Build Your Business:

Should You Start A Preprint Line? Part 1

The Pedal Pushers Club, a preprint line owned by Brett Novick, Takoma Park, Md., sells at retail and online, and targets people who like to ride bikes, whether it be racing in Lycra spandex or casually on a three-speed bike and flip-flops. Photo courtesy

March 29, 2013

I produced my first preprint line as a screen printer in 1978. Using what I thought was a clever idea, I sold about 60 shirts and I got “the bug.”

In those days, there was a place in New Jersey called Capital Theater. It was one of the biggest rock-and-roll venues in the country. Bands like The Ramones, The Talking Heads and Blondie played there. My friends and I sold shirts on the street outside the theater. People got to know us, it was a viable way to make money, and it was exciting to create something and sell it. There was no better feeling than having your own designs bought by other people.

As the years progressed, I opened factories and got involved in the gift show trade for the resort industry. We would travel up and down the East Coast. There were roughly 12-15 design lines that were labeled with our brand.

Today, my operation offers screen printing and digital direct-to-garment printing, and my company helps other people
develop preprint lines. We generally do the art, label design and production. We also do a lot of label replacement, heat seal labels and the like.

As an advisor and producer, I have learned that everyone wants to get into the T-shirt business. People ask me every day about starting their own lines. Unfortunately, most of these people are going to fail because they fall in love with their own ideas, which may not be good enough to make sufficient money to pay for the expense of creating and selling the shirts. Of all the people I talk to, about 10%
successfully launch lines.

Even with a viable, original or innovative idea, the average person has no clue what it takes to see it through. While it’s great to have a couple of designs you think your friends are going to like, you have to sell to more people than just them. So understanding the scope of what you need to do and how many shirts you need to sell to be profitable is important.

Your Goal & Niche
The first question to ask yourself is: Am I doing this for fun or to pay my bills?

If you want to start a preprint line with the goal of generating income, you must do a lot of demographic research on your audience and be well informed on current apparel trends. This means walking local shopping malls to see what is happening at retail. There also are resources on the Internet that provide information about apparel and decorating trends for the next season.

Depending on your line and its seasonality, timing is critical in most
preprint launches. If it’s December, you have missed the spring season, especially if you are selling to resort retailers.

Men’s Apparel Guild In California (MAGIC) hosts two of the biggest shows of interest to T-shirt preprinters, and they are held each February and August.
Retailers place orders for the following spring season during the August event.

It is very difficult to get your foot in the door with a retailer during an existing season. So developing a good preprint line requires patience because often you’ll have to wait for the next retail buying cycle. The exception to that rule is if your market is located in an area that is warm year-round. For example, in the Florida Keys, where summer weather is the norm, your opportunities are consistent on an annual basis. However, if your market is the Jersey Shore, you have a three-month window. The sales are significant, but the window is small.

Another decision you have to make is whether you will target mass merchandisers or niches. The mass merchandising market, which includes major department stores like Macy’s and major discounters like WalMart and Target, primarily sell
licensed merchandise. College bookstores comprise another major market, but you must secure a college preprint license.

The most probable preprint venues to which a newcomer can gain access are niche and boutique markets — either bricks-and-mortar stores or online. Many preprint companies find success using social media to reach niche customers to sell apparel exclusively online. This avoids the challenge of trying to get space in a traditional store. Bricks-and-mortar marketing is more difficult because nobody wants to take up high-rent selling space with an unproven preprint line.

Cultivating The Idea
Understand this: Launching a preprint line can’t be based on a single idea or design. It needs to include at least six designs that comprise a collection with a common theme. Without something that is consistent and well thought out, you will not be successful.
Truly successful preprint companies create a brand, which typically is made up of multiple T-shirt lines. So if you launch the XYZ brand, it might have a sports line, an entertainment line and a holiday line, all under the same umbrella.

For example, a current client of mine developed 15 designs — five designs in three categories. However, there also are an additional 14 designs to be added to these categories based on the success of the initial 15. In my opinion, this is a well-thought-out and developed brand. One category is comedic, another is art-driven and the third is satirical. The way it has been put together will be very effective.

The next step for this company, as it would be for you, is to put together a presentation. Retailers know what they want, and if your designs are not contemporary and presented with professionalism, you’re never going to get your merchandise through the door.

