Update, April 2, 2015: Whoa. We just updated this series with part three over on Cotton Bureau. If you want learn how to make and sell *even more* t-shirts, follow me.
Two years ago, we warned you that making t-shirts ain’t all fun and games. But did you listen? No. You went out and made yourself a little side business selling shirts. Maybe you created a Kickstarter to launch your new store, or you run a popular design website with an equipment shop, or maybe you’re not hitting that kind of volume yet, but you see it around the corner and don’t know what to do. Relax, we’re here for you. Get ready to take a crash course in selling and shipping 1,000 tees a month.
We’re not Threadless, but having grown two orders of magnitude since starting this little union, we know the pain of scaling in every part of our operation. What’s the difference you ask? Everything.
Let’s start at the beginning. Before you can sell a shirt, you need to have a printer. We’ve been through three printers in less than three years, so trust us when we say, you need the right printer. When we started, we did our research. We wanted someone local, someone good, and someone cheap, so we looked around Pittsburgh and found someone who met all three criteria—or so we thought. We definitely found local and cheap, but good eluded us. Don’t get us wrong, at the time we thought our shirts were great. Today, we look back and cringe a little at the quality. Sometimes it’s subtle things like color fidelity and registration clarity. Sometimes it’s big things like plastisol caked on so heavy you could swear you’re wearing a hockey sweater. Unless you’ve been in the garment industry your whole life, you’re going to want to find a printer who knows more about ink, fabric, and production than you. Don’t settle. Look around until you find the right team. They’ll make you better, and your customers will thank you.
You know how I mentioned “production” as something your printer needs to know about? Yeah, that’s a big one. In addition to some less than sharp printing we had in the early days, we were also plagued by issues with quality control. In fact, our entire first guest design batch had to be re-printed because of a problem with the curing process. Needless heartburn, all around. Those kinds of issues eventually forced us to switch to a company in Kansas City that has a tremendous reputation for professional, high-quality work. And they deserved it.
We used them for one big print run before realizing that Kansas City is a long way from Pittsburgh. What if we wanted to drop by for a press check? What if we wanted to talk strategy, fulfillment, long-term plans? You can see our dilemma. Thankfully we bumped into a guy who ran a print shop that met all three of our needs. He was local, he did great work, and his prices were even better than we had been getting before. A hat trick! For the last year-and-a-half we’ve been humming along with Clockwise Tees as the printer of record for United Pixelworkers. As many a Pixelworker can attest, they make a mean shirt. Like any relationship, we’ve had our share of problems, but because our printer is nearby, we can work them out with the least amount of disruption for us and our customers. You want to make and sell a quarter-ton of t-shirts a month? Find a good printer.
It’s not enough to design a sweet shirt, you’re going to need to let people know and have a rock-solid website to receive and process orders. Letting people know is what you might have heard referred to before as “marketing”. It sounds scary, but it’s actually really simple. That’s why we like to call it “letting people know”. When we got started, we sent friendly emails to the people in the industry we admired. In addition to mentioning how much we liked the work they did, we sent each of them a shirt. That got us started, but it takes a lot more than a bit of early reciprocity to see a healthy six figures in annual revenue and nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter. Selling anything, whether it’s a physical product, a website, or an idea requires trust. One customer sale is noteworthy, two is a relationship. When your best customers come back for more every month and voluntarily spread the word to friends, you know you’re doing something right.
We take an insane amount of pride in every aspect of Pixelworkers (and Pixelivery) from the business model to the shirt design to the production to the fulfillment to the customer service. Having done this now for over two years, it’s pretty clear that our peers and colleagues are proud to represent themselves as Pixelworkers. Just take a look at these handsome folks. That means a lot to us. We unabashedly believe that if you want to have a successful business of any kind, you need to treat your customers well.
That’s two-thirds of marketing. The other half is greasing the wheels. Run a sale every so often, give some stuff away, share the spotlight, have a contest just for fun, ask people what you can do better, get your name out there in blogs and podcasts. We like to think having a beautiful, functional, mobile-friendly website helps too. Oh, and spend some money every once in a while. We’ve sponsored several conferences including the upcoming HybridConf and ConvergeSE (where we’re also going to be speaking, say hi!), run ads on The Talk Show, The Evening Edition, ShopTalk, and a handful of other mediums, and we actively review our options for spreading the word even further. Bottom line: plan to spend 10-25% of your time and money marketing your product. Do it in a way that aligns with your personal and business beliefs. If you believe in your product, you should be happy to do what it takes to let people know. (Without being a jerk, of course.)
