So You Want to Make Even More T-Shirts

Welcome to the third in what is apparently a never-ending series of posts on how to sell t-shirts. If this is your first rodeo, you may want read parts one and two before diving in.

Five years ago we launched a t-shirt store by the name of United Pixelworkers. In a good month, we sold 50 shirts. Fast-forward to 2013, and we could boast of averaging 50 sales every couple days. Today, Cotton Bureau sells 50 shirts every eight hours. Our little online retail experiment has mutated from a tiny side project to the ink-guzzling engine of this fiercely independent, self-funded, small-but-growing company. Yeah, that doesn’t happen by accident. Let’s talk about the trials and tribulations of quintupling your sales.

That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!

We told you you wouldn’t get rich selling t-shirts unless you struck gold. Those of you rubbing your hands together as you fantasize about your future t-shirt empire, stop it right now. Have you ever flipped real estate? Caught the right penny stock just before it took off? Hit the scratch-and-win jackpot? No? Well your odds of making a million bucks selling t-shirts this year aren’t much better. Anybody who tells you otherwise is using you. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t earn a few dollars on the side or maybe even pay your mortgage. Just keep in mind that it’s taken us nearly 2,000 days and nights of hard work to reach the magical $1 million in annual gross revenue, and, yeah, we don’t get to keep most of that.

Money, money, money.

So where does it all go? Shirt prices haven’t changed much if any over the years, which means unless you’re cutting and sewing, material cost is going to be a big chunk—maybe the bulk—of your expenses. As with most things, you get what you pay for. Want a brand-name tee? Want it made in America? Want reliable selection and diverse color options? Like your tees soft? Want ‘em to last? Prepare to pay more.

For most businesses, labor is the number one expense. If you’re clever, you might be able to keep those numbers down. Instagram famously had only 13 employees when they sold to Facebook. Getting a physical product out the door requires boots on the ground, so to speak, but we’ve managed to ship several thousands items each month for the price of one part-time employee. Whether you’re buying software or writing it yourself, never underestimate the leverage of a good application.

We’ve got one other trick up our sleeves when it comes to holding the line on cost: we live and work in beautiful western Pennsylvania, home of pierogis, Primanti’s, and Buster Olney’s pick to win the 2015 World Series, the Pittsburgh Pirates. It also happens to be the most affordable city in the world, according to some people. That means we get to have an office / warehouse in the most walkable (and delicious) neighborhood in town, the Strip District. We pay $18sf for a luxurious, well-lit, wood-floored, exposed-brick, 10ft-ceilinged work nirvana. That’s awfully tough to beat.

Every business must choose where to allocate its budget. Ours goes to printing the best possible shirts right here in town and paying ourselves and the many, many wonderful people who have chosen to share their designs on Cotton Bureau fairly and sustainably.

Product

The thing you’re selling on your site, the one you put in the box that goes out the door, is the tangible expression of your product. It might not be the only thing people pay you for, but it’s still kind of important. If you want to print direct-to-the-cheapest-garment-you-can-find, we can’t really help you. If you’re looking for soft-feel, crazy-good tees printed with slavish attention to detail and buckets of affection, well, we’re happy to say we still work with the same shop that we did two years ago. They haven’t let us down yet and, to be honest, really go out of their way to be accommodating. We’ve referred dozens of people to them. Nobody has been disappointed with their service. You can’t go wrong working with Clockwise.

Assuming you came here to read about selling t-shirts, you probably also need mockups. We can help with that. Get your officially-licensed Cotton Bureau mockups now on Creative Market.

You won’t have any trouble finding Photoshop tutorials on the Internet or articles teaching you how to identify that untapped niche, but designing a good shirt is an art not a science. It needs to come from the heart. Work hard, share what you’re doing (ping us privately or even publicly on Dribbble—we’re always happy to advise), and never be afraid to fail. The t-shirt market may be crowded, but we’ve always got room for one more.

Setting Up Shop

When we launched Cotton Bureau in 2013, it wasn’t possible to drive a pre-order sales model using off-the-shelf (or even a hosted) software. As far as we know, the situation hasn’t improved since then. If you’re doing something unconventional, you may need to roll your own shop. If you’re sticking to the beaten path, however, you’ve got your choice of solid options. Traditional storefronts are a great fit for Shopify (still our recommendation), Big Cartel, Magento, Big Commerce, Storenvy, etc. You’ll need to do your homework to decide which is the best fit for you. In addition to basic order processing and inventory management, you’ll get the benefit of paid support, vibrant communities, third-party plugins, and constant improvement. No matter if you’re selling one shirt or thousands, it’s never been easier to sell your stuff online.

