How Giving Away T-Shirts Made Me Over $500K in Revenue

I’m going to let you in on a little secret…  When it comes to business, I’m passionate, motivated and driven.  But when it comes to a lot of other things in my life, I can be pretty lazy.

As soon as I started making money with Single Grain, one of the first things I did was to go out and get some t-shirts made.  Not because I thought it’d be some genius marketing move, but because I knew I’d be able to wear them every day and never have to go clothes shopping again.  I started out with an order of 25-30 shirts, and since this was more than enough to fill up my closet, I decided to give the rest away to friends.

I posted to Facebook to see who wanted a few shirts and was surprised when I ran out just a few hours after I put up the message.  Clearly there was a demand for my shirts!

Since my supply was short, I put together an email list of people who were interested and started sending out the shirts with personalized notes.  Not only did this allow me to help capture people’s physical addresses for use in future t-shirt giveaways, my friends were so excited that they personally thanked me on Facebook and started wearing the shirts around town.

That excitement told me that I was on to something.  Versions 1.0 and 2.0 of the t-shirts were in pretty short supply, but once I started to notice that people knew Single Grain’s name, I decided to go all in on Version 3.0.

My next order of shirts was much larger.  I ordered multiple colors and enough that I could give 4-5 shirts to every person that wanted them.  I told these people – “I don’t care whether you wear them or wash your car with them, just take a few shirts.”  I even donated a bunch to the Salvation Army and later came across a homeless person wearing a Single Grain t-shirt.

By this point, our shirts were everywhere.  More than 500 people were supporting our brand by wearing the shirts around town – allowing both the shirt project and our company to start gaining some serious traction.

These days, our Single Grain shirts are our uniforms.  Everyone on our team wears them, so when we all go to lunch together, we roll deep.  Even our book keeper wears our shirts every single day.  In our SOMA neighborhood – where we’re surrounded by hundreds of other startups and entrepreneurs – this kind of publicity and name recognition is huge.

But we definitely aren’t done with this project yet.  Our team creates a new design every 6-12 months, which keeps things fresh.  The people on our email list always want to have the newest designs, which keeps our name out there – bringing in new business day after day.

So how did I make $500K from this?

Now that you know how my t-shirt project worked, here’s how it generated results for me:

It helped me strike up business conversations

Because I wore my shirts everywhere, the people around me would ask, “What is Single Grain?”  Then, I could give my 30-second elevator pitch and hand out business cards to people who were interested in our services.

No joke – this happened everywhere.  It happened while I was waiting for a haircut at Super Cuts, while I was working out at the gym and while I was racing at the track.  Hell, I even landed a 50K client while I was getting a massage!  These conversations alone led to about 40% of the 500K I made through my t-shirts.

It helped me get into larger companies

Since I gave away shirts to my friends, they wore them to their jobs – some of which just happened to include positions at companies like Apple, HP, Google, Cisco, Yahoo and Wells Fargo.  Their coworkers and bosses would eventually ask what Single Grain was, which led to another 30% of my 500K returns.

It helped me to grow my brand recognition

Right now, Single Grain is a 16-person with almost zero marketing budget (and what we do have, we spend on t-shirts!).  Since we don’t have the money for huge ad campaigns, nobody really knew who we were at first.  The t-shirts changed that.

These days, most of our business comes from referrals and word-of-mouth.  But what’s interesting is, because of our t-shirts, prospective clients are a lot more familiar with our brand.  Whenever I’d talk to a new customer, I’d find out that they were a lot more comfortable with us and a lot more trusting of our services – all because they knew our name from seeing our t-shirts around town.

The remaining 30% of my $500K can absolutely be put down to the new calls that we got from our shirts and the deals that we were able to close as a result of this brand recognition.

How can you launch your own t-shirt program?

Clearly, creating and distributing Single Grain t-shirts has made a huge difference for me.  If you’re growing a business and want to put your own similar program into place, the following are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

Don’t cheap out

From the start, I ordered the best quality t-shirts I could find.  They’re American Apparel shirts and they cost around $10-15 a piece with the design included.

