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Michael Essek – T-Shirt Side Hustle to T-Shirt Business Success Story

Michael Essek’s T Shirt Side Hustle to T-Shirt Business Success

Michael Essek

Listen on Apple Podcasts here (or search on your fav podcast app to listen there).

Michael Essek talks about his successful online T-Shirt company, his own marketing and sales tips, and how to go about starting your own print on demand T-Shirt company.

Michael Essek helps designers and illustrators come up with creative T-Shirt ideas, create better designs, and grow a long-term business from their art.

Michael has been designing and selling T-Shirts online since 2013, primarily through Print on Demand sites like Redbubble, Merch by Amazon and Teepublic, and using Print on Demand companies like Printful.

To start improving your ideas today – visit MichaelEssek.com

t shirt side hustle to business success

T Shirt Sales Marketing Tip

Michael Essek 0:00
A lot of times people will buy a shirt as a kind of afterthought. They’ll be like, Oh, that’s funny. I’m gonna buy that and click click, click and they’ve bought it without really going through a process of That’s amazing. Wow, I really need that you know data and then thinking about it for days or anything like that. So anyway, you can kind of make the T shirt fit that mold if you like fit that pathway, so that someone notices it thinks it’s cool goes looking for it, finds it and buys it without you know, making too big a deal of it.

Stacy Caprio 0:30
Hi, and welcome to the Her.CEO podcast with Stacy Caprio. The best advice comes not from your critics, but from those who are already where you want to be listed along with Stacey tweak to learn from those who have already built their dreams so you can learn how to build your own. Today we get to talk to Michael Essek who sells t shirts online.

I followed Michael’s t shirt selling journey for over six years. Ever since I started my own Etsy and print on demand shop and was looking for tips and help to get better designs and more sales. His 10k plus a month income reports were one of the things that inspired me to originally get into t shirt sales, currently selling on Etsy still, but it’s much harder than it looks. And when I focused on T shirts solely. I’ve had some pretty good multi thousand income supporting months, but nothing compared to Michael. His idea structures, which he shares and almost daily emails and brainstorming idea output are incredibly prolific. I recommend hopping on his email list if you’re looking to learn new structures you can use to brainstorm ideas in any niche or in any business sector. Or if you’re looking to grow as a print on demand apparel seller, and stay up to date on the new trends and updates on print on demand and T shirt news. In this episode, Michael shares some great marketing and sales tips.

A surprising perspective on how to do more effective influencer marketing the different ways he is now selling his shirts, including different platforms licensing and more, and his own experiences and growth in the T shirt sales arena. This is a great episode for you if you’re interested in diving into any type of trendy e commerce or t shirt sales niches, or just learning how to think of new ideas and market and sell products online. I’ll go into some of my favorite takeaways from this episode at the end. So hang around for that. Without further ado, let’s hear Michael story and learn his t shirt selling tips.

Hi, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show.

I followed your T shirt, emails and blog for a while now. And I was thinking that you could start by giving the listeners some background, how you got into the T shirt design space, and an overview of how you’ve progressed since starting.

Michael Essek

Michael Essek 3:00
Sure. Well, thanks for having me, Stacy, it’s a pleasure to be to be here with you today. So I started I think around 2013 2014, I had a small website, a blog that I was running, which I sold to someone. And what I didn’t realize in the selling process was that I was going to lose the income from that blog that I was getting on a monthly basis.

So I quite soon set out to find another way to get some some income in. And one of the things I stumbled across was people selling illustrations and stuff on on online on T shirts or on prints and stuff. So I decided I would try and teach myself to be better. At the illustration side, I’ve always kind of been pretty good at art and design. But I didn’t know how to use Adobe Illustrator very well. And I saw that a lot of these guys were using Adobe Illustrator and stuff. So I saw it as a kind of learning opportunity and a project for me to work on a kind of side hustle at the time while I had a full time job.

