Launch an online store

Virtual Success

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

Got a great idea for a new T-shirt line but not a clue how to get it launched? Thanks to present-day imprinting technology and the Internet, launching your own apparel collection isn’t nearly as difficult—or nearly as risky—as it used to be. In fact, countless T-shirt entrepreneurs are appearing on the Web every week . . . and some of them are making it big.

If you’d like just a small taste of how many T-shirt designers are out there, drop by, a website founded well-known web-based T-shirt mogul Rodney Blackwell, and check out the gallery. This website allows visitors to vote each month on their favorite T-shirt design, then crowns a monthly winner. According to Blackwell, nearly 100 entrepreneurs registered a new T-shirt website there in December 2006 alone. 

In fact, the process of creating your own T-shirt line (or just about anything else) and marketing it on the Internet has become so big, it’s generated its own name: e-branding. But, unlike just about any other product, there’s something about the symbiosis of the Internet and the embellished T-shirt that seem to make the two natural partners.

E-Commerce advancements allow for easy entry

Obviously, the biggest reason behind the birth of e-branding is the introduction and subsequent explosion of the Internet. The ability to execute a quick and effective launch and the easy maintenance of an Internet marketing outlet lures T-shirt entrepreneurs daily. With the many template options and educational tutorials for website design, it has become easy for do-it-yourselfers to get designs to market, by developing their own sites.

From purchasing a domain name and hosting, to shopping carts and merchant accounts, everything involved with establishing an online T-shirt business can be accomplished with a small investment and a little research. Today’s entrepreneurs are less intimidated by the steps necessary to launch their own websites, and many are willing to share experience and knowledge through web logs and forums.

One example is another Blackwell site: You register for free and discussion topics include graphics and design, e-commerce site design, T-shirt marketing, T-shirt fulfillment services and others. The forum gave away a prize to its 100th member in April of 2005 and has since grown to 7,000 helpful members.

Counting down to launch

Retail prices allow for a larger profit margin per sale compared to the group, team, or business-to-business sales with which most T-shirt printers are familiar. However, associated costs such as overhead, rent and staffing have historically eaten up these margins . . . pre-Internet, that is. Other advantages to selling online include ‘round-the-clock shopping and worldwide reach to any demographic. In fact, the May 2006 Men’s Health Magazine ranked Internet T-shirt stores number one based on investment versus reward.

Creating an e-brand that is recognizable and unique is the first and most important step. Although it would be nice to think your e-brand could be marketed to everyone, most owners agree that niche-marketing is the most profitable approach, as isolating a niche makes it easier to create designs and target an advertising medium/venue to effectively market your brand.

For example, if your e-brand is geared toward, simply, “high-school students,” there are an infinite number of advertising avenues by which to reach these students, but you would probably get mixed results. However, if your e-brand targets “high-school students with a passion for poetry,” you can invest in a targeted campaign yielding qualified traffic and, ultimately, producing better results.

Keyword advertising programs such as Google Adwords have taken targeted marketing to the next level by making it even easier for advertisers to reach their niche markets. To accomplish this, Google Adwords enables you to set up a campaign based on user-specific search terms and geographic location. The result of this campaign can yield highly qualified traffic to your e-brand on a daily basis.

So when choosing your brand’s focus, be sure to give yourself the best chance for success: Find a niche. There are thousands of brands targeting high-school students (and nearly every other demographic), but far fewer target a more specific niche. Realize that building a niche market allows you to grow a customer base that becomes extremely passionate and loyal about your brand. Attracting this kind of customer base can be contagious. As a result, your brand’s success rapidly accelerates, especially because these e-brand customers are Internet savvy and use a number of methods to share their excitement with an entire online network. As you turn targeted customers into loyalists, the word-of-mouth advertising increases and your e-brand experiences growth.

Targeting a niche and turning customers into loyalists is something with which is quite familiar. The company, based in Charlottesville, Va., offers a line of “Intramural Zombie Hunter” T-shirts, associated with a fictional Zombie Hunter League.  “The league has grown to include hundreds of members,” says owner David Murray. “Sometimes I get chills just thinking about how far we’ve come in the past year or so.”

