Beginner Step-By-Step Guide to Launching an Online T-shirt Business

So you’ve decided to start your own online custom t-shirt business to generate passive income. A very smart move, considering the vast amount of tools that are available now, it’s easier than ever. Not to mention there’s such a low barrier to entry that you only stand to gain; you get to showcase your brand, make some money on top of it, build a following, and learn about ecommerce along the way. There skills will only enrich your life, considering the ecommerce industry has grown to $371.7 billion in 2015, which is 14.6% over the previous year, and is only continuing to grow. Ecommerce will certain;y become ever more part of our everyday lives.

We’ll be covering the basics of starting your own automated online t-shirt business, to help you navigate the rough ecommerce waters. From choosing the right sales platform and setting your profit margin, to preparing visuals and all the tools you’ll need to sell online.

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

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How to choose your ecommerce platform

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If you’ve already set up your ecommerce store, then you can skip to the next section – setting up the financial elements of your store.

Choosing your ecommerce platform is an important first step to launching your store – it will be your predominant sales platform, you digital home, and the foundation of your growing brand. Make sure to choose one that suits your needs now, and that you can grow into later.

Elements to take into consideration: price, hosting, support, extras, add-ons. If you’re looking to outsource your printing and fulfillment to a third-party company, then make sure they can successfully integrate. Here are the major ecommerce platforms that integrate with Printful.

What is hosting? Hosting is where your website is stored. Some ecommerce platforms do that for you, though others don’t. Hosting does incur costs and can be technically challenging to implement without any prior knowledge. Keep that in mind when choosing your platform.

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Shopify

  • easy and fast setup
  • offers live shipping rates
  • takes care of hosting for you
  • one or the more costly platforms: subscription fee + 2% of your revenue
  • known for top-notch customer service
  • offer SSL certification (safety feature)

Choose this platform: if you’re willing to pay a little for avoiding the hassle of the tech elements of an online store.
Don’t choose this platform: if you want to avoid upfront costs

Bigcommerce

  • known for being all-inclusive
  • integrates with sales platforms like Facebook, Ebay and Etsy
  • a wide variety of features from SEO to marketing
  • provides hosting
  • a pricey platform with monthly subscription fees

Choose this platform: if you know you’ll have a lot of sales right off the bat, want a hosted option, if selling on third-party channels like Facebook and Ebay are important to you.
Don’t choose this platform: if you want to avoid recurring costs

Gumroad

  • minimalistic design
  • made for extremely non-technical people (like artists)
  • offers a “buy” button that can be embedded into any blog post or website
  • takes care of “the hard stuff”, including hosting
  • 5% fee, but no subscription plan

Choose this platform: if you have very little tech experience, or if you already have an existing site that you just want to add a “buy” button to.
Don’t choose this platform: if customization is important to you. This platform is limited to the basics.

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Storenvy

  • marketplace-style, built to browse different products from different vendors
  • limited page customization
  • everything is hosted by them, little ownership

Price: Free

Choose this platform: if you think your products would go viral
Don’t choose this platform: if it’s important for you to customize your store’s layout

WooCommerce

  • a wordpress blog plugin
  • you need to provide hosting and your own domain
  • though free to use, your hosting will cost money
  • supports live shipping rates

Price: Free

Choose this platform: if you have the skills to set up your own hosting, of if someone can do it for you.
Don’t choose this platform: if you want to avoid setting up your own hosting and buying a domain.

 

TicTail

  • minimalistic design
  • does not support live shipping rates
  • easy to understand for non-technical people

Price: free to use, but extras (like your own domain name) cost money

Choose this platform if: you want minimum expenses, and don’t mind doing some work along the way
Don’t choose this platform if: you want your store to be run 100% automatically

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Bigcartel

  • choose from 10 default free themes
  • automatically generates search engine optimized tags for your products

Price: free for up to 5 products, any more then there’s a monthly subscription fee

Choose this platform if: you want to avoid transaction costs, or plan to have less than 5 products.
Don’t choose this platform if: you want to customize your store and use lots of apps.

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Setting up the financial aspects of your store

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When setting up your store, one of the most important components (besides the store itself) is the setting up the financial elements. That goes from choosing a payment gateway, setting up tax, to figuring out pricing for your products.