So I created some designs started uploading them to or I would say offering them to, at the time what were known as sure today sites like t fury, and others and these were sites that would sell a design for 24 hours and then they would take it down. So yeah, after maybe a couple of months, I think of trial and error. I eventually got a design accepted by one of these sites, made a few hundred dollars in the 24 hours and that kind of hooked me and and I thought okay, this is possible. There’s a lot of these websites, there’s a lot of places to sell my work. And if I just put in the work and have enough designs, then eventually this could be you know, a full time full time gig.

But it took a long time to get there. It was maybe two two or three years later, before I really grew the income to to what was matching my my job income at the time. And that was right around the time that Amazon launched a service called merged by Amazon where they would Print and ship t shirts. And you could upload designs directly to Amazon, they would do everything else. And that really was a godsend for me that was came at just the right time, I had lots of designs, I was able to get them up very quickly on Amazon. And basically why ride a wave of popularity, your early sales and momentum in that space. And that really allowed me to, to Yeah, to quit my job go full time on T shirts. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

Stacy Caprio 5:32
Wow, that’s awesome. So I have to ask, I’m curious, what was the website you sold originally? What was the niche?

Michael Essek 5:42
Yeah, it was, it was actually like a hyperlocal blog to where I was living at the time. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t ever making lots of money or anything, but it was just a super local news site. And I was just kind of gathering, you know, interesting stories and, and sharing them online. And it got a bit of a following. And it got it was kind of just as Twitter was taken off. So I’d quite an active Twitter account as well. So yeah, I just kind of lost interest in the project and sold it. So it wasn’t ever a big thing for me. But I guess it just shows up. I’ve always been interested in I don’t know, getting things set up online and growing an audience and things like that.

Stacy Caprio 6:20
Yeah, that must have kind of helped you transition more seamlessly into the T shirt, online selling space. So that’s really cool. The next thing I want to ask was, which marketing channels and platforms do list on today? Do you focus mostly on March? or what have you found to be effective?

Sell T Shirts Online

Michael Essek 6:42
Yeah, good question. So I started off getting sales through sites like red bubble and tee public, you know, several years ago, and those are still bringing in, you know, good income for me every month, obviously, merch by Amazon was the one that came along and really took off. And that’s still still going strong. And previously, I’ve sold and still have a Shopify site where I sell some stuff, but I don’t really promote that much anymore.

So those are the kind of the main channels and then Etsy has been a big one. And that’s, that’s picked up quite significantly in the past few months, along with almost everything else actually apart from obviously merge by Amazon, which has been down for a while, I’d say in terms of like the ones that are the biggest, in a usual month, when we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic, then it would be much by Amazon, then probably redbubble, then teepublic, and then Etsy, somewhere in the mix there as well. And then there’s a whole series of other smaller websites. So I still have designs on like society, six, designed by humans and several others like that. And the other route through which I kind of make money from my art is offline licensing. So we have an agent for my business, who basically promotes my work to various manufacturers and retailers, usually in the offline arena.

And, and yeah, we make royalties through that as well, the harder to track, you don’t get notifications on sales, you know, in real time, like you do with lots of online sources, but we still, you know, make a significant income from that. And that tends to be growing every year very steadily, because it’s not as wide open to issues and copycats and things like that. And it’s more of a long term business play, if you like. So we have that going as well.

Stacy Caprio 8:29
Oh, that’s awesome. How did you find out about licensing or connect with your agent?

T Shirt Business Success

Michael Essek 8:37
I think a couple of years into maybe new t shirt business, if you like that i i set up and started once it was once I was going full time on T shirts, I kind of realized, you know, we had at least hundreds if not thousands of designs at that time. And I thought, you know, we got all these designs, and obviously we put them up online and we sell them through various places. And that’s great. But there’s there seems to me that there would be other other channels, and one of them was offline.

So that the problem was how do we how do we find those people? You know, how does how does that side of the business work? So what I did was was put together my designs in a big, big catalog, like an a three, like ring binder catalog, we had like a few of these printed and we went down to a licensing show in London, there’s a licensing Expo every year. There’s also one in in Las Vegas every year which is run by the same organization.

