Starting a teen business
May 9, 2008 3:55 AM   Subscribe

Starting a teen business! Good idea or not?

A friend and i have some t shirt designs we decided were quite marketable, so now we're toying with the idea of starting a business.
I'm not looking for someone to burst my bubble, but constructive advice on what we need to do to get going.

Also, if anyone knows the story of a similar business which started from nothing and succeeded or failed i'd be glad to hear it!
posted by freddymetz to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My advice would be to start a Spreadshirt shop (or similar).

Otherwise you've got the headaches of production, marketing, distribution and so on. Letting someone else take care of these (for a cut, obviously) makes a lot of sense, at least initially, and leaves you to concentrate on the design side of the business.

It's worth getting a little for some business advice, so you know the minimum you need to do to keep your local tax authorities happy.

I had a business for a number of years selling a small piece of shareware, which I sold via a distributer who took care of everything for me and just posted me a check every month; in less than two years I'd made something like $50,000, all based on about two weeks' initial work and very little after-sales support. It's a nice feeling when you keep getting money 'for nothing'.

To build a successful business on something like Spreadshirt you'll need to rival the competition (and a lot of it is very good indeed), and you'll need to have a lot of designs in circulation.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:17 AM on May 9, 2008

Paying a little, not getting. Curse my inability to let a sentence lie.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:18 AM on May 9, 2008

Most of the online places are crap. If you're really serious and you want to make a name for yourself and do quality stuff, buy a small, manual screen printing setup, learn to use it, and make each shirt yourself by hand. The quality is better, you control everything, and its fun. Also, use Hanes Beefy Ts or American Apparel. They're the best shirts going.

If you want some more advice, try contacting Jason from He started out 10 years ago making heat transfer t-shirts and now sells exclusively wholesale to stores. He still makes all the shirts himself and he'd be a good source of info.
posted by ChazB at 4:53 AM on May 9, 2008

I'll second the manual screen printing setup.

If you are a college student, or located near a campus this is an especially good idea. On top of your own designs, there are numerous other profitable avenues.

1. rush/event shirts for the greek community
2. shirts for the big rivalry games
3. shirts for student government functions like campaigns and events
4. profit.

If you are ambitious enough, creating a successful local brand can be done as well. In Reno, we have Reno eNVy, a local startup that just this week got a line of apparel on the shelves of the campus bookstore.

Also, you can easily put up a website with PayPal/Google Checkout on it and take orders for your original designs.

Good luck, I wish I had done this with one of the student loan checks I blew on beer and t-shirts.
posted by clearly at 6:08 AM on May 9, 2008

Me and two buddies had a very small teen business making and selling guitar distortion boxes. We sold about two dozen total and broke even. One of the three got HUGE points in getting his first out of college job because he had this teen job on his resume. The interviewers were really impressed that we had gone from hand-wired prototype to optical transfer circuit board etching in the same basement.
posted by plinth at 6:10 AM on May 9, 2008

Take a look at Neighborhoodies for a good "rags to riches" custom apparel story.
posted by kmtiszen at 7:11 AM on May 9, 2008

Good idea, excellent idea in fact.
Go with the hand process as suggested by ChazB.
Get cool people wearing them and your business may take off.
Perhaps you will even be as successful as this guy.
posted by caddis at 7:35 AM on May 9, 2008

Doesn't matter if you succeed or fail, you should definitely do it. Great for college apps, great for resumes, great learning experience. Just don't go into any real debt over it.
posted by lubujackson at 7:48 AM on May 9, 2008

I agree, do the screenprinting yourself by hand. It will take some time and practice, especially if you are doing photo emulsion transfers.

You will need a high power hose, likely. It can be messy. But the quality will be much better.

If you are in a bigger city, see if there are facilities you might be able to rent to do it. I live in a city of 300000 and we have a printmaking studio/gallery where people can use the facilities, as well as in the university art department. That will save you some mess and buying a high powered pressure washer.

Good luck and have fun! I love silkscreening :)
posted by Flying Squirrel at 8:02 AM on May 9, 2008

Also, if anyone knows the story of a similar business which started from nothing and succeeded or failed i'd be glad to hear it!

