Starting Your Own Shirt Line — Part III: Business & Relationships

Hi Friends,

Welcome to the third and final installment to Starting your own Shirt Line.  In this article I’ll be talking about elements of business and planning and the importance of developing relationships.

Quick recap of past two articles.  In Part I I talked about Creating your Idea, Research, and Who is Interested? That part answers questions about where to begin and shares my view on originality. Part II talks about my process of creating the actual art and working with a printer. Although you can create art in many different ways I gave you some insight to my process as a guide.

With that said let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of Part III: Business.

Deep breath……


In anything you do you need a plan, right? Let’s keep it simple and talk about your business plan. There is something about writing down your goals, visions and dreams. They take on substance. No matter if you think your goals are unattainable, you just need to know where you stand. As I wrote down my plans and goals I discovered more what I wanted my line to become than I thought I would. Ideas poured when I just started writing. After pouring out my ideas I put them into an outlined plan. See SCORE.ORG. I researched every part of business that I didn’t know about and I ended up with a 31 page business plan! I sent my plan to an advisor at SCORE, and I think I sent him into system overload.  “That’s ok.”, he said. “It shows you did your research/homework and that you understand the t-shirt/clothing world.”

*Good Advice:

Send your business plan to an advisor that has experience in the fashion industry. Why? They will know how to guide you and offer suggestions. Fortunately I found someone at SCORE that was a big time salesman for Bobby Brooks back in the day.


This might look insane but I really dove into learning about how to start a shirt line. I can’t tell you how many times I went through this folder.

As you write a thorough and well designed plan you are going to understand what you want with your business and what is needed. Don’t worry, you won’t lose your creativity, you are just going to understand where to put those creative and business energies. Remember smarter not harder. Below are highlighted points to start with as you write your plan. Within these points are the elements of business.

GOALS: What do you want to accomplish? What are your goals now, and in five years? Do you want to just have a t-shirt line or a full-blown clothing line down the road? Do you want to sell to friends and family or do you want to really make money at this?

OBJECTIVES: How are you going to accomplish your goals? Do you need employees and/or investors? By what means will you accomplish your goals?

MARKET RESEARCH: You have to know your market. Who are you selling to? Where does your art fit in? Is it the Hot Topic crowd, the BMX crowd, or are you creating apparel art for pets?  What other companies are out there doing what you want to do? Become an observer. Observe the past 10 years of t-shirts trends. What I am getting at is originality again. Do you want to ride a wave or be the wave? Barriers. There are also going to be barriers that will prevent you from something in your business. Is it start-up cost? Not enough designs? What strategy do you have to get people to buy and how will you advertise/promote?

HERE IS AN INTRIGUING QUESTION: What advantage does your product have over the competition? T-shirts are not something new. You have to be creative, not just with your work, but with your advertising, marketing and sales. Don’t be discouraged, you’re not alone.

PRODUCT:You are the face of your product and your product will reflect the kind of person you are. To explain, the more care and attention you give it the more quality of a product you will have. People will notice. Think about the amount of time you put into each piece of art. My most detailed shirts range from 20-30 hrs. I really, really care about the quality of my art and product. I want word to get back to me that people are drooling over my work and can’t wait for the next one. In addition to the man hours of creating the art, I put time into figuring out what kind of tee I will be using and if I want a specialty ink. Remember that the same amount of energy needs to go into the marketing and sales part too.

*Good Advice:

Probably the toughest question I had to answer in the beginning was: Can I financially do this? For a while it was “no.” I thought, in that case, was it even possible? I had to start small, which meant I had to make smart decisions. Personally I believe unless you are 1000% sure you will be making your money back within a suitable time frame DO NOT MAX OUT A CREDIT CARD!! DO NOT START IN THE RED.

Some of the best advice I received from a sales rep at Jakprints is “go for quality not quantity.” This helped me understand it wasn’t about getting as many printed as possible for the sake of quantity. I knew my budget and I made the most quality product I could afford. My plan was to produce an excellent line where buyers can’t wait to see the next one.  I could therefore be strategic with what I put out and not crank out as many as possible for the sake of quantity. On my computer monitors I had around 20 thumbnails of ideas. When I made my first run, only three were chosen.

SALES: I feel sales can be simple. Where and how are you going to sell? Retail stores, on-line, both? Who you are selling to? Celebrities, your friends? You have to sell to people who have money, right? You have to sell at places where people are coming expecting to purchase something too. If a company charges $90 a shirt they are not going to sell to a person who can’t afford it. YOU CAN’T MAKE MONEY OFF OF POOR PEOPLE. The company selling the $90 shirt sells to celebrities, entertainers and those rocks stars who think nothing of it. You have to figure out how much you want to sell your product for and make sure you are selling at a fair price to you and the buyer. If you can sell a higher price shirt and you have buyers, do it! Remember that cash flow is essential in order to stay in business. Produce, sell, invest back into your line and make a good return on your investments.

Alright so this was a lot of info to think about, but do you feel a bit more armed? Do you still want to start a shirt line? Hype can only take you so far but knowledge and understanding will give you longevity. Remember to make a plan for success.

