Can you really make $250K a year screen printing t-shirts?

What?! How can you even ask me that? That’s so rude?!

It’s super awkward to ask, and even more awkward for people to answer.

Because of privacy reasons, people just don’t disclose how much money they make to complete strangers.

But if you’ve been in a particular industry or trade long enough like I have, you tend to put the pieces together.

And that’s what I’m going to do today.

So if you’re curious to see if screen printing t-shirts has the financial potential to realize your humanly dreams, let me assure you that it’s thriving (even with the pandemic) – consider your efforts validated.

But the question of whether or not you can make $250k/year screen printing t-shirts is a subjective one.

Ask any printer and they’ll say “of course you can! But it depends”.

The real question here is how can you make $250k/year screen printing t-shirts. And I’ll be elaborating on this.

So before you jump ship and quit your full time job to live out the pipe dream of screen printing t-shirts, let’s set some realistic scenarios to turn your dream into reality.

Here are 4 common ways to earning $250K per year, and how to go about doing it:

  • Run your own business screen printing t-shirts
  • Screen print and sell your own stuff e.g. clothing line
  • Working in a screen printing shop
  • Become a middleman and outsource screen printing

To clarify, the earnings per year stated is in terms of revenue, which according to Investopedia, is the income generated from your business operations before subtracting costs.

The “costs” will obviously vary for everyone and is dependent on many factors. Material cost will be different depending on your supplier, skills will differ, rent and utilities will depend on your location, et cetera.

So let’s break down each scenario to see how near or how far you are to raking in quarter of a million dollars per year.

screen printing t-shirts squeegee

How to make $250,000/year screen printing t-shirts?

The dream for many creative entrepreneurs like yourself is to become your own boss.

Imagine this – set up a shop, run on your own schedule, grow the business until you gain enough volume to fund a lifestyle with as little debt as possible. Keep at it for a few years until you reach a level to justify hiring staff and finally exiting when you know the sales price of the business will generate enough passive income to retire comfortably beyond your golden years.

Isn’t this what everyone dreams of?

The best part is, even if you have the ability to screen print sellable, one or two color t-shirts, this dream is already within reach.

And is this the way to make $250k/year?

I would say yes, with a solid business plan and the willingness to put in 1000% effort.

If you’re ready, here are two ways to approach this: either purchase an existing screen printing business, or start one from scratch.

Let’s take a look at both, starting with buying your way in.

Instant cash flow

This is the fastest way to claim your dream. If you have enough capital to lay down for an established business that is. Essentially, you’ll be buying yourself a head start in the game.

It also means you’ll have incoming cash flow immediately once you take over.

On top of that, the business will have existing systems in place like workflow and operating procedures, transferable knowledge, existing customers and employees, contacts, suppliers, equipment and inventory.

If you take this route, hitting $250K/year in revenue is a matter of finding a good deal.

How much does a screen printing business cost?

screen-printing-t-shirts cost
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over my years, I’ve either been involved in or seen deals first hand that range from a solo garage operation doing $75,000, a 3-man shop with a nice storefront doing $800,000, to a company of 15 raking in $3.3M annually.

These revenue figures are indicators of how valuable the business is, then again, it will require a thorough evaluation since many aspects are subjective by nature.

A relatively quick way of valuing a business is to multiply the annual earnings, taking into consideration how long the business is projected to operate.

For example, let’s look at the 3-man shop with a nice storefront doing $800,000 annually.

Being operational for six years, let’s assume that for the past two, the business’ annual net profit had been the typical average of 35% which was $280,000 per year.

If the business is projected to continue successfully for the foreseeable future, it might sell for three to five times more, or $840,000 to $1.4M.

Again, this is a very subjective way of calculating a business.

To determine the most accurate value for a business, you’ll need to consider all of its assets, liabilities, recent earnings, future potential, and most importantly, your skills and abilities once you take over.

Not only that, the reality is that very few are packing up and selling a truly profitable business.

More often than not, owners predict a decline in profitability approaching and will mask the reason with something else. It’s up to you to dig deeper in order to find the real gems – owners with legitimate reasons for selling.

