Advice to Aspiring T-Shirt Makers

Posted: Oct 29 2015

Hi! It's me, your pal.

I get a fair amount of emails from people asking for advice on how to start their own shirt business, or how to get shirts printed, or other things shirt related. I like to take the time to email each person, but I figured I'd write a little post with some advice that I would give virtually anyone looking to get started in the shirt business, with some personal stuff about why I do this.

I've been thinking about this post by Noah Van Sciver a fair bit. There are some good things to take away from it that can be applied to any artistic endeavor - you've just gotta get out there and do it and put in the legwork to get your work in front of people. Much like this post will turn into, many articles where you offer advice to people looking to get into your business is half advice and half trying to remind yourself of all you've been through and why you still do it. Moving on. 

There should be some element of fun in this for you. For me, I enjoy sharing myself with others. Even when the business isn't doing well, or when I'm overworked, I can still take comfort in all the friends I've made, and all of the great people I've met who wear my work. It's easy for me to forget that I've been doing this for a decade, because it's an extension of my favorite thing: making my friends laugh. I sometimes forget this, but making my friends happy is one of the main reasons I ever pick up a pen. I enjoy a job well done, but nothing is better than making people - but especially my friends - smile and laugh. Through this business, I've made a lot of fans into friends, though, and maybe this is just me, I never actively try to convert friends into fans - there are some people I'm friends with who only know me through my work at Telegraph Art & Comics who are surprised when they find out I'm a shirt designer. That's fine. T-shirts take up a lot of my time and I don't need them to bleed over into every aspect of my life. Sometimes I'll be wearing one of my shirts out and someone will say they'll like it and usually I just thank them instead of saying "I made this!" - maybe that's just something wrong with me. Sometimes I just do it because I'm at the grocery store and I look like hell and I just wanna get cat food and go.

But I digress. Wow. Okay, so I mention that you should have some reason other than money to want to make t-shirts. T-shirts can be a fun way to make money, but starting any new business is tough and takes time and it will be a while until you see any money back.

Okay. Before I get too deep, I'd like to address people who just want to get shirts printed for their business or a picnic or whatever. I was a screen printer for a long time and worked in a few shops so I know this kind of shit pretty well. Here's my quick advice: find a local printer you can visit, call them to make an appointment, ask to see some samples of their work. If the prints feel too thick or gross or look sloppy or you don't like the vibe or they don't treat you well, just bounce. They should be looking to help guide you through the process and treat you well. 

Well then, who prints SEIBEI shirts? Most of my printing has been done by Forward Printing in Oakland, CA. They're not local to me anymore, but they do some of the best work, and we're friends, and working with them is super easy, so I pay the shipping. It's okay. I've also worked with American Icon in Newburgh, NY and Blue Ridge Graphics in Charlottesville, VA. These teams can hook you up. These three are by no means the only good shops out there, but these are three shops that I've worked for and been a client of so I know how good they are on both sides of it. 

Okay, so you wanna do shirts as a hobby or a business or whatever. Sweet! Start reading. 

When I dove into the shirt business I had barely read anything and it really bit me in the ass. Please don't make the mistakes I made. Educate yourself. Every good thing you see SEIBEI do and everything you like that I've done is propped up by the corpses of hundreds of mistakes little and small that have lead me to this point, but I think I could have learned a lot of these lessons WAY less painfully if I'd just cracked a few books or read the wealth of information online.

T-SHIRT FORUMS! This site is terrific. There's so much information here just waiting for you, and so many people from all aspects of the tee industry (mostly printers I think, but plenty of entrepreneurs and brand owners, too) asking and answering questions, and more importantly, there are plenty of old questions people have asked...maybe the same questions you've got on your mind right now. Do keep in mind when the questions were asked and answered, since the forum dates back at least a decade...things do change over time. 

There are plenty of good books on running online businesses. I've read a few but I'm such a doofus that I can't remember the names of any of them. This is probably a good sign that I need to go back and read more. Regarding this topic, though, the world of e-commerce is changing so often that blogs are sometimes a better way to keep up. I enjoy the Shopify blog; there are lots of good case studies and interesting links. I also sign up for the mailing lists of brands I like and read their newsletters and think about my gut reactions, like whether a mailer seems desperate or cool or whatever. It's just good to keep up with what others are doing, to a degree. This blog by Greg from miles to go is always a good read; he's definitely more on top of the business side of things while still staying true to what his passion. This interview with Meredith from Ex-Boyfriend is one that stands out in my mind because they run a very successful business that actually employs several people full time and Meredith mentions that it's important that they treat it like a business when it comes to what type of designs to sell, which designs to sell, etc, that they recognize there are things that they don't personally like but have made because they sell well and are ultimately good for the business. I wish I was better at that. How To Start A Clothing Company is a great read; Jon knows all the aspects of the business and interviews good people who've started their own companies.