Could I have found cheaper options?  Absolutely.  But I chose to buy the best shirts I could because I knew that people wouldn’t wear them if they weren’t comfortable.  Buying great shirts meant more publicity because the people that received them recognized that they weren’t just “throwaway” shirts intended for publicity purposes (plus, I wear them every day too and I like to be comfortable!).

Keep your design simple

Our current batch of shirts features our logo on the front and a simple message on the back – that’s it.  Keeping the design simple means that anyone can wear them without feeling like a walking billboard.  Even my mom loves wearing them!

Wear it everywhere

If you’re going to buy shirts to promote your brand, it’s sort of a no-brainer to say that you have to actually wear them.  Don’t buy them, throw them in your closet and call it a day.

When you wear your shirts everywhere, people start to get curious.  And when they get curious, they go out of their way to learn more about you and your company.  In some cases, this might turn into more business.  But even if it doesn’t, people who are interested in your shirts might be willing to wear some of your extras around – leading to more business down the road.

And finally, make sure to thank the people who do wear your shirts.  Whenever we send out new batches of shirts, we add personalized notes thanking people for wearing them because we recognize how important this form of promotion is for our brand.  As a result, they feel good and we get more publicity – everybody wins!

Does your company give away free t-shirts?  If so, share the best place you’ve spotted one of your shirts in the comments section below:

Comments

  • Sujan, I’ve seen this, recognized it as powerful, but never even considered implementing.

    Reading this was a great reminder and has sparked some great ideas.

    Thank you!

  • This post makes me happy! I always felt funny wearing my shirts around. Especially considering my company, at this point, is just me.

    Now I won’t feel weird rocking my own brand!

  • Great story on how internet marketers can still bring their cunning (even if on accident) skills to the brick and mortar arena and be effective.

    Printing up some shirts next week.

  • Awesome story. I second what you said about getting the most comfortable t-shirts you can find, easily justifies the additional cost. Our team wears them all the time as well in and out of the office because they are so comfortable. If you try to go for the cheap ones nobody will wear them and it defeats the whole purpose.

  • It’s a common brain washing marketing trick that’s been used for years and extends to all kinds of products including pens, mouse mats, mugs, calendars and planners, umbrellas, sticky notes etc.
    It works for sure but measuring its value to an exact sales figure, impossible, you can only estimate.
    It also only really works with big brand name building, Joe the builder would have little success using this technique.
    To be really clever get affiliated with the printing business first!

  • Great t-shirts is the only marketing expense we’ve ever invested dollars into. We’ve given out hundreds of Verge t-shirts to members in our community and only 100 shirts were produced for our Powder Keg conference last year. I see them all over the place in our startup community and half the time, I haven’t met the person who is wearing the shirt! It always leads to a good conversation.

    It’s like wearing sports gear. People will only we’re your logo if it looks good and, more importantly, believe in your brand.

  • Great post Sujan. Working for a personalised gifts and t-shirts company, we never thought this strategy would help us a great deal until I read this. We have finally decided to implement this in our marketing strategy and hope to seek more than a positive outcome.

  • Sujan, You hit the nail on the head.Comfortable tees, clean looking silkscreen makes the tee a walking billboard..and creates conversation without jumping into someones aura.

  • Hi Sujan,

    What a fantastic story. I have a quick question though, how did you handle t-shirt sizes? Did you order them all in the most popular size?

    Would love to know.

  • Sujan,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom. My husband and I recently started our own waxing studio business. Deciding how and where to spend marketing dollars can be daunting to say the least. This solidifies our idea about printing shirts for marketing our business. Send me your address and email and I will send you a shirt! Thanks again.

    Chantelle

  • Hey Sujan,

    This is a fantastic concept and I’ve tried it before with some success (although I didn’t splurge on the really good shirts like I should have). Anyway, it looks like your shirts just have your logo on the front and a saying on the back. What about URLs or phone numbers? What’s your thought on including or excluding contact information like that?

    All the best,

  • Love the t-shirts and the advice, especially the “don’t cheap out” part.

