of some basic descriptive text that helps customers find my designs.

Without the various websites that sell my artwork on physical products, I would not be generating this kind of income.

This leads us to key number 1:

It is easier and quicker to make money via an existing large marketplace or website, than it is to create your own website or your own brand.

Licensing Artwork For T-Shirts Online

This isn’t to say it isn’t a good idea to have your own website in the long term – it probably is. But it is going to be more difficult, more expensive, and take a lot more time to make a decent income that way – at least for most people (hey – you might be an awesome designer who creates the next big brand, but most of us can’t or won’t do that).

So now you know the main mechanism for generating this income – what sites should you be selling your T-Shirts on / uploading your artwork to?

Glad you asked – I have a whole monster of a blog post (4k plus words) on that topic here: Where Can You Sell T-Shirts Online? The Ultimate Guide To The Different Types Of Shirt Sites (you can also download it as a pdf)

So… the principal takeaway here is: Licensing is the foundation of my success in T-shirt sales.

I didn’t focus on building my own brand or business 3 years ago – instead I let other businesses handle the marketing and sales aspects, whilst I focused on coming up with ideas and designs that would sell well.

Does this setup have disadvantages too? Of course. I am at the mercy of the platforms through which I sell, and I don’t – for the most part – have a personal brand or audience that I can market to. My customers are actually Amazon’s customers – which is why I recommend that you begin building a brand you control for longer term security.

But all else being equal – a T-Shirt on Amazon stands a much higher chance of being sold than a T-Shirt on your own website. Use this principle to your advantage and leverage the audiences and sales power of existing platforms.

Key 2: It’s a Numbers Game

There’s no way around it: the more designs you create and make available, the more income you will make.

You may hope, like I did in 2013, that my small number of awesome and hilarious designs would organically reach more and more people over time – generating more and more income.

This just isn’t the case.

If you want your monthly income to grow then you need to create more designs. And then more. And then more.

Let’s say you have 10 decent designs, uploaded to several different sites. You’ll probably find that only 2 will sell regularly, and the rest will not do much. This is called the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle – and it’s a well known concept in marketing and economics.

T-Shirt Sales Is A Numbers Game

From those 2 designs that do sell regularly, let’s say you make $50 a month.

You want to double your income and get to $100 a month – so how many more designs do you need to create?

Well, only 2 are selling – so you only need another 2 decent designs – right?

Sorry, nope. You need another 10 designs – 20 total – because of your ‘designs-to-sales’ ratio.

8 of those new designs won’t sell regularly – but 2 will (or should) – so now you have 4 regular sellers – and you’re income has doubled!

Of course this is just a rule of thumb and there are many other variables at play here (not least the marketplaces you sell on, the quality of your ideas and designs, and unpredictables events like your design getting featured on the national news). But in general, you will have a consistent ratio of designs to sales, and you need to work with that, rather than trying to circumvent it.

What this means in practice is:

You need to have a steady output of new designs.

After a few months you should be able to figure out what your specific designs-to-sales ratio is, and what amount of designs you need to create in order to reach your target income.

For example: You create 10 designs a month and 2 are regular sellers. After your first month you have 10 designs and make $50. After your second month you have 20 designs and make $100.

How long until you’re making $1k a month?

Well at this ratio you will need 200 designs. If you make 10 designs a month it’s going to take you 20 months to reach that target.

It’s that simple.

Can you reach your goal quicker?

Sure you can. You could;

  • Create more designs a month. This might mean spending more time designing that watching Netflix, or it could mean outsourcing ideas to other designers.
  • Create better designs. If your goal is to increase income, then a ‘better’ design is simply one that generates more sales than another. This might mean coming up with better ideas – for example by doing more detailed research to understand what types of designs are currently selling – and how you can tap into those markets.
  • List your designs on more websites and marketplaces. Start with the most lucrative (Amazon, Redbubble, Etsy etc) and work your way down. It doesn’t hurt to increase your potential sales this way – at least not in the early days (later on you may find that the time it takes to add designs to these sites could be better spent elsewhere).
  • Get better at marketing. If you can drive traffic and sales to your products – and can do so in a regular and reliable fashion – then you’ll be head and shoulders above most other designers and t-shirt sellers.

Key 3: Stop Trying To Make Original Work Happen – It’s Not Going To Happen

Stop Trying To Make Original Work Happen

If you describe yourself as an artist or illustrator, this probably isn’t what you want to hear. You create what you want to create – and you don’t want to ‘sell out’ and create whatever the ‘market’ is telling you it wants.

But stick with me – because this is a kind of bad news / good news type thing. We’ll get to the good news bit later.

First, stop what you’re doing and read this blog post from T-Shirt artist and former TeeFury guy Jimiyo: How To Design For The Apparel Market

There’s a lot of gold in there, but the main thing I want you to get is this: ‘Original’ work (or ‘artsy-fartsy’ as Jimiyo calls it) doesn’t sell to mass market audiences.

…And in order to make a decent income from T-Shirts – you will need to have designs that appeal to mass market trends and likes.

To put it another way: you need to design things that people want to buy.

Obviously there is a degree of originality that you’ll bring to each design (unless you are just straight up cloning/copying someone else’s design – which is not a good idea).

But don’t let your ‘style’ get in the way of the message. Keep your designs clear, easy to understand, and simple.

Over time, you’ll begin to understand what types of ideas or concepts you are best placed to create: ideas that lend themselves to your style or approach – designs that, once produced, convert the audience into customers.

All bummed out? Don’t worry – time for the good news!

The good news is this: it doesn’t have to be this way forever. You can spend a year or two creating designs that ‘the market’ wants to buy – even if it’s stuff you hate doing – but then shift gear into doing original work later.

What am I talking about?

It’s something Sean McCabe calls The Overlap Technique, and it’s essentially what I have practiced for the past few years. Basically you do something that generates income in the short term, in order to allow you to do the thing you really want to do in the long term.

So let’s say you want to start an original clothing line – you want to be the next Mark Ecko or Jonny Cupcakes. It takes a lot of time to grow a brand like that – even to get it to the point of making decent regular sales – no matter how hard you work or how awesome your designs are (unless perhaps you have famous friends or you’re Kanye West).

The Overlap Technique and Runway

So – here’s how you do it. You spend 2 or 3 years making T-Shirts designs and selling them on sites like Redbubble or Amazon instead. This allows you to create a steady stream of residual passive income. And while you build up your inventory of designs and grow your income – you can start laying the groundwork for your brand (which is a separate entity entirely).

You’ll already be learning a whole bunch by selling online: sales, marketing, design, systems – which is going to be super-helpful for you as you start your own brand. And the income you make can be spent on the things you need to grow your own clothing line – whether that’s the cost of equipment, software, freelancers or a bulk order of your first product (the kind of expenses that ‘real’ businesses have to deal with).

The thing to understand is this: original stuff sold from a platform you control (whether that’s customers buying T-Shirts from your own-brand website, or you selling landscape paintings to customers from your own high street gallery) takes a long time to establish.

Selling something on someone else’s platform is easier and quicker to achieve.

So use other platforms as your runway – a mechanism to help you build up the steam and speed (cash and knowledge) you need to take-off. There’s literally never been a better time to do so.


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Published by Michael Essek