Speaking of never being easier to sell stuff online, don’t forget about more managed marketplaces like Etsy and eBay. There’s something to be said for letting someone else do some of the dirty work for you. It’s even possible to run your store directly on your favorite social network. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr… they all have or are building support for payment processing. It’s hard to argue against going straight to the people.

What about skipping the whole shop thing and listing your designs directly on a bona fide t-shirt market? We’ve got good news here. When last we spoke, your options for turnkey t-shirt printing and sales were distinctly fewer than they are today. Zazzle, Spreadshirt, RedBubble, Society6, Threadless, etc are still around if you’re into that kind of thing. But now you’ve also got a new, pre-order driven breed in Teespring, Booster, and, of course, yours truly. Some are screen-printing only, others offer direct-to-garment. With some you make a little money, with others you can make a lot. Some are all about community, others aren’t. We ain’t gonna break ‘em all down for you today (and you thought nothing was beyond the scope of this post). You’re just going to have to dig a little deeper if you’re intrigued. Or, you know, you could just send us your design right now since you’re already here.

Hosting

Set up shop with a company like Shopify (noticing a theme?), and you’re good to go. You’ll have access to a huge variety of third-party add-ons, you can pick an existing look or design your own, and you won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to burp the server. At some point though, you might find that what you want to do just isn’t possible if you’re using somebody else’s platform. When (and if) that time comes, we cannot recommend any hosting company more highly than we do Linode. Like everyone else on this list, they aren’t perfect. But they’re really, really good. Fast, cheap virtual hosting is a great option if you know what you’re doing. You can grab a shared host like Media Temple (we’ve used them in the past; you could definitely do worse) if you want to go that route, or you can get really hands-on and go full colo like Stack Exchange, but for people that aren’t doing top 100 Alexa traffic, it’s really hard to beat Linode. We were previously on Slicehost (Rackspace disappeared them), and some people like Digital Ocean, but Linode has terrific performance bang for your buck, solid support, and, hmm, well, acceptable UI. The interface that won’t give Stripe a run for its money, but it just may be better than the other hosting UIs out there. Tell ‘em we sent you, and we’ll get $20 if you stick around for 90 days. I don’t know what you get, but that’s not really important.

Marketing

As if designing a shirt and getting a shop set up wasn’t hard enough, now you actually have to convince people to buy what you’re selling. Here’s a lesson in economics for you: the easier it becomes to manufacture something, the more of it will exist. This might not sound like news, but have you noticed how easy it is to pump out the tweets and photos and “content” these days? The supply of things vying for your attention is effectively infinite. Everyone, everywhere wants it, and once they have it, they want to sell you something. Now you’re one of them. What do you do?

There’s no shortage of things to say about marketing. Entire, you know, books have been written about it, and we’re not going to turn this into a “10 Tips for Sales & Marketing” article. That being said, we have a marketing philosophy we’d like to share with you. Marketing can be divided into two big buckets: strategy and tactics. You can spend the rest of your life learning tactics: funnels, paid advertising, earned and organic media, how to pitch yourself, etc. You can shout into the void on Twitter and Facebook. You can do what we did and send your Internet heroes free t-shirts. You can release a making-of video on Instagram or Vimeo. You can conjure up publicity stunts or email people with popular blogs or stand on the corner of a street holding a sign. All of those things are good. Some will be more successful than others. Strategically, however, you need to take a hard look in the mirror and decide who you are and why you’re doing this. Is your design any good? Will the world be better because of the shirt you’re promoting? If the answer is yes, then tell people. Tell them why you made the shirt, why they need it, why what you’re doing is unique. There’s no shame in reading this and deciding it isn’t for you.

Pricing & Discounts

Let’s talk about pricing. You’re going to be tempted to go cheap. Don’t do that. You’re not Amazon. You won’t make it up on volume, trust us. Sell something you’re not ashamed of, price it fairly. And don’t over do it with the discounts. Sure, a promotion here and there is necessary. Sales bring the customers to the yard. What happens, though, when your fans have been conditioned to expect sale prices? They aren’t sales anymore, that’s what. That’s your new retail price. Retail is now a synonym for ripoff. Please don’t teach people to expect a coupon or sale before they buy. You’re only hurting yourself. That said, here are some things we’ve found that work:

  • Discounts in exchange for subscribing to the newsletter. You are periodically sending out a newsletter, right? You don’t need to give away the farm (we do 10% off your first purchase; if you haven’t signed up yet, quit reading and do that now), and you don’t need to stop people dead in their tracks with a pop up (we have a simple banner at the top of the site that converts like crazy).
  • Free shipping. If you can’t afford to lose money today in the hope of making it up tomorrow, you have to run the numbers before offering free shipping. Repeat after me: You have to run the numbers before offering free shipping. Free shipping is a powerful elixir. You’ll be shocked how many more orders you get with free shipping, but more orders don’t do you a whole lot of good if you’re losing money. Remember what we talked about. Unless your brother is hand-delivering packages, shipping costs real money. Because we’re effectively splitting profits with our designers, eating shipping really cuts to the bone. When we do offer it, it’s conditional: half-price shipping if you order two items, free shipping (domestically) if you buy three or more. This is a common move among independent designers that benefits everyone. Customers get a break if they buy more, retailers get to make a few bucks more than they would otherwise. Even Amazon requires spending at least $25 or signing up for a Prime membership to receive free shipping. Again, this is strong medicine. Use with caution.
  • Affiliates. So… our little referral trial sorta worked and sorta didn’t. We definitely found some new customers, which is great, but discount sites scraped those codes straightaway, which is less great (see pricing discussion above). Overall, it more or less worked as expected. We’re hoping to try it again someday with a few tweaks.

Advertising

While we’re talking pricing and discounts, we might as well hit ads too. Ugh. Advertising is torture, isn’t it? A whole lot of short-term pain for what you can only hope will be an equivalent amount of long-term gain. Here’s the bottom line with advertising: never buy an ad you can’t afford unless you’re willing to bet the company on it. Seriously, whether you’re looking at a podcast ad, a display ad, a native ad, or even a more traditional move like magazine, television, and radio ads, you just aren’t going to see the kinds of immediate returns you need at our size. Standard caveats apply. If you’ve got a bankroll that allows you to not be concerned with turning a profit today, then by all means, light it on fire. Not all ads are worthless. The more clever and unexpected your ad, the better it’s going to do. Maybe if you’re some kind of advertising genius you’ll fare better than we have. We expect to have more, um, useful information on advertising as we continue taking our knocks.

Payment Processing

Whether you use a store like Shopify or roll your own thing like we do, you’re going to need someone to process all those payments. Previously we used PayPal, Amazon, and, for other projects, Braintree (now owned by PayPal), but ever since Stripe came to town we’ve been all in with them. It literally does not get easier than using Stripe. Every interaction we’ve had with them has been fantastic. Their terms are more than fair. Your bank will try to talk you into some arcane merchant services company whose technology will make you cry because they promise same-day payouts and low, low processing fees. Well, don’t do it. Yes, seeing what credit card fees look like will make you cringe, but you’ll pay for it in other ways if you sign up for one of those dinosaurs. And hey, look on the bright side: when you start selling a few thousand shirts each month Stripe will reach out to offer you better rates anyway.

Inventory

Going pre-order only is a bold move. It’s an elegant solution to the inventory problem, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The traditional way of selling is to make (or buy) a whole bunch of something, toss it in a pile, and have it ready to go out the door at a moment’s notice. That isn’t so bad if you’re our bff Aaron Draplin and half of what you’re selling is one-size-fits-all doodads. T-shirts though? Yeah, have fun with that. The most popular sizes are going to be men’s medium, large, and extra large, so stock up on those. But you want to sell to everyone, right? Well then you’ve got to have men’s small, maybe even extra small, men’s 2X–5X, plus a whole range of women’s sizes (let’s not even get started on how hard it is to find a women’s apparel manufacturer that can reliably stock a wide range of colors in sizes that actual adult women can wear). Hey, you’re up for a challenge though, so why not. Let’s see now that’s, um, at least nine sizes if you’re ignoring 20% of the population across—wait, how many designs will you be selling? Things get out of hand pretty quickly when you start offering Ugmonk-levels of product. We’re talking shelves on shelves on shelves just to have the bare minimum in stock. Which brings us to…

Fulfillment

Short of outsourcing fulfillment to Amazon or Shipwire, you’re going to be packing those shirts yourself. That’s not a bad thing if you care about quality. Here at Cotton Bureau World Headquarters, shirts come in and shirts go out every day. We’ve been using (and improving) our hand-rolled fulfillment software to bulk pack since 2011. Frankly it’s super-awesome and you all should be so lucky. That said, not all orders are created equal. Most are small, but some are medium, some are large, some are even extra large. If you’re selling more than just t-shirts, you’ve also got to account for crushables, breakables, and things that just don’t fit neatly into a poly-mailer. Our top-secret, highly classified system automatically slices-and-dices outgoing orders into correctly sized packages. If you’re going with a straight inventory model, you likely won’t be grabbing 50 tee stacks of men’s large, so it won’t make as much sense to bulk pack. You might as well pick-and-pack until your outgoing order volume gets insane. If you do decide to ship yourself, we still have nothing but good things to say about ShipStation. That’s what Ugmonk uses. Let us know when you start selling more shirts than Jeff.