Not only do the designs have to be great, they also have to be presented correctly in terms of garment handling and organization. They have to be labeled with tags. You can’t take a shirt with a major mill’s label and try to resell it to a retailer, expecting to have any credibility. In my experience, most retailers look at that as a lack of commitment. They want unique, exclusive, branded merchandise. This is why you have to research what is selling in the retail market as you develop your line.

Regardless of the graphic theme your designs take, it should have demographic characteristics and you have to know what apparel styles that demographic likes. For example, if you are targeting the biking industry, you have to know that demographic wants performance shirts. It thrives on dye-sublimation decorating. Using a 100%
cotton T-shirt for bikers is not a good idea. You also have to research your competition.

Capital Questions
Another question to ask yourself is: Will I need to sell 100 or 1,000 shirts to recoup my costs? We tell most people that if you are starting a T-shirt line as a business, you need to be willing to invest at least a few thousand dollars.
Otherwise, don’t bother.

Establish a baseline for how much you are willing to invest. As a rough ballpark figure, I’d estimate you can get quality samples of six designs printed, labeled, tagged, packaged and ready to roll for less than $2,000. These would be used for marketing and sales presentations.

A big factor in the cost of the samples is whether you already have high-quality artwork or if you will need to pay to have it prepared. If you already have the artwork, you can save some money.

If you are a decorator, you’ll also have the time and consumables costs to play around with. If you will not produce your own product, I recommend finding a printer who is willing to work with you to develop the line.
If I see a well-thought-out line that I think has a decent chance of getting off the ground, I will be more flexible in how much I charge and how much I help the person get sampling done. It’s something that’s easy to discern when you’ve been in this business for a while.

I also see people who are successful on a smaller level. There is a lot of street marketing that occurs, whether it’s in the suburbs or urban areas. This is a growing category for preprinters. I have customers who order 300 shirts that they sell for about $30 a piece. A week later, they come back for another 300 shirts. If you are willing to take your line to the streets, it’s a viable option. And at $30 a pop, it’s less risky than going the online or bricks-and-mortar route.

The bottom line is you have to get actual samples out in the marketplace to test. You need to get feedback. You have to give samples away and get people to wear them. Show people the artwork before printing. Save your money if you get a mediocre response.

These are just a few of the key considerations of launching a preprint line. It’s a trial-and-error process that can result in decent profits or a lot of wasted time and money. If you follow some of the advice here, you can take it one step at a time and find out if your idea has what it takes to make it a worthwhile investment.  

In next month’s issue, Part 2 of this two-part series will include information on the various factors involved in selling your preprint line.

Kevin Kelly has been involved in decorated apparel for more than 34 years. He opened his current business, Blue Heron Industries Inc., in Little Falls, N.J., in 2002. Blue Heron offers volume screen printing, embroidery and direct-to-garment services. For more information or to comment on this article, email Kevin at or visit 

Meet Zeze Zebra

Paul Allen Jr. always knew he wanted to work for himself, but wasn’t sure what type of business he wanted to own. One day, after having tried his hand at various business ventures — from a mental health services business to multilevel marketing — he had a moment of clarity.

His idea was simple: He wanted to create characters that were fun and relayed a positive message. From there, he hit the ground running, establishing his business, Allen Creations LLC, and developing a playful preprint line: Zeze Zebra.

For the past two years, Allen has been conducting research, designing characters and obtaining legal creations for his creations. Today, his company offers toddler and children’s clothing, ranging from T-shirts to short sets, hats and bibs, as well as recently added adult options — all featuring a fun zebra character.

“At first, the business’ target market was toddler to preteen, but it has since expanded due to the overwhelming response from adults who saw me wearing my design,” Allen says. He also is currently in talks with a women’s clothing
boutique that operates several stores across the United States.

When it comes to indentifying his target market, Allen maintains an open-
minded, go-getter mindset. “I know that the ‘normal’ thing to do is pick an age range as your target market and maximize it, but when I have interest in my designs from someone who is not in that market, I then expand my target market,” he says. “The way I look at things, anyone who wears T-shirts, they are my target market.”

He says attending a recent Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) event helped him expand the vision for his business. His exposure to different garment options and printing techniques made him aware of the array of choices he could offer his customers.

Above all, though, Allen thinks the best thing you can do to grow your business is have confidence. “Because I believe in myself and what I am doing, it makes it easier for me to reach out to store owners, buyers, and those that have the authority and power to put my garments on store shelves,” he explains. “I don’t stress over my weaknesses or worry about what I don’t have. I use my strengths to expand my business.” — L.M.