And this is really where a lot of big brands, cutting their work Warner Brothers, these kind of you know, mega brands will go and conduct their licensing business where they’ll go in and talk to potential manufacturers and retailers who wants to be able to sell whatever it is Peppa Pig lunchboxes or you know, Dexter’s lab, socks or whatever it is.

So they’ll go and meet those people at this at this licensing show. And we had a little booth there. Me and my you know, little tiny booth, it was a fraction of the size of, of the big guys, but they didn’t have kind of a section that was suitable for like, artists and illustrators and more, you know, independent businesses. So we were there. And it was a show for the most part, but we did meet, you know, I don’t know, five or six people that were really good connections over the course of the three days. And one of them was, was our now licensing agent, I think he was, I don’t know whether he’d stumbled across us before he actually attended the show.

Because usually, you know, on trade shows, they publish a list of who’s going to be there and what, who’s at what stalls and stuff like that. So I think he actually reached out before the show, but then I met him at the show, you know, he looked over our stuff, it was a good fit for him. He was just losing an artist who was who was no longer going to be licensing with him. So he was looking for someone to fill the space. And yeah, it was a good it was a good fit. He had obviously a lot of connections with retailers across the United States, mainly, but but worldwide as well. So yeah, that’s, that’s how we got that connection and got that ball rolling. And it’s been a slow burner, but it’s been a good an additional leg of our business, if you like.

Stacy Caprio 11:06
Yeah, that’s really great. Is is the fee for that? Is it based on percentage of sales? Or is it simply just like a flat fee for each design he Commission’s

Michael Essek 11:21
know that so it’s usually based on sales as a percentage of the sales that the retailer or the manufacturer generates through your design. So in that way, it’s not it’s not dissimilar to the system that works online with most of your your print on demand site to read bubbles and such. But it is different in the sense that, like I said, you don’t get real time feedback on this stuff, you’re usually entering into an arrangement for at least 12 months, if not more. And every retailer manufacturer is different. They all have different kind of needs and areas that they serve. We have a calendar deal kind of going on right now. So we’ve we’ve I think we did a 2020 calendar, we’ve got a 2021 calendar, and then we’re working now on the 2022 calendar. So it’s a good, you know, kind of long term business plan. Well, once you get established with one of these retailers, if they sell your work, and then they like it, then they’ll recommission it. And you could be looking at, you know, pretty steady income and sales for for years rather than just, you know, weeks or months and stuff.

Stacy Caprio 12:23
Yeah, that’s really cool. I think most t shirt designers that I know simply list on different platforms. So to have a licensing contract could be really cool for long term revenue. Like you said, I was wondering, do you use any ads on any of your platforms? Or do you rely on just organic and word of mouth

T Shirt Ads

Michael Essek 12:49
the for the most part, it is purely organic. I have experimented with ads, I’ve never really done ads on Amazon or I don’t know where else you can go could like Etsy, you can do ads there and I think they’re actually now compulsory with with our store that Etsy will show ads to our stuff. And then we have to pay a percentage to Etsy, if we make a sale through one of their ads or whatever, in terms of me running ads and stuff. I’ve never done it at scale and never really done it that successfully.

You know, I’ve played around with Facebook ads I played around with with Instagram and stuff never really cracked it, I’ve always found it quite difficult to sell t shirts through ads like that. The only place where I’ve had probably the best success is doing sponsored posts on Instagram. A few years ago, I was regularly doing sponsored posts with with certain Instagram accounts and influencers in in my niche, I guess you could call it and that was was profitable and quite quite successful. And I would just reach out to these people and say, you know, I have these t shirts, I think they’re a good fit, would you like to pick a design to promote and then I’ll pay you to, you know, to promote it and mention it or something. And usually we’d work back and forth you know, for quite a while to actually get the get the creative rights we’d usually like format into some kind of meme or joke or, or something like that.