*Good Advice:

Everyone is in a different spot in life. Some people have wealthy families that can spot them $2000- $5000 to start, cool! Some have to save everything they have (not so cool) but they end up approaching business with a different perspective. DON’T COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS. Yes, you can learn from everybody; the good, bad and the ugly. Remember, whatever you do in life you have to find your own way and your own path. Don’t ride the coat tails of what has already been created. Finding what is unique to you will make your shirt line stand out. My favorite quote is from film director Patrick Tatopoulos: “Create something you have never seen on the streets before.”


Ok so we talked business. You learned, you’re prepared. You rock out amazing art but what else do you need? PEOPLE, RELATIONSHIPS AND NETWORKING. You probably already do this, but, go to art shows, rock shows, events, conventions and most of all hang out with people after the show is over. Here’s my point…

Don’t be a cave artist!

In 2006 I decided to increase my freelance time and build my business. I kept to myself and didn’t go out to gallery shows or hang with people. I stayed in my “cave” only communicating on-line with people in my own city. I worked hard to get my style down and perfect my craft. True, this is necessary, rock your style, but there is a saying that hit me like a ton of bricks a year later: “IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW IT’S WHO YOU KNOW.” It’s all about face time.

Since then I’ve spent more time networking and hanging out after events with people. There is something about a relationship that builds a trust factor. There is something about having a drink with someone and getting to know that person that builds the feeling “I want to work with ya!” When I had my epiphany it was also when I observed art on clothing that sold for big bucks. I thought to my self,” I can do that and even better!” (Please insert a pompous not you.) The difference was I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me. It was the reality check and smack in the face I needed for my ego.

So where did my epiphany get me? For one, it got me out of the cave and to events where people I wanted to work with were. This has paid off but you must keep going. It never stops. RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE KEY TO SUCCESS. Yes, learn business, yes, get a degree if you want, make killer art and be the best at it. But don’t forsake the little things like buying someone a beer, lunch, or even their merch. It will show that you are interested. It’s funny how that little act can help launch you to the next level you have been striving for.

Levels of people

Another realization I had is that everybody needs to be carried. Now that doesn’t mean you should sit back and let someone else does the work for you. But there is always going to be someone above you and below you. Think of a sports team. Without fans buying tickets and merch, how will the owners stay in business? Same goes for your shirt business. You need buyers, you need to be on websites that promote you. Get involved with events and with groups that are doing things on a higher level than you. You might just be asked to sell your product to thousands of people for a 3 day event!

As far as the people up and coming or the people below you, it’s a golden rule/karma thing. Don’t burn people, be honest and your personality will count for something. I love illustrating, but a close second is teaching someone and watching them learn. Word will spread about your character, whether good or bad. Better be sure it’s good.

BONUS ROUND: Here are a few bonus points:

ORGANIZATION: Be organized with your inventory. Keep an Excel spread sheet of all your inventory. Take pride in your business.

PRESENTATION: An organized table/booth says a lot. A sloppy table/booth says more.

WHEELIN’ N DEALIN’ BABY! This has to do with negotiating. Negotiating can really be fun, it can also be painful. I would love to sell shirts for the highest cost all the time in order to make a full profit. Does it always happen? Nope. Think of giving deals, price breaks and discounts. For instance, a family stopped by my booth at the West Side Market one afternoon in August 2010. The 3 kids (pre-teens and teens) loved my creatures and skulls. The parents were thinking and talking about it. Yes I could have charged $26 for each, but who holds the money? Dad. I thought to myself “Be cool.” I offered them a little off the top and cash was in my hand. I bagged up the shirts and asked them to be a part of my email list. I thanked them and had 3 sales. When you are confident and feel out the situation good things happen.

FOR REAL: Have some street sense, just be yourself, read people, let them look and feel your shirt and give them hooks. One of the best ways to hook people is to explain your art! Be passionate about it. I have people just liking the art rather than saying “I need a t-shirt.” I love the double takes…reel them in! We wear the “hats of business.” Whether you know it or not you have to wear a sales hat, marketing/advertising hat and, of course, your creative hat.

BE PROFESSIONAL: What does that mean? RESPECT. Be respectful, not a jerk. Be grateful not pompous. You will be amazed how far customer care helps you out. Communicate with people. Nothing boils my blood more than walking into an establishment and nobody says “Be right with you.”

FEAR: Simply put, fear sucks. There is always going to be fear and risk, but if you don’t create a plan for success then you will always be wondering “What if?” Just jump in, there is no perfect time, just a time that feels right.


Give yourself a high-five – you passed the Starting your own Shirt Line class! I’m guessing this series has been a lot to digest. Do you feel OD-ed information? Good! Preparation/homework is a key to success. Do you know where you stand starting your own shirtline? Remember you’re never alone. Just do the footwork and others will help you along the way. I really hope this article and Part I and II give you the confidence and courage to begin or continue business. Keep in mind, Knowledge = Power. Relationships = Success.

Thank you for reading! It’s my honor to provide helpful tips for creativity, originality and business. View my work at

Here is the list of websites I mentioned throughout the past three articles:



Groovy Graphics

Store Envy



T-Shirt Forum

I am the TREND

Go Media

How to Start a Clothing Company

Shirt Mock Up


Derek Hess

Shawn Barber

Alphonse Mucha

J. Scott Campbell

Frank Cho





To Die For Clothing