    Too many people would just go the cheap route since these will be free, but these will result in nobody wearing the shirts if they sucked, which would be a waste of dough!

    I’m a hat guy, so I’m planning on doing something similar with my business but with baller ballcaps!

  • Hi Sujan,

    I came across this post accidentally. So I feel sometimes accidents are good. A friend of friend shared link of this and out of curiosity I cliked on it.

    Happy to share that, I share same thought process for some points as mentioned by you. Like t-Shirt for self and even my partners, Quality of Tees.

    I was just thinking of giving away some Tees and a cake to people who can’t afford to buy it. This will be on recommendation from somebody who know them. Like on the occasion of Birthday of son of a maid servant.

    Thanks to you for sharing, i has increased my trust….Regards, Ashish Parik

    PS: Before writting here, I have thanked the person who directed me here…

  • hi

    I have an interview, where they have asked me to name 2 major companies to work with in the UK, where the t-shires and cloths they sell can work into some kind of marketing partnership idea.

    They have worked with dr pepper, where the customer can go on their website and complete a sentence on the t-shirt etc.

    I wanted to know if you could help me with an idea I could potentially sell in the interview?

    thanks

  • Sujan,

    Your story was light a light bulb suddenly coming on above my head. I left the UK Armed Forces a year ago to set up my own printed clothing business and have struggled to get noticed.

    I create designs to support and show off the pride in our brave men and women and I help veteran charities too.

    I would love to read your introductory messages on FB that you did for v1.0 because I will be following your lead with my own clothing label.

  • Do you think that I can get one of your t’s. We own a business as well and to help out another self motivator would mean a lot.

  • This way you will be in a position to save lots of money too.
    These five-star Hotels in Las Vegas with all of types of facilities for
    that customer. Now you are aware why paying for upgrades can wind up entailing more than one cost let’s consider
    ways in which you will get new Tom Tom maps for free.

  • Sujan,

    Great article. We’ve been producing and promoting Apparel as Media for 40 years. After more than 35 million producted for companies like Apple, Google, and the like, one this is crystal clear, great shirts NEVER lose their appeal.

    There’s a common thread in the comments above, but it’s really not that obvious. It’s really simple and captures the power of this form of promotion.

    Every TShirt Tells a Story.

    When you make the graphic compelling to the point where a conversation is initiated, you’ve accomplished step one, awareness. To reach the real value, make sure everyone knows the story behind the shirt and the graphic. Then when the conversation starts, you have the ultimate viral word of mouth.

    I would respectfully disagree with Brian Moreau in the comment stream above. There are many, many ways to directly trace back the value of doing an apparel promotion. From your own experience, the ROI can be amazing, if done right.

    As many people have observed, the key is not to “cheap out.” Everyone has a favorite shirt, why not make your images their favorites? The promotions can live on for years and everytime you wear the shirt, the memories come back. Fantastic for conferences and events. Invest in great design work, excellent quality garments, and professional screen printing and you will be delighted with the results.

  • Hi Sujan,

    Great article. However, my company sells shirts. How could I apply your method to my business? Maybe give away a promotional item? But that seems like what everyone else does.

  • I have a small company myself and we do mostly sites and SEO. Reading these article from head to toe leads me to start thinking about where I get good quality ones and what will be the first design.
    I live in Brazil since 2013
    Tx!

  • Hi Sujan,

    Its a great story i liked it. As i am also stepping into t-shirt business this would be the best thing i have read.. All the best great job..

  • Can I please get 3 tshirts ? One for me , my hubby & daughter ? Sizes LG, MD & 4T size for my 4 year old ! Thanks & happy holidays

  • Thats Great , I had that idea sometimes back but i failed to find reason , Now i do ! I run a small company in Kenya . Thanks for your words.

  • This post was awesome. I’m starting my business soon and will definitely be implementing this idea. Thanks Sujan.

  • Hi! LOVE this post, because we love t-shirts! For promo purposes, our first batch of tees we ever printed included our company logo and name and website! They were good quality and simple. People actually loved wearing them as well as the message they carried! So, I can attest to this method. Great post! And, if you get a chance, stop by our e-store and subscribe to our blog! We love comments too! Thanks a bunch and best wishes to everyone!!!!