Shipping

Shipping is where the sales rubber really meets the customer road, or something like that. Here’s what you need to know about shipping: it sucks. You optimistically put your package in the hands of your local postman or woman and cross your fingers it will arrive at your customer’s front door. Domestically (that’s in the U.S. for us) that’s a pretty safe bet. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t spend hours every week talking on the phone with the postal service waiting to find out what we already know: they have no idea where your package is. Shipping internationally may as well be shipping to another planet. Fully one quarter of our sales are international. We offer only the cheapest, first class mail service because shipping across an ocean is expensive no matter how you slice it. The reality is packages are going to get lost, all the time, even in first-world, fully industrialized, how-is-this-even-possible countries. If that sounds dire, that’s because it is. The situation has become frustrating to the point that we’re actively investigating more reliable shipping methods even at the risk of increased cost. Shipping is part of the cost of buying independent. As with everything else, we’d rather charge more than provide a worse experience. If you plan to sell and ship things, you’re going to have to make the same difficult decisions.

As far as managing (USPS) postage, we can recommend both Stamps.com and Endicia. We used Endicia for several years until recently switching to Stamps.com. You really can’t go wrong with either. For our purposes, Stamps.com was an improvement because it let us move everything to the server rather than whatever computer we happened to have laying around. If you choose to go in that direction, you’ll definitely want to take a look at RocketShip.it (what we use) and EasyPost (what we might have maybe used if it was cheaper when it first came out). (Word to the wise: international shipping has extra forms you’ll need to fill and doing it by hand is cray cray. Germany even requires a packing slip on the outside of the package, just to be safe, I guess.)

Fact: you can’t spell international shipping without customs, duties, and VAT—or maybe you can, we’re not very good at speling. Either way, import fees and inspections are the absolute worst. The ground should open up and swallow every country that requires them. Practically speaking, we do the best we can to enumerate the various fees you’re going to run into if you’re ordering from outside the country in our FAQ. If anyone wants to get their hands dirty, that is an area ripe for disruption.

Customer Service

Get your keyboard shortcuts and canned emails and apps ready cause if you do manage to sell some tees, you’re going to have customers asking you every question in the book. Maybe you tell ‘em to read the FAQ. Maybe you make triple-sure they get their address right before checking out. Things happen, and if you have an ounce of compassion, you’re going to want to make them right.

You could choose to outsource your customer service. I guess that’s a thing people do. We’ve always made customer service part of our identity, so from the beginning—whether it was Jay or Nate or now, the queen of customer service, Sara—we carried that load ourselves. You don’t need to respond within 30 seconds—though of course the sooner the better. You do need to respond at some point though. Being proactive is good. Being honest is better. Let people know what’s happening (and why, if you like). Give discount codes or store credit liberally. Maybe instead of calling it customer service we should call it marketing because that’s what it really is. These people like you enough to give you money. If you make them happy, not only will they probably give you more money in the future, THEY WILL TELL THEIR FRIENDS TO GIVE YOU MONEY. Is that clear?

If you want to get next level with it, your customer service archives are the perfect place to go fishing for product feedback and suggestions for what you could improve. We highly recommend having email conversations with your customers. The more the better, in fact.

Some software: we used to use Zendesk. Today we use Help Scout. We are not going to sugarcoat this: while the interface is thoughtful and well put together, we have real reservations about recommending it. As of today, there’s still no mobile app. Today. 2015. Things are slow more often than we would like for a tool we use all day, every day. You know what else would be great? Twitter support. Much as we would like everyone to just email us, Twitter is the first place people go to ask questions or vent. Zendesk had Twitter support and a native iPhone app when we left it way back in 2013. We wanted something simpler. Help Scout certainly delivers on that front, but you would be wise to conduct your own reviews. Groove is a company that has caught our eye recently, and Respondly is making some moves on the Twitter support front. Customers don’t typically email just because things are swell. Trying to help frustrated customers is a challenge in the best of times. Fighting your customer service app is not going to help. The good news is that customer service software is getting better every day. You almost can’t go wrong… unless you’re still using your personal Gmail address, in which case, what are you waiting for?