So it wasn’t just a flat picture of a T shirt or something, you know, really boring like that that people are used to seeing and yeah, that’s that’s been successful for me and I think the the only reason I’ve kind of slowed down on that is because we were doing so well with organic based stuff that it was kind of draining it was quite time consuming to do that. But I would definitely recommend that to people as a as a relatively low cost way of dipping your foot in to advertising and without having to learn all the you know the ins and outs of click through rates and all the kind of technicalities that come with Facebook ads and stuff like that.

Stacy Caprio 14:49
Oh, that’s awesome. Did so when you use the influencer marketing? Do you drive them to your Shopify or Etsy or which channel

Michael Essek 15:00
Yeah, so usually the the Instagram account would put my the link to my Shopify store in the in their bio. And when we do it that way, I would always drive them to my Shopify store, never to a print on demand site or anything like that, because that’s, you’re, obviously you’re not making as much profit if you’re driving through a print on demand site. And if you have your own Shopify store, and you’re using a print on demand company like printful, or printer fi, then your profits can be much higher per order. And obviously, that’s something that’s very helpful when you’re trying to do advertising.

Stacy Caprio 15:34
Yeah. And did you ever use an influencer, where you saw it didn’t produce positive sales? Or did they all pretty much drive some level of traffic?

T Shirt Influencer Marketing

Michael Essek 15:49
I think that they all did drive traffic, there were certainly influences I used and campaigns I did that were not profitable. But in the long run, what I would recommend people do and what I did, which worked was to never just do one of anything, you know, never do one. You know, let’s try it. Let’s do one and leave it there, I would always do a campaign with these guys where I’d run, you know, sponsored post every other day for like a week or something like that.

So it’d be like five posts or seven posts in total. And then obviously, some of them would would bomb, some of them would be okay. And then usually you’d have one, maybe two that would do quite well, and then taken in the round, you know, it would usually work out profitably in total. I mean, it didn’t always work with every influencer, I used obviously, is kind of hit and miss. But if you can do that, and you can kind of scale that, which I think is probably easier today than it was three or four years ago, then then yeah, I think that’s a good way of doing it. If you make sure that you don’t ever put all your eggs in one basket and you treat it as a learning experience, you know, you’re going to go in and see what works and find out what this audience responds to and users are kind of tool to help you see, okay, this design doesn’t really fit. But this one did really well. Look at the comments on this, look at the comments on that.

And it just kind of helps you, you know, find your way forward, which I think is the is the ideal way to think about it rather than just, Oh, that one didn’t work. This whole thing doesn’t work. It’s never going to work and giving up.

Stacy Caprio 17:19
Yeah, that’s a good way to think about it, just testing and trying new things. Do you have any tips when choosing an influencer? Anything you noticed that made those campaigns more successful?

Michael Essek 17:34
Yeah, I think it really comes down to knowing your audience and stuff. I was certainly very involved at the time with with Instagram and stuff. So I was always on Instagram, I was very familiar with, you know, the audience, I was trying to target. I was following a lot of these accounts. I knew them, you know, innately almost. So when I reached out, it was easy to have those conversations, we were on the same level. What I was, you know, talking about was not confusing, you know, they understood the jokes that were on my T shirts, I was usually asking them to pick which designs they’d like to promote, so that they weren’t just, you know, I wasn’t saying promote this design that I was letting them, you know, pick, I was saying, Hey, here’s 20 new designs we’ve just created, do any of them, you know, which ones would you like to go with and stuff like that, definitely making it more of a interaction and a partnership, really, rather than just I’m buying ad space on your Instagram account.

The other thing is that it’s so important to tell a story in your marketing beyond just, hey, look at this product. And that’s it, you know, the ones the posts that were the most successful for me, the sponsored posts that really did well was when the the account was doing something funny, usually stuff, like they’d be doing some kind of joke and they just be wearing my T shirt and it kind of be in the background or something like that. So anything where you can kind of not make it about the shirt, but make the shirt kind of secondary, you know, something in the background, something that people might notice, but it’s not you know, making it this big thing about the T shirt because T shirts are $25 you know, they are impulse purchases, especially when they’re related to some kind of trend or something like that.