Did we mention a fancy ecommerce site? I think we did. When last we talked, we were hosted by the excellent Big Cartel. We’ve since switched to Shopify for reasons outlined in a blog post last year. Whatever direction you go, a hosted solution makes selling shirts by the car load trivial for even the least technical person. Both Shopify and Big Cartel have very reasonable monthly costs. Shopify has a big advantage today with its app store. There are integrations for just about every aspect of running a modern web shop. If you’re looking for or already have high volume, we can’t avoid recommending you go with Shopify.
You’ll also want to keep a close eye on your payment processor. For a long time (dating back to our Big Cartel days), we used PayPal. There’s a lot to like about PayPal. Customers who don’t have a credit card can still check out and the total fees are less than those you might pay with another provider. Unfortunately there’s a whole lot more to hate about PayPal. It’s slow (in every possible, conceivable, eye-clawingly irritating way), they’ve been known to lock you out of your funds on more than one occasion, and the interface is a relic of the time when they had founders who cared. We switched to Stripe in March of 2012, and it’s been a dream in every way that PayPal was a nightmare. You won’t get your money for seven days and the flat 2.9% is a little more than you’d pay elsewhere, but the interface is amazing and the processing absolutely flawless. We’re happy to put our money behind a company that we can feel good about. (We probably lose about $200 each month in additional fees.) Our bank offers us same-day access to our funds and a 2.3% rate, but there’s no way to sign up for their service without going through a sales rep and we can only imagine the travesty that would be their web interface.
Do yourself a favor, use Stripe. They’re eating everyone’s lunch at the bottom of the market now, and it’s only a matter of time before they own the top as well. Just like Flash died a slow and predictable death when HTML5 became the only option on mobile, payment processing is a classic innovator’s dilemma. Payment processors were so focused on high-volume customers they didn’t even see small businesses switching en masse to a better product. (And don’t forget about Square. They’re coming from the physical side, but you can count on these two annihilating the competition in the next 3-5 years.)
Shipping & Fulfillment
In 2010, our shipping advice was:
Ship all your packages with USPS, and tell them to send it as cheaply as possible, with no tracking or delivery confirmation. One t-shirt should cost about $2.50 to send anywhere in the country, and no more than $6 to anywhere else on Earth. As bad as shipping is, it’s a necessary evil. Grin and bear it.
Let’s talk about what’s changed in the interim (aside from USPS jacking their prices up). The first big advance for us was switching to online postage and bulk label printing. We use Endicia, and it’s great. There may be other options out there, but Endicia comes with native apps for Mac and Windows. If you’re savvy, you can also save a lot of time by learning how to do bulk address imports. The difference between hand-labeling and point-and-click printing is astronomical. If you’re shipping more than a handful of t-shirts each month, invest in online postage and labeling.
Not long after switching to Endicia, we started wondering if we couldn’t leverage its API to make our lives even easier. There’s still a non-trivial amount of prep work that needs to happen when you’re schlepping spreadsheets around, so we decided to design and build a custom fulfillment application. Since we had switched to Shopify, we had access to all our orders via the Shopify API. Now every order that comes into United Pixelworkers is automatically saved to our local database and queued for fulfillment. At the touch of a button, we print packing slips and shipping labels ready to be affixed and stuffed by whoever has time. (Every packing slip and label to come out of United Pixelworkers has been printed on the Brother HL-2270DW wireless laser printers. It’s a workhorse.) Our fulfillment prep work dropped from hours to seconds. But what if you don’t have a back-end developer on hand? That’s where you’re going to get a lot of mileage out of the Shopify App Store we mentioned earlier. Our personal favorite is ShipStation (we tried it, and even though it wasn’t right for us, they have tremendous customer service and it’s getting better all the time), but there several great options to choose from in the shipping category, so look around and see what’s right for you.