If by similar you mean businesses started by other young people, you may want to read the story of a college kid who started a computer business in his dorm room.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:10 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Strangely enough, when I was a teen we had a programme in our school (and I think nationwide in England) where you setup a business, ran it as a team over the course of the year and our business was designing, making and selling t-shirts.

Things I learned (some may not apply now or to you):

* Its important to keep a tight grip on your accounts!

Seriously, the fun in making something yourself and getting paid for it is all for naught if you don't have one of you keeping track of your expenses (and that means everything from raw material cost, travel costs, marketing costs, distribution costs, even stationary and tools).

* Make quality your first priority

T-shirts made of good fabric with designs that won't be destroyed in the wash were critical in making our business a success. Its all very well having cool designs but if the t-shirt is itchy to wear or gets destroyed, don't expect any recommendations from those who do fork over the cash and recommendations is your key way of getting business.

* Don't underprice yourself!

Put a sensible price on your product. Its tempting to think you have to compete with the chain stores but people will pay a premium for a good t-shirt, made locally. When working out a price make sure you have an idea of how much each one will take to make and calculate this by saying, "We're going to make 100 units so lets work out how much that costs including all the overheads we have that aren't directly related to production" then divide that cost and put a profit markup on it. Don't neglect the additional costs and make sure you're getting value for the time you spent on it. I mean its fun and a good learning experience regardless if you make any real profit but can be demotivating if you come out of it having sold your cool t-shirts for less than they were worth.

* Get your attractive friends to wear them!

Good looking people sell clothes. I know thats no revelation but seriously, get a handful of your better looking friends in your t-shirts and make sure they know to tell anyone that asks where to get them.

* Don't get too distracted by being in business and focus on making a cool product you are happy with

Its easy to start dreaming of sales or brainstorming marketing ideas or smoking a fat cigar and stroking your white pussy cat going "Yes, Mr. Bond"... erm... I mean, just focus on making cool t-shirts right? Don't get too worried about the other stuff (but keep track of your accounts!!!) especially marketing. Think micro-business. Think word of mouth. Think modestly in terms of sales (if only to be surprised later). But most of all, think I want to make and sell something I'm proud to have associated with me.

Have fun and good luck!
posted by monkeyx-uk at 8:30 AM on May 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you build a screenprinting setup of your own, you should consider printing shirts and such for others as well. Youth groups and the like are into screenprinting, as both a hands-on activity and a source of fun shirts, and you can probably get paid extra for letting the kids use your setup. Try contacting Girl Scouts, 4H, church groups, school clubs, etc. You might also ask the VFW, Elks, Shriners, and similar community groups -- those guys usually love logo shirts, and they also like supporting teens. Local bands and small businesses can also make very good customers.
posted by vorfeed at 9:11 AM on May 9, 2008

T-shirts are great, but the really hot items that everyone will be buying over the next couple of years, and that all kinds of people will want flashy, clever, interesting, trendy, trashy and twisted graphics on, are cloth grocery bags.

For my own personal use I would like a series of bags that come from companies that don't really exist, but should (if you can get away with it). Such as (please pardon the lameness of these, I know you'll be able to do better) 'X Mart, your one stop shop for all adult needs-- check out our blue movie specials'; or 'Bleakwater Summer Camp-- give your gangbanger the only chance at a good job he'll ever get. Death benefits included' with silhouettes of AK-47s and attack copters; etc.
posted by jamjam at 10:12 AM on May 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I lost money producing t-shirts once upon a time... Actually I still move a few of the damn things (those last couple hundred festering in boxes in the basement) on eBay when I'm in the mood, so I suppose I could break even eventually. Actually, I came fairly close to breaking even in the end and I did it STUPID.

And I'd recommend it, there is no education in the true ways of business like diving in. Even if you get a few t-shirts manufactured in small batches by some local screen printer it's not like you're betting mom and dad's house that that Nigerian prince will finally transfer that 40 million into your bank account. Like any gamble, set out clearly from the outset how much you are willing and able to lose and don't risk more than that.