Set your profit margins

Your profit margin depends on two things: 1) What the price of production is, and 2) What price you’re selling at. The amount in between is your profit.

The price of production is what you pay your drop shipping or fulfillment partner. Prices are set. For apparel, you can choose a pricier model (like American Apparel or organic), or you can choose more wallet-friendly brands (like Gildan and Anvil).

The price you sell at (or “retail price”) depends on a few things. Like what your audience considers a fair price for your design, what you need the profit margin to be to consider it to be worth the effort, and the expenses you need to cover.

You should aim for a nice balance, where both you and your audience are happy with the pricing. You can experiment and test this out, but generally the industry norm is about a 30% increase on top of the price of production. You can see our suggested retail prices here.

Choose your billing method

Since you have to take payments on your end, you have to decide which billing method you’ll accept. That could be taking credit cards, Paypal, Bitcoin, etc. Your options might be limited by what your ecommerce platform offers. The typical choices are Paypal and credit card.

We personally recommend using the Braintree+Paypal option, since it’s easily integrated, simple to use, and supports international stores. Of course you can take a look at their competitors, Stripe and Authorize.net.

Each billing method will ask for a certain commission. Unfortunately you can’t get around that – they’re a business trying to make a profit, too.

Taxes

Taxes are a tricky thing, as it depends largely on where you’re based and who you’re selling to. If you’re based in the US, then you’re only required to collect taxes on sales coming from within the states that you have a presence in. Presence is usually where you’re based, or if you’re drop-shipping, then the place they send the products out from counts as well.

Since there are over 7,500 tax jurisdictions in the States, each with their own rules and exemptions, we suggest getting in touch with a local tax representative to double check what applies to you.

How to Prepare Print Files and Mockups

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If your new ecommerce store is based on print products, like t-shirts, bags, that you outsource to a printer (*cough* printful *cough*), then it’s incredibly important that you get the print files right, so that your printer can quickly and correctly print out the design that you had intended.

Print files

Print files are usually prepared either in Photoshop or Illustrator. They should contain your design, at the scale that you want it to be. Make sure to take into consideration the size limitations of the available printing space that’s defined by your fulfillment company.

Check out what your available print space is

Check out what your available print space is

You’ll want to get hold of your fulfillment company’s guidelines, and then size your design accordingly. If your print fulfillment company doesn’t have readily available guidelines, you can use Printul’s as an estimated guide. If you’re not sure how to prepare your design as a print file, you can take a look at our video tutorial.

Mockup images

Mockup images are an image of the product with your design superimposed on it, so that you get an idea of the size and placement of your design. Though mockup images aren’t mandatory, they can speed up the process of producing your product, and also make sure that you’ll be happy with the final result.

Mockup images also are usually used to display on your website an image of the product that your clients will receive. Some stores opt for taking their own photographs of their products, but not everyone has the time and resources to make that happen, so mockup images are a quick and inexpensive alternative.

Choose your favourite

Choose your favorite

Feel free to use our compiled mockup images. We’ve also created a tool that’s free to use – the mockup image generator. That will put your design onto the garment, and all you have to do is download it and then add it to your store.

With all of the necessary resources at your fingertips, all that’s left is to come up with a design! So what are you waiting for? Start brainstorming!

What if I’m not a designer?

One the of the biggest challenges that non-designers face when starting up with an apparel ecommerce store is that you have to prepare the design in a certain way, at a certain size, etc. If you don’t have access to design software like Photoshop or Illustrator, it’s near impossible to get your design print-ready. Here are some of our suggestions.

Turn an Instagram photo into a design

Using our mockup generator, you can take an Instagram photo and turn it into an all-over (sublimation) print. Try it out.

Hire a designer

There are tons of designers out there who are willing to freelance to help you out. We suggest using our Printful Design Services, where our designers know exactly how to format a printfile to be compatible with Printful. Check out the Design Services.

How you Can and Should Leverage Social Media

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A free tool that shouldn’t ever be overlooked when thinking about how to generate more attention for your store is social media. And for good reason. This platform lets you communicate directly with your customers, show them what’s new and going on with your store, helps you rank better in Google, and can even help you reach new customers.

What you should be doing on social media:

1. Customer support

Since social media is the place where customers can directly communicate with brands, people are increasingly directing their support comments though social media platforms. Make sure to respond quickly for best results.