So I think that’s where a lot of people trip up is they they try to make it all about the shirt and people aren’t really emotionally depends on the design and the niche of course but a lot of times people will buy a shirt as a kind of afterthought they’ll be like, Oh, that’s funny. I’m gonna buy that and click click click and they bought it without really going through a process of That’s amazing. Wow, I really need that you know data and then thinking about it for days or anything like that. So anyway, you can kind of make the T shirt fit that that mold if you like fit that pathway so that someone notices it thinks it’s cool goes looking for it finds it and buys it without you know, making too big a deal of it.

I think anything like that where you can tell a story you can make even post it Done, where we didn’t have a T shirt graphic or anything like that we just had made a story or a joke around a particular phrase or something. And then what would happen is people would go and search for the phrase, and then they’d find the T shirt, and they’d buy the T shirt and stuff. So, yeah, there’s lots of ways to approach it. And I would definitely say it’s, it’s best to think outside the box and do stuff, you know, not just like what everyone’s doing, which is take a design, user, place it markup, whack it on Instagram, hope for the best.

Stacy Caprio 20:32
Do you focus

more on the keyword research? Or do you focus more on the design? And the image? And what do you think is more important when you are creating designs?

T Shirt Keyword Research: A Good Idea?

Michael Essek 20:48
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for me, personally, I can only really speak for myself. And I know that there are people who do this, in many different ways, you know, have success using many different methods.

Me personally, I’ve always created, I guess, from the perspective that I’m going to create something that I’m, I’m interested in, and I like, and I think is funny. And when I think back to the early days of when I was getting started, it was kind of that motivation that that did it for me, it was, hey, that’s a cool idea, no one’s done it, I’m gonna do it, maybe someone will find it, maybe someone will buy it, there was no research, there was no keyword data, there was no BSR, or anything like that, it was just me going I think that’s funny, maybe other people will find it funny, and almost trusting the internet to, to, you know, allow people to make those connections. In fact, I remember quite vividly creating my, one of my first stores, which was a WooCommerce store, not a Shopify store.

So the first time I’d kind of done my own brand, and sold stuff through printful, and things like that, the day I published it live, I literally, you know, made it public on Google or whatever, you know, allowed people allowed the search engines to index it and stuff like that. The next day, I had an order, and I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe this, I can, you know, make heads or tails of it. But Google had index my site overnight, someone had found this design, I hadn’t promoted it and link to any link to anywhere. And yeah, someone just found it and bought it. And I was kind of dumbfounded that that could happen so quickly. But it was just the power of Google and people, you know, searching for, for stuff. And someone happens to be searching for something very similar to the design I had on my site. So that was kind of my, my initial motivation. As I grew, and the business grew, I did. And I and I do, you know, obviously, become more aware of the data that’s available out there and things like trend data, whether it’s Google Trends, or BSR, on Amazon, or whatever.

So yeah, I did begin to, you know, make decisions a little bit like, Oh, this is a good idea. But has it already been done? Or is it very competitive? Or is there no indication that anyone would like anything like this, you know, so basically, it became a filtering process is still very, you know, have ideas have lots and lots of ideas, hundreds, maybe even thousands of ideas that have not been turned into designs yet. And so usually, it’s a, it’s a process of, okay, is that in a space that’s really competitive or not competitive enough, and it’s trying to find those ideas and designs that are in the middle and create those and turn them into designs. So that’s, that’s my approach.

It’s more about the design. And hopefully, the kind of gold standard is, you know, someone sees your design or someone is searching for that specific design. But there’s also, you know, a lot of people who will search for generically or even won’t search for a T shirt, they might be searching for a particular joke or a meme or something. And then they will find that there’s a very appropriate t shirt for that, and then they’ll go and buy it. So it’s, yeah, it’s not so much for me, I don’t think that often in terms of like, you know, what’s popular right now or anything like that, I tend to just kind of be led by the ideas. I have an almost trust that hey, if I like it, someone else might like it. And, and kind of follow my heart if you like in that way.