Everyone who started a brand you like probably has something to say about it. It's even important to read interviews and success stories of brands you don't like because there's always more to learn. Getting a few perspectives is important because if you do decide to take advice from me, please please please don't let me be the only person you take advice from or see as an example. If you get a chance to see Johnny Cupcakes talk, do it. The dude is engaging and charismatic and was a huge inspiration to me starting out. One of my favorite artists and tee designers is Piet Parra, and I got a chance to see him and Victor Moscoso in conversation at the SF MoMA, which was really a great experience (and I'm still thankful to my pal Dean for convincing me to go up and say hi to him, despite my nerves, hehe). 

Not really a nuts and bolts business book, but I really enjoyed reading Marc Ecko's Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out. It's a compelling story, and I think everyone could take away a little something from it. The Threadless book is also very inspirational.

You should also just read more, in general. If you want to have anything interesting to say on a t-shirt you need to take in outside media and develop yourself. You can also find inspiration in different artistic disciplines - Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics helped me piece together how I feel about tee design and emotional connection with simple images. It probably won't work the same way for you, but that's good. 

Two shining examples of friends of mine who have started brands and, at least on the surface, have a very clear aesthetic and haven't half-assed anything since day one are MASSIVE and Big Bud Press. I have had a lot of hiccups along the road because I was ill-prepared in the beginning and lost focus, but I've never seen these guys falter. 

Maybe you should consider just trying to design tees freelance. Or submitting designs to Threadless. Or both. There's less control, but far less worry, and you still get to put your work out there. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just do the designs and let someone else worry about the business, but I'm personally in too deep. Maybe one day I'll be able to bring on a business manager or someone to help lighten the load. 

You should keep your day job for a while if you can swing it. It's better to be perilously overworked between your tee business and a day job and have a steady source of income than doing only tees and being broke and having a little free time. I quit a couple of day jobs too early and it bit me in the ass. 

There's a lot to talk about here, so let's try and end with some scattershot practical advice, and you can send me any questions and I can edit this and add shit on as we go. 

1. A shirt with just your brand name on it isn't a good look when you're just starting out. There are plenty of good shirts with the brand name on them, but don't overdo it. The MASSIVE logo tee is a great example of how to do a brand name shirt right - compelling image, bold, the name is under it. Simple and direct. A shirt that just said MASSIVE on it - despite the brand name being an adjective and having some clout and meaning behind it after having been in the game a while and doing big things - wouldn't be half as good. 

2. Doing six colorways of the same design isn't a release or a collection, it's six color options for one shirt. I have been guilty of this to a degree, but that was a long time ago. Doing a couple of colorways of the same design is fine but doing only this, especially when just starting out, is just a bad look.

3. There's a lot of things that you don't need to make more of, for instance, let's please calm the fuck down with Experimental Jetset flipsI know, I know, I did one too

4. It costs nothing to say "if you made this I'd buy it" or "if you made this in [different color] I'd buy it" or "if you did shirts like this I would buy them all" et al. Encouragement from friends and internet admirers is nice, but likes don't convert easily to $$$. I got a little too caught up in faves and likes for a minute and it's lead to some shirts that I liked but probably printed too many of because I listened to every rando who chimed in. Just foolish. 

5. That said, sometimes people are right and they will buy it. It's just a trick of knowing what's good and compelling and wearable and what's just fun to look at or would make a good phone background screen. 

6. Underpromise and overdeliver. People are generally very understanding if something is going to be a little late, but let's take my latest preorders for example - a lot of it's going to be done and available next week, but I said "mid-November" across the board so I can surprise a bunch of people with early shipments rather than disappointing a bunch of people with late shipments and promising an earlier delivery date that some of my products wouldn't hit. I've been guilty of overpromising and under delivering and it's never fun. 

7. Figure out your unique voice and aesthetic and run with it. There are so many tee makers out there - what do you bring to the table that will keep people interested? I hate when I look at a tee brand's site and it just looks cobbled together from other brands they like and nothing works together. 

8. Just fucking be nice. I used to be a spiteful little shit growing up and it took me some time to grow up and get over it. It's not a very big world and while I'm not advising you to put up with bullshit or kiss ass, don't go out of your way to be a shit to people. You'll probably see them again one day. 

9. Pick your battles. If you're an artist on the internet, particularly if you make anything good, eventually some shitstain with an Etsy or a Redbubble is going to rip it off. Don't fight every one of these people. It happens and most of the time it's not worth getting upset over. I can't tell you how to determine which battles are worth fighting. 

10. Consider the wearer. Try to think about a person who's out there and spent money on your shirt and chooses to wear it. You've got to consider your designs getting out there and being worn and this will help you judge which designs are really worth it. Can you honestly see people wearing them? 

11. Print quality is important, but 95% is still an A. You'll have to become a nut for print quality (this is where working with a good printer is important), but typically if you can't see a print error (say, a small dot of color out, or a small bit of color in the wrong place) from 1-2 feet away, it's not worth throwing out the whole shirt over. You'll become the best judge of this, and it's important to have high standards, but 100% perfection is sometimes an impossible goal. Don't accept half-assed print work, though. 

Okay. I'm getting a bit rambly here, but this is a good starting point, I think. I'm going to post this and see what people think and add to it as necessary.

If you have any questions or feel like there's something here I should elaborate on or something that you think I'm totally wrong about, please don't hesitate to get in touch. Bye!