Project Management & Communication

Selling thousands of shirts each month is not a one-man/woman job. If you’re fortunate to be in this position, you’ll need some strong team management fu. Finding a style that works for everyone can be a challenge. If you made it this far, though, you’ll figure it out. Here’s some of our favorite project management and communication software:

What did we all do before Slack? Oh, I remember, we used Campfire. Slack is Campfire (or IRC) on steroids. Private DMs, infinite channels, custom emoji, beaucoup integrations, and jaw-dropping ease of use. They still don’t have sound effects which can be a good or bad thing depending on your penchant for dropping “/play live” into your chats. Slack makes it easy, probably too easy, to talk to each other. Now if we could just get external support channels…

Like everyone else, we use Skype for the odd face-to-face chat. As magical as it was once upon a time to be able to talk to people, the mystique has worn thin over the years. With Slack’s Screenhero acquisition it probably won’t be long before it replaces Skype for us too.

On the project management side, we’re big fans of Trello. (Also, Trello, if you’re listening: Taco shirts, pls.) The freemium slope is extremely gentle. You can’t go wrong at least giving it a try. The unstructured nature of the tool makes it a real double-edge sword, but if you learn to wield it, look out. Trello-style Kanban is the spreadsheet of our time.

Taxes & Accounting

Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to think about taxes and accounting—which of course makes it all the more important that someone on your team is. Here’s what we know:

The good news: t-shirts don’t count as sales taxable items in Pennsylvania. The bad news: we’re not accountants. You should talk to some. Online stores like Shopify make it easy to collect taxes upfront for whatever you’re selling. This may go without saying, but it would be smart to look into that before you actually sell people anything. Likewise, if you ever solicit designs and sell them, you’re going to need to collect some tax information from your designers and make sure they get the appropriate paperwork at the end of the year. In the United States, anyone that you pay more than $600 needs a 1099. There are plenty of services online to make this happen—we used Track1099 this year—but again, talk to thy accountant. Speaking of accountants and such, while we have our own bookkeeper, Bench looks intriguing. Definitely something to keep an eye on if you want to keep accounting and bookkeeping separate.

On the accounting side, you’re probably looking at something north of $100 / hour to work with a legitimate company, maybe less in a smaller town or with someone independent, maybe a lot more if you’re in a bigger city. For a single company that keeps good books and handles business in a relatively straightforward way (read: not us), you might be looking at $1,500–$3,000 / year. That might sound like a lot, especially when you’re just getting started, but, well, there be dragons, best to have a seasoned guide around to point you in the right direction. In terms of software, we’re currently using Xero. It’s… fine. The interface is better than Quickbooks Online, but it’s not without quirks. The best advice we can give—and the advice we wish someone would have given us years ago—is don’t overthink this. Ask your accountant what he or she recommends. Even if it’s the desktop version of Quickbooks, you’re better off working with software your accountant understands than something you think is pretty or clever or less expensive.


If you’ve been with us since part two in this series, you’ll remember us teasing what would eventually become Cotton Bureau:

Starting soon, like real soon, we’re going to be launching a store where anyone can pitch us a tee about pretty much anything. If we like it, we’ll put it in the store. Your design gets two weeks to sell 25 or more shirts. If it’s successful, we’ll print and ship it and handle all the customer service as well. Plus we’ll pay you $3 for every sale. Does that sound like something you might be interested in? Email us at us@unitedpixelworkers.com. If you have some artwork you want to include, even better. Making great shirts is a passion of ours and it just so happens that giving our friends and colleagues a helping hand is too. We’re champing at the bit to roll out our new t-shirts-as-a-service offering. If you you’re as eager as we are to see it live, we want to hear from you.

Huh. Would you look at that. We had a feeling you all would enjoy what we were cooking up, and we couldn’t be happier to be where we are today. A lot has changed in two years, but it’s incredibly gratifying to look back and see that the hard work has all paid off. We wish we could share our full to-do list with you. There’s no doubt you would be as excited as we are about all the little (and big) things we have planned for Cotton Bureau. There’s still so much room to improve and so many things yet to learn. We’d love to see better photography on the site. We know that easier returns and exchanges will make everyone happier. More reliable international shipping is a huge priority for us. Better PR, better advertising, improved customer and designer accounts, finding and hiring more smart, talented people… when you find something that you love doing and people love supporting, the list of ways to make it better really is endless. Today, we’re five people with way too much to do. (Speaking of which, we could use some help. If you’re interested in an internship or part-time position, hit us up. We’ve got openings, um, everywhere.) As our business has grown, so has the breadth of what we need to know to pull it all off. It’s probably past time to break these all into smaller pieces. Maybe we’ll do that going forward. For now, we hope this can be a reference for you as you go from selling zero to thousands of whatever it is you choose to sell. Godspeed.

P.S. Have questions? Let us know. We’ll do our best to answer them.

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