My few pieces of "learn from my mistakes" advice... Get stingy from day one. Pinch pennies. Don't succumb to the "you gotta spend money to make money" mentality. You do, but that doesn't mean you should buy anything you don't NEED (i.e. it'll be cool to be a business dude with a new superportable laptop!) and don't make any significant investment without shopping around extensively. An idea about a market is not worth anything. You have to get specific, research, get one on one with people who will actually be buying your product in advance. I had too many businesses on my list who in the end were not really interested in dealing with some indie producer with a tiny product catalog. If you're aiming at direct markets really get to know those markets and who your competition is.
posted by nanojath at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2008

You should try and get a grip on financial aspects. I don't mean you need to know everything about the business world, or becoming an accountant, but at least work out your fixed costs, how much you can make per item and how long it takes you to break even. If you lose a dollar on each shirt, you'll never make up for it with volume!

It's easy to forget the fact that the items have a cost involved when money starts coming in. Case in point, someone I knew was keen on selling CDs. They said `we've got 2,000 CDs made, we're selling them for $10 each so that will be $20,000!'.

They neglected the following :

Cost of manufacture
Cost of handling
Cost of delivery

Worst of all they didn't seem to realise that if they were selling them through a store, the store would take a margin for profit. By my rough guess, if they had sold every CD, they might have made $1000 or so.

If you know someone running a business themself, have a chat and see what advice they may have to offer. Nanojath's advice is excellent.

Good luck with it! I also agree with the `learn to manually screen print'. It's not hard, and the screens aren't too expensive to have made.
posted by tomble at 4:20 PM on May 9, 2008

Keep in mind the risk of your venture. You can boil that risk down to the number of dollars you and your friends/partners invest. That should include both cash you put into the business and the value of every hour you put into the business (figure it based on the wage you could make at another job).

You can minimize your risk by minimizing your investment and avoiding unpredictable situations, which is why you should be skeptical of the people telling you to buy or build a screen printing setup, and then learn how to do screen printing as part of starting up the business. You'll invest cash in equipment and supplies, and a bunch of time in perfecting your technique. You'll also have to set up a storefront, and set up fulfillment, and you'll probably want some stock on hand. These are all costs you will accrue without selling a single shirt. You'll also have added risk of not knowing how much time it will take you to get your technique down.

Consider instead focusing on your designs and on your marketing & distribution and using services that have minimal up-front costs and allow you to pay in small increments for manufacturing, storefront (assuming you plan to sell online) and fulfillment). As one example, you could have Spreadshirt provide storefront, manufacturing, and fulfillment for you.

The upside of using Spreadshirt is that the up front costs are low and time to market is shorter and more predictable. The downside is that the per-unit costs are a lot higher then they could be if you printed them yourself (or had someone else do the printing), but that's fine, you can focus on cost-cutting later once you have more experience under your belt, some cash-flow to fund it from, and enough volume to justify the costs (if you don't have the cash-flow and the volume, then you have other things to focus time and resources on).

You'll have a range of options for cutting costs. You might move from Spreadshirt to a traditional screen printing shop that handles fulfillment too, or you might go further and have a local shop do the work and do fulfillment yourselves. Whatever option you use, you can try to negotiate for a better deal. You could start buying larger lots once you have confidence in your sales volume. You could adjust payment terms, you could presell part of your production. You can start playing vendors off each other.

The important thing is to be careful to avoid lock-in with a given vendor. Have a plan for switching out vendors. If you use Spreadshirt or any other vendor to handle your storefront, make sure you host your shop on a domain you own and control so you can replace it if you want to start printing and fulfilling your own orders.

Which position would you rather be in in 2 months:

1. A hundred hours invested in design. Hundreds of dollars (or more) and a big chunk of time invested in learning to do your own screen printing, a cost of $7 to print and ship a shirt and no sales volume or experience at all.

2. A hundred hours invested in design. A chunk of time getting your vendors lined up. A working storefront. No hassle with keeping stock and handling fulfillment. A $15 cost to print and ship a shirt (with the knowledge you could get the price down to $10 by paying for lots), a hundred t shirts sold, and a month of experience promoting your shirts and seeing which designs sell.
posted by Good Brain at 12:34 AM on May 10, 2008

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