Make sure to monitor what people are saying about you online. If someone has had a bad experience, then you can pick up on it and make it right. That fosters loyalty and besides, a happy customer is a customer that recommends you to their friends.

Customer service is immensely important not only on social media, bet on all channels where your customers are expressing their questions and concerns. Here are some stats that you should keep in mind:

70% of business transactions happen based on the way your customer feels
65% of your customers will come from word-of-mouth referrals

This means that if you make your customers feel good, they’ll tell other people, and you in turn will have more visitors and sales.

There are tools that can help you keep track of your customer support questions. For example Reamaze.com collects your support questions from incoming emails, messages on Twitter and Facebook, so that no support questions are lost. Other support tools are Desk.com, HelpScout, and FreshDesk.

2. Sharing your own news

This is a place where you can show your personality with your customers. You can let the know when you’ve got new products for sale, show them the behind-the-scenes, sneak peeks of new designs.

3. Sharing customer photos – get involved in their lives

Humans are social creatures, and will love to share their cool new product. Platforms like Twitter and instagram are great for sharing news, make sure to keep a lookout on customers sharing photos of your stuff. You can collect it, post it every once in a while. Then you can post them on your own social pages, and your followers will get to see what your products look like in real life.

4. Take advantage of major buying seasons

There are a few times of year when people go into buying mode. Take advantage of these times, create some special deals or a thematic collection. Here’s a quick list of holidays to look out for:

5. Create competitions, games, lotteries, giveaways

Social media can be a space not only to communicate and reach your existing customers, but also to reach new ones. Each time one of your existing followers shares any of your information (depending on the platform it could be a share, retweet, regram, etc.), your products reach a whole new set of eyes.

One way to generate shares is by offering a prize to a lucky winner, and entry to this competition can be done by sharing a certain piece of information that pertains to your product, or liking your page. These are typically called like & share campaigns.

6. Encourage customers to leave reviews

Facebook pages have a great feature for stores, it lets customers rate your store and leave reviews. There isn’t a better way to create trust than by having other people suggest you. User-generated content shared to social media is proven to significantly increase (from the typical 2% to up to 6%) your conversion rate.

Did you get a thankful email from a customer praising your product? Ask them to leave a review on your Facebook page. Easy!

7. Use monitoring tools to make your life easier

Sometimes managing social accounts can be daunting. There are some services out there that help you manage them by letting you schedule posts in advance, see who’s been mentioning you, monitors your keywords for you, and even gives you feedback on which posts do the best. We use Hootsuite, and another great option is Buffer.

There are so many ways to take advantage of social media, and each platform has its own peculiarities. Here are some extra materials that might help you if you’re looking for more advanced ideas:

Facebook: http://www.shopify.com/blog/10298641-10-ways-ecommerce-brands-can-increase-traffic-and-sales-with-facebook
Twitter: http://www.shopify.com/blog/6390022-how-to-use-twitter-for-ecommerce
Pinterest: http://www.shopify.com/blog/5677122-the-ultimate-pinterest-guide-for-your-online-store

How to Optimize Your Store to Get More Sales

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There are a whole bunch of things you can do to your store to encourage more sales. Here are a few tweaks we suggest to take advantage of.

  1. optimizing headlines to improve your ranking in search engines
  2. adding testimonials to create trust
  3. offering social shares to your product

1. Optimize your headlines to rank better in Google

You might get more people to your site if you can rank higher in search engines (also known as Search Engine Optimization – SEO). The key is to use keywords wisely. Especially in your top headlines, you should clearly state what people will be able to buy in your website. Google has created a comprehensive beginner’s guide to SEO, feel free to take a look at it.

2. Add testimonials to build trust

When other people see that others have had a good experience, that makes them believe that they also have the chance of having a good experience with your store. WikiJobs found that they got 34% more purchases when they added testimonials.

Make sure they’re real! Get the person’s photo, and it’s even better if you can link to their site. Even better if you can focus on a specific pain point – quality, shipping time, customer service. These are much more effective than generic praise.

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3. Add social sharing buttons

This is a double-win for you. If people click the sharing buttons, then they’re spreading the word about you and your products (yay new customers!).

