The Ironical Hard to Hear Truth About the T-shirt Industry

I’ve been in the t-shirt industry seemingly forever.  Now that I’m the older, slower moving and maybe a little jaded version of my younger self, I can look back and peer into my crystal ball (which looks surprisingly like a coffee cup) and jot down a few random notes weekly about the apparel decorating industry for my blog.  This week: hard truths.  After a few decades in the business here are some things that I’ve noticed to be more or less self-evident.

More people are going to hate your design than like it.  It’s a fact.  It’s doesn’t matter how great a designer you are, because “art” is subjective more people are going to either be completely apathetic or downright hate your design than really like it.  Even top selling designs are rejected continuously by passersby all the time.  Too brown, too busy, too plain, hate the font, too colorful, too monochrome, too anything…  This is the number one reason you can’t design for other people’s tastes.  You have to design for yourself first.  Find your own “creative voice” and work to strengthen that.  Don’t emulate or copy someone else’s successful style or panache.  Want success?  Invent your own.

There is always someone else that will print it for less.  This industry is plagued by a race to the bottom.  With the advent of the internet and search features it isn’t difficult to find some schmuck printer that will print for ten cents a side or something.  If the best attribute for your company is a cheaper price, and how much free stuff you give away with the “sale”, do yourself a favor and close your shop now.  You will be out of business in a few years anyway, so save yourself some hassle and drama.  Shops that only sell on price always remind me of the old Saturday Night Live skit for the change bank – – we make our money on volume!

There are never enough skilled printers.  When I speak to shop owners, regardless of where they are located, the number one problem they always talk about is the lack of skilled printers.  Like a good tailor, bartender or chef, these skilled people don’t just appear by magic, most are developed internally.  There are very few places to learn to pull a squeegee.  The sooner you start your own apprentice program with some cross training in your shop the better.  Give that puller or catcher some valuable time in the captain’s chair driving the press during a slower period or on a long print run.  Let them struggle during the set up and learn to register that eight color job.  These skilled people are grown internally.  Hire for attitude, hustle, and willingness to adapt.  Chances are your next great printer is already working for you.

The shop owners that need the most help often reject it.  There is help in this industry that will make any size shop better.  It’s called a “trade show”.  Ironically the companies that need the most help, are the ones that always say that they can’t afford it.  How can you afford not to get better?  It doesn’t matter the venue of the show (but I’m personal biased towards the ISS and SGIA shows), these all have one thing in common: to promote and educate methods, materials, skills and techniques to make any print shop better.  Every year there are these events scattered all across the country.  Concentrated in one venue are vendors and suppliers that are showing you their next greatest thing that could help you print better or cheaper.  There are seminars and hand-on classes that will develop and refine your skill set.  There are people walking around that are willing to share “how” they solved the very challenge that you are struggling with.  Yep; what a gigantic waste of time…  By the way, the printer down the street went and he now has another tool in his toolbox to use to pull your customers away from you.  So, don’t go.  After all you have orders to ship.  Uh, what’s your production schedule look like three months from now?

Well that’s enough soapbox venting for me today.  Hopefully the t-shirt print shops that need this the most will read this blog and understand that others have traveled down these roads before them.  It’s a hard business, and the bones of out of business shops and garage printers who thought they could make it big are scattered all around.  For every success story, there are a dozen failures.  What separated the best from the worst?  Usually it’s a bit of luck, but more often than not it was driven by people who paid attention, stuck to their guns, and understood that this business is based on relationships more than anything else.

I’d love to read your comment or story from your perspective!  Leave a comment – or if you want to reach me privately e-mail me at


  • Great. Love this article.

  • Customer service with good relationships definitely win over price for me and I want customers who feel the same.

  • nice information.. i like your posting everyday i look for your web.. keep posting..

  • The same is certainly true of the embroidery industry. Like you, what I try to do when I find myself mired in negative view about what I’m doing is run out and write or share something in the industry social hangouts, or if it’s customer centered, on our blog, that educates on the down side that’s currently driving me crazy. I turn the negative assessment into a positive tip meant to help people cope with or steer clear of the problem. Educating the industry and our customers leads to better experiences all around.

    One sobering truth about this business that I often have to teach on is that we all make mistakes and sometimes outright fail- so many people think that their first print, design, or concept is going to hit big and become entirely disheartened when there are problems, but if you are stretching your skills ability and capacity, you should sometimes hit your envelope. The only way to avoid the occasional poorly executed order, bad design choice, our bad product selection is not to deviate from the easiest, safest course, and there’s a lot of business to be done outside your current comfort zone.

  • Great stuff Marshall! Thank Garrett from the private Facebook Screen Printer’s Group for spreading knowledge to printer’s that never want to stop learning.

    • Greg:

      I will do so. Thank you for leaving your comment too!! I’m interested in knowing what are your hard truths. I thought of two more since I wrote the article. 1. There’s no stopping the digital takeover for printing. You should embrace it quickly. 2. What’s your online business strategy? As more and more customers stop using their local company for their needs and order online – how are you going to grow that portion of your business to keep up?

  • Thanks for the article…I would love to hear more of your thoughts on starting a printing apprenticeship program!

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