Those who just want to retire, either because of health reasons or wanting a complete change. Owners who have found more profitable ventures to focus on or are cashing out to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Whatever it may be, put emotions aside and do your due diligence. If budget permits, I highly recommend hiring a business broker or an appraiser, someone to help provide an objective and unbiased evaluation about the business and determine where it stands.

Starting a business screen printing t-shirts

screen printing t-shirts package
Source: Byron Villegas via Flickr

If you’re like me and weren’t lucky enough to have rich parents, win the lottery, receive a huge windfall or have huge sums of capital laying around, you might need to start your own business from the group up.

Compared to most businesses, a screen printing service is fairly easy to start.

I started mine with about $500 plus business setup fees. This is the reason why there’s so many solo operators around. That said, I believe it isn’t for everyone.

Not many can be a salesman, press repair mechanic, artist, printer, screen maker, accountant, delivery person and cleaner all at the same time, in the same day even!

The amount of money you are going to make is relative to the extent of your efforts. And your effort stems from your attitude.

So in order to achieve an annual revenue of $250k, your attitude has to be aligned with everything it takes to reach that target.

That said, starting a business from scratch and making it, is the most rewarding experience one can have in this lifetime.

Now I won’t get into the details of how to start a business – there’s Google for that.

What I will highlight are my personal thoughts and that of other screen printers of what we feel aspiring screen printers should consider before breaking into the business.

Read more: Start a Screen Printing Business: 33 Tips from Actual Owners

  • Be truthful about what you can and cannot do

I hear this typical scenario all the time – a new screen printer accepts his/her first job whereby the client specifically requests use of water-based inks.

Without any prior experience, the new printer goes to work thinking it’s a simple white logo on black. The prints turn out horrible. Trying to fix things, the new printer ends up losing more money than the job’s worth. Quits and goes back to doing whatever full-time gig they had.

Having a positive can-do attitude is crucial in business, but sometimes it’s best to have a reality check.

Actual screen printing isn’t something you can “fake it til you make it”. If you’re not confident about your skills just yet, reject the business no matter how good or exciting it sounds.

  • Focus on getting your first 5 clients, the rest will follow

Facebook groups, Instagram, blogging – there’s a ton of options for you to get the word out these days.

But screen printers are not all marketing savvy people. Some are, most aren’t.

We can tell our diazos apart, but when it comes to marketing we get stuck.

And that’s okay.

What you should aim for when starting out is to do your best work.

Work that gets people talking about you, because after all, word of mouth is the best type of marketing there is. I know a lot of successful print shops that rely solely on this strategy. It’s not only effective, but also free.

Imagine this, you get five clients and they leave your shop being mindblowned by your high-quality work and impeccable service; when each of them refers even one friend to you, that’s another set of five clients added to the client list. Rinse and repeat, that’s it.

The screen printing business is, at its core, a people oriented business more than anything. And a satisfied customer is your best salesman.

screen printing t-shirts
Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Charge what you’re worth

When I first started, I did a quick survey of the prices from screen printers within a 20 mile radius. I thought since they had way more experience than me and more clients, I had to reduce my prices to, what I thought someone couldn’t say no to.

People can’t say no to low prices right?


Sure, people will compare prices, but it isn’t the deciding factor.

Because I under-charged, I realized I had lost money doing a job instead. It took me a year of being in business to figure out the right balance between profit, value and competitiveness.

Charge too little and you won’t be able to make ends meet. Charge too much and you might be pricing yourself out of the market.

So how do you perfect the art of pricing your service? Here’s a general formula I’d go with:

Double the cost of all materials, add an additional 10% for wastage, then top it off with an hourly production rate e.g. $30

For example, say you have a job to print 100 t-shirts. It’s a one color logo on the front, nothing else, and you supply the t-shirts.