The third wave in our quest to get smarter with shipping was having USPS come to us. Once upon a time we used to load up our car with boxes and boxes of packages. The post office kindly let us in the back door so we wouldn’t disrupt the other customers, but the loading, unloading, and driving still occupied an entire afternoon. Not smart. Thankfully, USPS will come to you! Just schedule a pickup. For awhile we were scheduling one big pickup each month and then a pickup each week. That was fine we most of our sales were in big pre-order batches, but you probably noticed we’ve been ramping up our inventory. We made a call to our local post office to arrange for the mailman to swing by every day for a box or two of shirts. If you’re shipping in volume, do yourself a favor, let the mailman come to you.
Finally, our fourth improvement: help. For nearly the entire history of United Pixelworkers, every shirt leaving our office was packed by Jay, Nate, or Matt. As I hinted earlier, we still like making websites for clients from time to time. The bigger United Pixelworkers got, the less time we had for clients and even improvements to the site itself. Because we invested in our custom fulfillment application, however, we were able to turn over the packing labor to a friend. Truthfully, anyone can do it or everyone can do it. The more water-tight the process, the less technical knowledge each person needs to bring to the equation. When we were juggling spreadsheets and squinting at PayPal, fulfillment was a nightmare. Today, we could bring a person in off the street and have him or her up and running in minutes.
Even with all our improvements, shipping is still a tedious and complicated process. Addresses can be malformed, international packages frequently take weeks to arrive or sometimes disappear entirely, inventory requires more and more space in the office leading to money being tied up in shirts on shelves, packages return to our office almost daily as undeliverable, and as we’ve expanded our offering into different types of merchandise like notebooks, patches, hats, and prints packaging diversity has reared its ugly head.
We’ve come a long way, but keeping shipping in house has required the upfront investment of hundres of hours to time. We believe controlling the experience is worth it, but if you’re simply looking to be the shirt designer, there are services that you can use to handle your shipping process. If you poke around the Shopify App Store, you’ll probably even find ones that are ready to be integrated into your store.
Customer service can be a nightmare, but we’ve learned to love it. Here are some but not all of the types of emails we get:
- my shirt doesn’t fit
- my shirt is defective
- I got the wrong shirt
- I need to change my address
- where’s my shirt?
- do you ship to my location?
- when will the shirt I want be back in stock?
When you’re selling a few dozen shirts each month, inbound emails and tweets are hardly a trickle. Multiply your sales by 10 or 20, however, and the requests quickly become a flood. If you want to retain your sanity, heed our advice.
First, get some customer service software. We use Zendesk. You probably can’t go wrong with any of the bigger names, but for the reasons we outlined in a post last year, Zendesk is right for us. Good customer service software lets you set up macros (a set of instructions that can be applied to an incoming email) to handle common inquiries. We have several that get used every day. A good macro will handle about 90% of the work leaving you with just a few seconds or minutes of personalization and attention before moving on to the next email.
Second, decide how you want to handle each situation before it arises. It’s not uncommon for someone’s shirt to get lost in the mail through no fault of their own. Are you going to give them a refund? A replacement? Will you tell them that it’s not your problem? How about when a customer wants an exchange? Maybe they got the wrong size. Shopping online can be a great experience since you never leave your chair or a terrible experience since you have to rely on pictures and charts to make a decision. As the retailer, you’re going to have people who want exchanges. What do you do? I can tell you what we do. We look at each customer request as an opportunity to make someone’s day. Every dollar we spend making someone happy is an investment in our company and its future. Happy customers tell their friends and they buy more stuff. It would be incredibly short-sighted to focus on the immediate cost rather than the long term dividends. Plus, making someone happy feels good whereas its exhausting to pick a fight with everyone just looking for a little help.
Finally, because the customer service process has been centralized and no longer lives in your email and because you decided ahead of time how to handle common requests, you can hand customer service over to someone you trust so you can go back to designing shirts, marketing your site, or whatever you’d like to be doing. The nice thing about retail is that most aspects of it can be considered as independent chunks. As your sales volume increases, you can find discrete pieces to offload onto someone else.
Now You’re Ready
That’s it. Go forth and sell t-shirts. If you have any questions about the techniques we mentioned above or you’d like us to address an area we failed to cover, let us know in the comments or give us a shout on Twitter.
Or, maybe all of that was a little overwhelming. Maybe you tried printing your own shirts in the past and quickly found it wasn’t for you. Well, we’ve got good news. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. Make some noise.