And as the little numbers grow next to your sharing buttons, that shows new visitors that people like your product, and they then feel compelled to try it out as well. It sort of triggers the herd instinct.

If you’re up for more ideas…

There are many other things that you can do to optimize your store for more purchases. You can read our blog post for some more ideas, or you can google “increase conversion rate”.

One tool that we found works well for our ecommerce stores (Startup Vitamins and Behappy) is called Nosto. It “personalizes” the shopping experience by offering the visitor products that others have bought, popular products, and can even send the visitor an email containing the contents of the cart they abandoned.

The internet is full of great advice to make more sales for your online store. Check out this article on 25 ways to make your first online sale for some inspiration by KissMetrics, or these 50 tips on making more sales by Shopify.

Simple and free marketing tactics to get more people to your store

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Making sales all begins with getting people to your store. For many, the idea of “marketing” is terribly frightening and is a dark pit of despair. But here are some simple things (and free!) that you can do to get even more people to visit your store.

  • Comment on other blogs
  • Be active on social media (like and share contests?)
  • Get other blogs to write about you

Comment on related blogs

Most blogs have a commenting option where you can add your own site. If you can find related topics to your cause, then feel free to comment and leave your website. Not only will it help your SEO efforts, but you’ll also be able to get other people’s attention to your site.

Be active on social media

Social media is a great tool to reach new customers. If you’ve been doing all the things we wrote about in the “leveraging social media” email guide that we sent out a while ago, then you’re on the right track. Throw in a like & share competition to reach even more people. In the next email we’ll also teach you about paid advertising, which also can help.

Get other blogs to write about you

This one can be a bit tricky, and can take some effort. But if you can get another blogger with an established audience to write about you, then you’re getting all of those new sets of eyes on your product. Try to find blogs that write about your industry, or perhaps share the same message that you’re demonstrating through your store. During the holiday season reach out to blogs making gift guides that might be relevant for your audience.

The possibilities are endless, keep in mind that unrelentless work on popularising your blog is what will keep a steady flow of traffic your way, and in the end, will convert to purchases.

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When you’ve got all the basics down, your store’s up and running and you’ve gotten the hang of things, you’ll begin asking the question, how do you reach even more people, and how can you take your store to the next level? One option to try to boost your store is paid advertising. Here are some suggestions to consider, which can be done with a minimal test budget.

Facebook ads

Facebook ads are a way to get even more eyes to notice your store. With a catchy image and text, you can lure casual Facebook surfers over to your store. Or you can choose to “boost” your Facebook post, to have even more people see a certain post of yours (say, for example, a new product you’re launching, or running a deal).

Retargeting

Retargeting is a powerful way to show ads to people who have already visited your site. They already know your website and just need that little nudge towards a purchase.

A typical ecommerce website might convert less than 3% of their visitors into paying customers. Retargeting is a powerful way you can convert those lost 97% of visitors back into paying customers.

You can use texts like “Did you finish purchase?”, “Still on your mind?” in your ads to basically steer the user into action you want them to take. For an ecommerce store, this typically would be making a purchase. You can lure your customers back to your site to complete their purchase.

For a deeper look into retargeting, see how Startup Vitamins rocked retargeting. We also suggest using Mamaya, a tool that automatically sets up retargeting ads for people, based on what they’ve viewed in your store. You can even use the code “print25ful” to get a 25% discount for your first 6 months.

Going beyond the basics – perpetual learning

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I hope that this has been helpful during the process of setting up your shop.

Now that you’re up and running, you’re wondering, what’s next? Well you can never stop learning about ecommerce, conversion rates and Search Engine Optimization. These are topics you can read more and more about, here are some resources you can follow for future reference:

Kissmetrics on marketing, analysis and testing what works best
ConversionXL on converting visitors into customers
Shopify Blog for great resources for ecommerce stores
Shopify Ecommerce Business Blueprint about how to build, launch and grow your online store

If you’re interested in getting even more news from Printful, insights, tips, sneak previews of what’s coming, then subscribe to our blog newsletter. We know how hard it is to run an online store, especially when there are so many things in this world that are competing for our attention. That’s why we recommend reading The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris – practically everyone in our team has!

It only takes one step to start your ecommerce journey. If you’re ready to accept the challenge, go for it, and sign up to Printful.

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