The breakdown looks something like this:

  • T-shirt cost $5
  • Printing cost $1.50
  • The cost per t-shirt comes to $6.50. For 100 pieces, it’s $650.
  • Add 10% for wastage, which is $65
  • Say it takes you 2 hours to print. Assuming you’re charging $30/ hour, that’s $60 total as your production rate.
  • Add it all up $650 + $65 + $60 = $775 total bill (excluding taxes, etc)

To further clarify and elaborate:

  • Printing costs are the direct materials that go into producing a print. Think paint, emulsion, reclaimers, etc.
  • Wastage are the extra blank t-shirts that you may or may not need, ink color that you bought that might not be the one your client wants. Mistakes happen, being prepared for it will save your bottom line.
  • Production rate includes variables such as rent, electricity, water, gas, pens, paper, misc supplies, even the bank’s transaction fees could be one of them.

You might benefit from having an accountant or tax auditor identify things as you can see, some of these items are obvious, some are not.

Now you understand why it took me a year to figure things out?

Here are some additional pricing tips to help you get ahead of the game:

  1. Charge the highest price possible based on the value of your product and service to your customer.
  2. Accept high margin jobs. This will allow you to do less work for the same or better profit.
  3. Start high during negotiations, then lower your price. It’s much harder to raise prices once you begin.

How to make $250,000/year screen printing and selling your own clothing brand?

screen printing t-shirts shopfront
Source: Byron Villegas via Flickr

The market for original and fresh t-shirt designs is huge.

In 2019, t-shirt giant Threadless, pulled in US$115.6m in global net sales. Custom retailer, Redbubble raked in US$183.4m and print-on-demand supplier Spreadshirt took in US$25.4m.

While brands like Hurley, Supreme and BAPE from the streetwear niche are commanding huge portions of the t-shirt pie.

It’s no wonder why creating your own line of apparel is an attractive venture for many.

Out of ten people I speak with, 7 started screen printing with the aspirations of owning a clothing label. Convinced that they have something catchy that will soon be on the backs of every teen, pre-teen and twenty-something out there.

And while some people hustle hard and do eventually make it, many underestimate the amount of work involved and were not mentally prepared to take on what seems like a straightforward venture.

Given the low barrier to entry of screen printing t-shirts and the result is a lot of failed, yet talented start-ups.

So before you dream about big sales numbers, make sure you know and understand the concept of growing a business.

You can’t simply lose patience and give up before your tide comes in. Know that owning a successful brand is a lot different than providing screen printing as a service where you actually engage and interact with each individual customer.

With retail, you’re just another t-shirt company. Building trust is a lot more challenging and requires original, in demand designs and a stellar marketing plan.

So how do you hit the target of $250K a year?

  • Get personal with your customer

So you have the “Greatest T-shirt Idea of All-time!!”. Well, that’s nice.

But it won’t matter if none of your customers want it. So do your homework, get to know your audience, who they are, what they like, where they hang out, your competition, etc. and get some feedback.

The easiest way to go about this is to find and talk to as many people as you can (at least 20). You can visit a public area like a market, or make a post to an online forum like Reddit.

Show off your design for critique and spend as much time as you need to refine it. As a creative individual, I find this the hardest thing to do because  of the fear of rejection. But it’s something that needs to be done so find a way to detach yourself emotionally.

  • Get some marketing training

As good as you are with the squeegee, you’ll need to be just as good with marketing. Very, very few succeed in developing their idea and bringing it to market. Why?

They just don’t understand how to do it and are lazy. These days it’s all about digital marketing and it makes sense – it’s cheaper, your customers are ready for you and it’s actually not that hard to learn.

Take a basic course and then apply it to your business.

  • Know your numbers

Record every transaction no matter how small. This is key to reaching your financial goals.

As an entrepreneur, knowing how much everything costs in your operation – t-shirts, paint, utilities, etc, will give you the ability to optimize your business and ultimately increase the bottom line.

Can you earn $250k/year from working in a screen printing shop?

screen printing t-shirts people
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Screen printing jobs are like any other labor job, lots of work, long hours for an okay paycheck, but nothing to get rich off of.

Your pay grade and benefits may move up working for a large company with a range of clients and huge volume, but is this enough to bring home an annual salary of $250,000?

Unless you move about in the ranks of regional manager, production manager or lead man, chances are you won’t be hitting those numbers.

But not so fast.

Grinding it out as a full-time employee doesn’t mean you’ll be one forever.

Gary, (not his real name) is an acquaintance I had met at a trade show back in 2012.