  • Hi, I do think this is an excellent blog. I stumbledupon it ;) I am going to return yet again
    since I book marked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

  • Great blog on the power of t-shirt advertising. Thanks for sharing your story.

    For what it’s worth, there are less expensive but comparable quality shirts from brands like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom. AA shirt is a 30′s single (thin but strong), ring spun (soft) cotton, with a fitted look, and many companies make a similar shirt.

    If you’re interested doubling the amount of shirts you can buy without giving up comfort and quality, send me an email.

    james@winzigpm.com

  • Hello,
    Iam currently starting a T-shirt line however,Iam having a very hard time finding a reputable supplier overseas.
    Do you have any helpful info.
    I would really appreciate it.
    Best of continued success with your line

    Best Regards
    Joli

  • Hi Sujan,

    Wanted to let you know I own a cotton company and can supply you with the same quality as AA tshirts but at much lower prices. Send me an email if your at all interested.

    Dima@dimaricotton,com

  • Caught your blog post when looking for marketing strategies as I trying to determine what to put on our new shirts for events with Jerkyspot.com Didn’t find what I was looking for, but found something better. I was going to non american apparel and you changed my mind. I always decided to go with something people could wear around instead of something they would only wear while working.

    This also sparked me to gear up and finally get a ton of tshirts for our marketing firm in Orlando. Great post, I already know its a no brainer investment. You had an impact on two business today that already have some significant traction and 12 employees. Even other internet marketers need inspiration sometimes. Great post.

  • This is awesome to hear! I spend all my time helping companies design cool shirts and ship them to their customers (we built an API for this) so I can say you are giving some solid advice. Its a great way to spread your brand, people love shirts :-)

    • Hi! I stumbled upon this story while looking at marketing stuff online! So TRUE! And yes, for every business I’ve ever helped market, tees were a big help. Ironically, I ended up in the business of selling t-shirt, myself, just with a niche! SommaBaby Clothing Company DEFINATELY gets attention when our tees are worn with the logo and website on them! Thanks for this post…..

  • I’m currently focusing on my t-shirt marking strategies,I have great designs but business wise I’m lacking greatly……btw I would love to try out one of your shirts

  • Sujan,

    Very interesting article about your tee shirt give aways and the increased business this created for you. I am very intrigued by this story. I am in the Tee shirt printing business and this never crossed my mind. Thanks and we will defenatly give this a try.

    Jason

  • Sujan,

    I am in the t-shirt printing business and have been trying to promote our site and our services. This is an awesome idea! Thank you for the information. We would love to wear your shirts as well. I think it would be great for companies to cross sell/market each other. Also if you ever need great pricing on your shirts let us know! We carry high quality products at an excellent price.

    Felecia
    Create My Ink

  • We make T-shirts using rhinestones for the designs/Logos! If you’re looking for a t shirt that Really Stands Out, check us out. We offer free design services and only use the Bella brand of shirts. The ladies absolutely “Love Them”!

    Kellie is the owner and is absolutely fantastic to work with.
    You can contact her through our site.

  • Sujan,
    I am Samuel Gier from India and I loved your marketing strategy. Please drop us an email if you need best quality -Organic Indian cotton T-shirts printed with your company logo/name at very reasonable rates.
    Thanks !

  • Hey, love the article. Do you have any advice you would give someone looking to start a T-shirt line?

  • I love Tshirts. We own a dental office and are opening a brand new satellite location. I am trying to design our new tshirts now. I hope I can hand them out to the kids in the local middle schools etc. We only specialize in braces and invisalign so most of our patients are pre teens and teens. Hope it works just as well for us!

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About Sujan

Sujan Patel is the VP of Marketing at thisCLICKS, the makers of When I Work & Wage Base. Previously Sujan founded Single Grain, one of the top Digital Marketing agencies in San Francisco, CA. With more than 10 years of Internet marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Sales Force,…