Mm hmm.

Stacy Caprio 24:11
Do you find Google still drives traffic today? To your designs?

Online T-Shirt Sales & Google

Michael Essek 24:18
Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a lot of traffic coming from Google. And that is not you know, that comes from Google to Red Bull that comes from Google to teepublic. It comes from Google to Amazon. And then if you have a decent website as well and you know what you’re doing then you can also get some of that traffic to your own website.

I do think obviously, Amazon is now I don’t know where it ranks in terms of search engines, but it’s obviously a search engine in itself. And a lot of people will go to Amazon and just search on there when they want to buy something. But not everyone and there is a you know a lot of the world and certainly a lot of people in the world who don’t have any Amazon Prime or don’t think that way and they will search online.

And they will use Google images to look for what they’re looking for. They’ll go on Google Shopping or something like that, or people will simply browse through a shopping app or something like that, to find things and, and not necessarily be searching something out. So yeah, I think Google is still a big part of, of the the whole process, and especially about the way I think about things I always think in terms of is this a design that people can search for, you know, sometimes designs are so difficult to describe or something, you know, if a design can’t be described with a couple of keywords, then it’s probably going to be difficult for people to find it via Google, and even if it’s a great design, so that does factor into my thinking is like, well, how are people going to find it?

What’re the words they’re going to use? And if you can’t really define that, you know, sometimes that’s hard, especially with, like, designs, the, I don’t know, more illustrative or aesthetic based, you know, it’s not really about the design, it’s more about the feel of the design or the style of the design, then it’s often hard to describe those designs in, in a few key words. So yeah, I think Google is still very, very important. And it still factors into my thinking a lot.

Stacy Caprio 26:14
Have you found the keywords to be less important, as you’ve started building a brand? Or how does that fit into your strategy,

Michael Essek 26:24
I think it still kind of boils down to designs, as in, people can search on Google, and they can find your design, whether that’s on redbubble, or on your own website or something like that. So obviously, keywords is still a big important part, especially in my business, where we are still making the majority of our income through organic traffic, and through organic searches, whether those searches start on Amazon or on Google or wherever. So yeah, that still plays a big part in, in, in making decisions about what kind of designs to create.

But at the same time, I don’t let it become the be all and end all, you know, because we have these other channels where we license our work. I don’t allow myself to be completely hindered by keywords, for example, you know, we create designs all the time where there is no, you know, you can search for the keyword of the design, but you’re not going to find anything because no one’s created anything like this, it’s completely original and new. And it doesn’t really, you know, no one would search for that design.

So we have to then you know, but we can go and license that to offline licensed partners and stuff. And they’ll take, take one look at it and go, I love it. It’s funny, it’s great. It’s on trend, data darts, all these things. But it’s not something people are going to be searching for. But if it’s shown to people in hot topic or wherever, then they’ll look at it and go, Whoa, that’s funny, and whatever and share it with their friends and stuff. So, so yeah, it’s all those kind of different factors that come into it, especially if you’re in the early stages you are trying to sell online primarily.

And you’re trying to sell through through organic reach. And then you do need to find ways to describe your designs so that they can get in front of the right people. And I think usually that boils down to do you know, the customers you’re going after and the audience’s you’re going after, in which case, it’s usually quite should be quite easy to understand what keywords to use and stuff like that. And, and also not being too, too obsessed and too confused about keywords, people do get really heads up.

And they think that if I don’t use this keyword, it won’t work or there’s magic keywords or anything like that. And that’s obviously not the case, the more you think like a customer and just, you know, use natural words and things like they would then you know, you’ve pretty much got it cracked or you’ve got it as cracked as you can. Because a lot of this is based on volume and scale. A lot of it is, you know, I’m going to create 10 designs, eight of them are going to do very little, but two of them will sell very well. And I don’t know which two they’re going to be so I just keep on creating new stuff and putting it out there. And kind of iterating and improving my processes as I go.