When we spoke, Gary was well on his way to launching his 3rd print shop on his side of the woods in Illinois.

Gary’s last job as an employee was a QC manager for a national printer whom he had been working for for the past decade. He started out washing squeegees and mixing emulsions while attending community college.

It’s been awhile since I’ve met Gary but last news I heard through the grapevine is that he’s now the owner of 11 shops all over the midwest.

This leads me to believe he’s doing well above our annual target. Heck, he probably has eleven QC managers working for him!

My point is, many successful print shop owners start off by slaving away as an employee.

Not only did they acquire hands on professional knowledge and experience, the smart ones used the opportunity to build their network, contacts and business acumen by doing so. As they say, it’s a great way to “learn and earn” at the same time.

So to answer the question – “Can you earn $250k/year from working in a screen printing shop?”

I would say definitely YES!

In fact, it’s the best way to break into the industry in my opinion – provided you can find someone willing to give you the opportunity.

Can you earn $250k/year from being a middleman and outsource screen printing?

screen printing t-shirts middleman

Pete loves everything about screen printing t-shirts.

However, he is way more talented with a mouse doing graphic design work than using a squeegee.

Almost everyone I know in the industry, knows or works with him in some capacity.

Pete spends most of his time building relationships with printers like me, and believe it or not, he’s one of the very few people I give special rates to. And my pricing to him hasn’t changed in over 10 years.

In fact, Pete’s my longest contract client.

Not only is he a great person to deal with, he sends me print ready and color separated designs that don’t require any work done on my side – which is hugely appreciated by any printer.

Pete is also the only successful middleman I know making well above the annual $250K mark.

It’s his job to get the best outsourcing deal for his clients and believe me, he makes a healthy profit along the way.

As a middleman who brokers deals like Pete, a typical transaction goes like this.

Once he gets an order, Pete purchases blanks from his supplier and has it delivered to my doorstep.

At the same time, he preps and emails the artwork to me along with the print specs. We chat on the phone if the job calls for it. Once I’m done, he picks it up or we’ll deliver the goods to him or wherever he wants it to. That’s pretty much it.

Pete charges between 25% – 35% above the wholesale cost as his fee.

So if his cost per t-shirt is $10, Pete adds $2.50 as his fee and charges his client $12.50. For an order of 200 t-shirts, that’s $500 for a couple of hours work.

In a good month, Pete usually books 10 orders from me. For discharge and other specialty printing, he goes to another shop.

The main benefit for a printer working with a middleman is that we don’t have to deal with the customer and it keeps our business running. As for Pete, we don’t even touch the artwork.

If the middleman business model seems interesting to you, here’s what you need to get started.

  1. Get to know screen printers in your area. Foster a real connection with them because they will be the backbone of your operation. Select a few printers and learn about what they offer and their specialty.
  2. Find the best deal you can for blanks. You can create an account with Sanmar or TSC in the beginning. But to get the best deal, visit a trade show like the ISS. All the sales reps are under one roof and they’ll be hungry for your business. Create relationships with each of them.
  3. Rope in the clients. In Pete’s case, it worked out to be a great deal for someone who wanted both graphic design work and also some t-shirts printed. For many small businesses, Pete was their guy. To become a successful middleman, you’ll need to know (or learn) how to acquire business as there are many paths when it comes to marketing. I could talk all day about marketing tactics but that’s beyond the scope of this article. For starters, you could run an ad in the local newspaper, attend business groups, do cold calling or go door-to-door.

And if at any point you’d like to get into the actual screen printing yourself, you can. By doing so you eliminate the printers and that means more profit for you.

But that means you essentially go from middleman to business owner.

Wrapping up

It’s a blessing to have fun while you make money. If you foresee screen printing in your future, then hopefully one of the options above will light a clearer path.

Additionally, you can even take on more paths or combine them all. For example, screen print your own line of t-shirts and for others as a side hustle while working a full time job as a middleman? Just a thought.

My point is, hit the $250,000 a year target is certainly achievable with screen printing t-shirts. As with anything it’s a combination of luck, timing, money, business model, product, marketing, PR, operations, financial responsibility, hard work, commitment, knowledge, et cetera.

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