Marketing and production options

Once you initiate research on how to market your brand, you’ll find a generous selection of options. These include:

  • Search engine listings (paid and free, such as Google Adwords, Overture, MSN)
  • Directory submissions (Google, Yahoo, MSN, or target-specific)
  • E-zines or newsletter ads that will be read by your target audience
  • Blogs
  • Specific pay-per-click advertising (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.)
  • Online forums
  • ·Press releases (to publications or websites popular among your targeted group)
  • Link exchanges/affiliate programs (the mutual linking from site-x to site-y, to promote something in which the customer might be interested, in exchange for site-y also linking back to site-x.)
  • Banner advertising on websites
  • Myspace and other social-networking sites.

Now that you have identified your e-brand, niche and marketing venues, let’s take a look at different ways to produce that brand. Whether you are a garment-decoration expert or a novice, there are many ways to customize garments. When researching current e-brands on the ‘Net, I found that the majority of current brands produce in-house or a use fulfillment company. The most common processes used in both methods are screen printing and heat transfers. Here’s a closer look at the more common scenarios. . . .

Fulfillment company: A fulfillment company provides a website, customized by you from a standard template. You select the style of shirts you want to offer in your store, upload the artwork specific to each shirt, and set prices. When an order is placed at your website, the fulfillment company produces, packs and ships the order, and invoices the customer directly.

Embellishment method: Digital direct-to-garment printing, heat-transfer printing or screen printing. 

Examples: CafePress, Spreadshirt, Zazzle, Print Mojo

Risk: Minimal—the upfront costs are very low, sometimes nothing.


  • The fulfillment company provides a website template, web hosting, shopping cart, order fulfillment, customer service, warehousing and invoicing
  • Your e-brand can be launched within a short time frame, sometimes in as little as a 24 hours (according to Chris Jennings, owner, Ascend Apparel and


  • Lower profit—the fulfillment company keeps a percentage of each sale
  • Packaging, shipment enclosures, delivery and quality are out of your direct control
  • Design rights may be kept by the fulfillment company.

Heat transfers: Heat printing refers to the process of using a heat press and heat-applied materials to create custom-decorated garments. These include plastisol transfers, digital transfers, sublimation transfers, digitally cut materials such as film, flock, twill and ink sheets, embroidered emblems and more. Depending on the process you choose, equipment will include a digital cutter, an inkjet printer or a color-laser printer. Or you have the option of using a custom-transfer manufacturer who provides you with the heat-applied product for your subsequent application to garments. Heat printing gives you complete control over your e-brand. It’s also an ideal production method for creating personalized apparel and small runs.

Risk: Minimal—there is little upfront investment; it will range from $400 to $3,000, depending on the method.


  • You have complete control over store creation, web hosting, shopping cart, order fulfillment, customer service warehousing
  • Quality control is in your hands
  • You keep all the profits
  • You own the design rights
  • Produce on demand with little to no preprinted inventory
  • Cost effective for low runs and personalization
  • Minimal learning curve
  • You learn a skill.


  • Labor
  • Some investment
  • Research time prior to launch.

Screen printing: Screen printing requires the use of a manual or automatic screen-printing press and other capital equipment. Because you must make a screen for every color in a design (or at least four screens if you perform process-color work), this process is geared more toward runs of 36 pieces or more to be cost effective and profitable.  

Types available: Spot color, four-color process, simulated process, index process, special effects.

Risk: High—there is a significant upfront investment ranging from $5,000 to $30,000 and up, depending on the size and type of press and other equipment. There also will be significantly higher costs involved in stocking the needed supplies which include mesh, frames, ink, emulsions, screen cleaners, washout equipment, an exposure unit, a dryer, and so on. There also are higher inventory levels for each decorated garment size/style/color given higher required break-even volumes, along with a significant learning curve.


  • You have complete control over store creation, web hosting, shopping cart, order fulfillment, customer service, warehousing
  • Quality control is in your hands
  • You keep all the profits
  • You own the design rights
  • Cost effective for higher-quantity runs
  • You learn a skill.


  • Steeper, longer learning curve
  • Greater inventory requirements
  • Workspace and clean-up
  • Labor

What are you waiting for?

Naturally, being a heat-transfer guy, I favor this method on the Internet for the same reasons that drew me toward it in the first place. But regardless of which embellishment method you choose, e-branding is a viable method for launching a T-shirt line. An e-brand can be a hobby, a supplement to your current business, or a profitable business on its own. And, depending on the imprinting method you choose, it can be accomplished for a very low investment. The risk is even less when you access resources such as the T-shirt forums where you can read about other’s experiences and post questions specific to your own situation. The only question left is: What are you waiting for?!?