Stacy Caprio 28:57
Awesome. Like what would be your number one tip for someone looking to build their own t shirt? brand?

Starting a TShirt Business & Brand

Michael Essek 29:07
Great question. I think I would almost think of it this way if if the person is anything like me, which is to say they’re kind of a creative, designer minded person in the first place, then I would probably say that I would take a long hard look at the possibility of doing something which is to which t shirts will be secondary. So for example, you know, a lot of the best selling t shirts and stuff, of course around the world are connected to the biggest brands in the world, the biggest IP so there’ll be Star Wars t shirts or Disney t shirts or whatever. And a lot of the top selling designs you see on redbubble or teepublic or Amazon a lot of the times there’ll be something to do with an influencer like a YouTuber or something like this. So I think if you can create something to which you know, the T shirts and the merchandise are going to be secondary, whether that’s like maybe it’s a webcomic maybe it’s some Funny Twitter account, maybe it’s an Instagram account where you, you post certain artwork or something like that, I think that’s something a lot of people should really spend more time kind of considering. Because if you can create a brand like that, that’s really about the arts or it’s about your personality, or it’s about, I don’t know, a particular topic or a niche that you’re going to be, you know, sharing about and getting people excited about, then, once you’ve got that selling merchant stuff kind of comes naturally and comes a lot easier.

And what you, what a lot of people kind of fall into is this route of I’m going to create t shirts, designs, okay, great. And then they go out and they create, I don’t know, 10 different designs for 10 different niches, and then the some of the myself, but they just keep on creating lots of crazy different designs across loads of different topics. And then they throw all those designs together and into a Shopify store. And then they think they’ve got a brand, and they don’t understand, or they don’t know why people aren’t buying or why people don’t seem to want to follow them on Instagram or something. But they’ve got this brand, which is just, you know, so broad, it covers so many niches, and there’s no personality, there’s just a collection of random designs, that it makes it very hard for people and customers to connect with that, I think, if people can kind of avoid that trap, and instead, you know, think long and hard about the other side of it, how could I create something that people really get into. And you can do that around a clothing brand, and around a T shirt brand. But it takes quite a bit of discipline.

And it takes time to build that up. Because it’s relatively easy to see some sales, if you throw your net very wide, you cast a very wide net, across lots of different niches, your chances of making some sales increase, of course, because you’ve got a lot of designs across a lot of niches. Whereas if you go, you know, really deep on a particular single topic, what often happens is, you can make sales, but it’s going to be a while before you really gain traction, and you gain kind of a following or something around that thing that you’ve created. So yeah, I would say designers should should think about that.

And think about, you know, it could just be that you have a whatever instagram and twitter account for you your personal accounts, and you just share your artwork. And hopefully your artwork is you know, similar style. So everything. So someone who follows you would be like Oh, really like that style. So I’m going to follow them. And then you just kind of build it up that way, it could be as simple as that. And there’s, there’s quite a few examples of artists who have, you know, built really solid brands off that, that kind of approach and using red bubble tea public and these other sites to help them you know, bring in some income and stuff.

While they do that certainly say, think think brand, you know, think about how this could be a brand, what you’re doing now could be some kind of brand within a year or two years or something like that. And don’t just kind of be so focused on the here. And now because it is, you know, it’s relatively easy to make the short sale online these days, it’s quite hard to build something that in three years is going to be you know, sustainable, and something that you actually have value in that you could, I don’t know, sell or whatever it is, but something that you you could really place a value on, instead of just, I have a lot of random t shirt designs, and they make me a few hundred dollars a month or whatever.

Stacy Caprio 33:14
Hmm, that’s a great tip, I fell into that trap of just creating as many designs for keywords when I first started on merge a few years ago. And I think that’s a really good point about building kind of a unified type of brand and having it so people want to keep coming back and purchasing from you when you’re doing your T shirt work and design work in terms of and marketing everything. In terms of the 8020 principle. Do you see what do you see from your business as driving the majority of all your results versus the kind of maybe the busy work that you don’t see producing the results?

