It’s our birthday month at Sweet Baton Rouge® and we are giving you a deep dive into a few things over the next few weeks. From our step-by-step guide on how to start a t-shirt business like Sweet Baton Rouge® to what thirteen years in business have looked like from the beginning to now.
How I got started was a bit on a whim. I was a co-owner with my mother and sister-in-law making girl A-line dresses at the time, baby goods, and we wanted to add some t-shirts that would match our dresses for boys to match our boy shorts. I led the design work for the t-shirts with a graphic design company at the time and during that time, we introduced a gameday t-shirt for women and kids. It had the word Football on the front with a paw print on a heather purple American Apparel t-shirt. We had boxes of them made and I sold them from my car from North Louisiana to Lafayette to New Orleans. This is when I realized that there was something here. I asked my in-laws if I could start a business selling t-shirts only and the dress line slowly dissolved on its own, and then I spent the first five years working to build a t-shirt brand.
The beginning of my t-shirt journey and starting my own t-shirt business has been one of the most exciting ventures that I hope will have a long-lasting legacy that I tell my grandchildren all about. It helps that I have six already to tell my story to! My hope is whether you're passionate about design, fashion, or entrepreneurship, this step-by-step guide will walk you through the key steps to turn your dream into a reality.
Step 1: Define your Niche and Target Audience
Understanding your target audience is crucial. Consider the demographics, interests, and style preferences of your potential customers. Decide on a niche that aligns with your passion and fills a gap in the market. People can buy t-shirts anywhere, and we absolutely understand that. Over the thirteen years, we have learned so much about our customers and what styles they love and designs they have gravitated towards. We still like to test other designs out and try new things to learn and grow from each design we create. Here at Sweet Baton Rouge, building this brand has stemmed from the customer service we have provided year after year and creating a brand that our audience has been able to connect with and support over the years. We are always so grateful for each customer entrusting their business with us.
Step 2: Conducting Market Research
Research competitors and identify trends in the t-shirt industry. Analyze what works and what doesn't. In any business, you want to lay some groundwork on who your potential customer may be. You can build a document laying out the base of your customer, using the market research you did for your target audience, and identify general preferences about that market and trends they are into. You can begin to see the direction your business is going from these first two steps. Again, you will learn to test and use trial and error throughout running your business. Invest time to find what designs resonate with your audience and always pay attention to why they are buying it or why this product isn’t moving.
Step 3: Create A Business Plan
Outline your business goals, target market, budget, and marketing strategy. A well-thought-out business plan serves as a roadmap for your journey and is essential if you plan to seek funding. I did not follow this step initially when I created my businesses but always wished I had. I have created similar documents but last year in my twelfth year, I spent a good bit of time deep diving into our business and learning as much as I could. You want to take the time to think through what your goals are, who your market is, how much money are you going to start with, how you plan to use it, and how you will market your product.
I asked my husband for $500 when I got started. I started very slowly and built sustainable practices in my business that allowed the decisions I’ve made and the orders I received one at a time to slowly grow and fund the businesses. We have never taken out a loan in our case, other than the $500 I borrowed in the beginning. When I first began this business, I had my son, who was eighteen months old, and two teenagers. So, the first five years were a lot of testing and trying designs out to see who gravitated to what products while building up my cash flow.
Step 4: Choosing a Business Model & Sourcing
Decide whether you'll focus on print-on-demand, dropshipping, or maintaining your inventory. Each model has its advantages and considerations. Understand the pros and cons before making a decision. For us, we maintain our own inventory and have slowly been able to build this up over the last thirteen years. We also developed our own processes and procedures. We work directly with a local press where over the last nine years, we have built a relationship and consistent printing management. We are a small batch printing company, so we print our designs each week based on best sellers and demand for wholesale orders. We have developed and learned what numbers work best for us to produce each week based on that demand.
From the very beginning, we have always been conservative with how much we buy. We are a cash flow business so we have to be able to have the cash to spend the cash every week when we order. I mentioned earlier my husband gave me $500 to start, and we continued to invest that money for every single order we had during those first five years in business back into buying more inventory and selling to designing and testing out new designs.
We source comfy t-shirts, with quality in mind. We want you to be happy with the product we sell and that will last a long time. So when it comes to starting a t-shirt business, test and try out t-shirts and when you find the ones that work, stick to those because you will be very knowledgeable about the product to share back with your consumers over time. You also want to make sure your production and the quality of that match your brand values. For us, we knew we wanted to keep as much as we could in-house and local. Having the working relationship we do with our printers, we can partner directly with them for each design we do and ensure that the printing styles match up to our visions and goals.
Step 5: Set Up Your Online Store, Strategy, and More
Choose an e-commerce platform that suits your needs. When we started thirteen years ago, the internet and e-commerce had been around for a while, but there were not as many options as there are now. However, I will say, if we had to choose a different platform, we still would use Shopify today and love referring others to use Shopify. It’s easy to use, has great customer support, and is an all-in-one platform that helps manage everything you would need to run an online business. Fun fact, we were an online business for 10 years before we opened a storefront. Running a business solely online helped because of social media, building our newsletters like we are today, to running promotions or even working with influencers. Each baby step we’ve taken over the course of the thirteen years, we’ve been in business has gotten us right where we are today.
Starting a t-shirt business requires dedication, creativity, and a strategic approach. By following these steps and sharing some things we’ve done over the years, you'll be well on your way to building a successful and fulfilling business. I’m always here to help too, if you have any questions along the way, feel free to email me at email@example.com. Celebrate the wins as they come because running a business is hard but there are always wins in your corner. I want to close with this BIG win I had years ago. After running this business a little over five years, I was able to pay for my daughter's wedding dress and take my six-year-old on our first mother-son trip to Disney World which would later become our tradition for a few years. Those two things were so rewarding to me at the time of growth in my business that I invested the money I had earned into my family, that I was able to contribute was so rewarding, and the memories I will hold onto forever.
The workload is hard and long but the work I do at Sweet Baton Rouge has grown leaps and bounds in these thirteen years. I treasure each lesson learned, each person that has come to work for me, to the legacy I hope to be building with you, our dear sweet customers for future years to come.
XOXO - Meredith