Michael Essek 34:01
So good. A good question. I think, having been in the space for so long. Now we do have those designs that have been in, in the market if you like they’ve been available online for for several years now. So those are obviously our best sellers. And they are established within whatever niches they’re in. So you know, it’s I don’t hesitate to kind of say, Oh, you know, our best selling designs are like this nice in this niche, because they’re not really, you know, so focused like that.

Instead, we just have some designs that happens to get embedded. For example, we got like a kid’s birthday show, which is just really popular. And it just seems to be at a no, it’s been on Amazon for years. And no one seems to be able to shake it from its spot. It’s still just there and it just make sales every day. But that’s not what I tend to do. That just happens to be a random design that we did, you know, in the early days and it just is established there. So a lot of what’s worked for me has been stuff that’s been quite focused around a particular community but it’s been an original No joke or an idea that really appeals to that community and it happened to take off and do well. And obviously, there’s a lot of cases where I thought this was a funny joke, I thought this was a great design, and it never did take off.

But certainly those designs that have done the best over the long term tend to be things that that are original that no one’s done before. Or if they’ve been done before, they’ve been done quite badly. And we’ve taken a concept and reworked it or improved it somehow and made it you know, a lot better, with a much better design a much better concepts overall or something. We’ve found all these up and coming niches that we hopped on to it’s more that we’ve, we’ve understood certain communities and certain markets, and we created designs that really fit for them. And then they just kind of take on a life of their own, especially if they happen to be in a in a niche or topic where it you know, it was growing. So some of our best designs have been stuff which I don’t know, four or five years ago, you’d be like, well, that’s not really a market, there is no market there. But now we look and we’re like, oh, yeah, that was clearly a trend that was beginning back then. We didn’t really know it, we obviously had some kind of inkling about the topic.

But, you know, we couldn’t have predicted that it would be here, you know, now or whatever. It’s like, I don’t know, if you were making Bernie Sanders t shirts back in the year 2010, when no one knew who Bernie Sanders was. Obviously, you stand to benefit by the time it rolled around to, you know, 2018 2019, whatever, when Bernie Sanders was was a big deal. So yeah, it’s a it’s a funny, funny business. And it is a lot of trends. And it’s a lot of throwing spaghetti at the walls and seeing what sticks. And you just have to kind of keep iterating and improving and developing your your plans. Really?

Stacy Caprio 36:51
Yeah, that makes sense. So I did want to ask you, what made you get into the T shirt design influencer space? And how does that compare with your T shirt sales business? Do you like one or the other more,

Michael Essek 37:06
I think for a long time, I’d had the idea that I wanted to have a blog about simply making money from your arts and stuff and started things several times and just never really followed through with them. So I’d buy a domain name, I’d start you know, I’d install WordPress, let’s get things going. And then I would just never really like do the final push of of writing articles and getting things out there. But I think maybe the confidence of making sales and having this kind of steady growth in the business gave me a bit of a boost. And I thought maybe, you know, I could make it work this time.

And I just wrote, I can’t really remember what I kind of started with. But I think I wrote like it was maybe in the early days of merge palms. And so I was writing tips and stuff. And you know, here’s how to sell on Etsy, here’s some advice for selling on redbubble. And it was at a time when there was very, very little out there on that topic. There was very few people sharing their experiences on redbubble and teepublic, and Tee Fury and stuff because there was, well, I know, because I was searching for information, I was trying to sell more. And I was looking for advice and stuff. And there was only one or two people who’d ever written anything about how they’re able to make, you know, designs that sell on Tee Fury or get selected by a shirt a day site, or whatever it is.

I think I kind of entered that space, I think I interviewed a few artists and stuff where I tried to interview a few artists in the early days. And that was one of the things I got started with. But I think it just kind of snowballed. And you get into Facebook groups, and you get into these communities and you start to follow your nose a little bit into what people want to hear about and what they’re interested in. And I think I kind of liked the idea of having, I don’t know, a book or something out there that would help people and I thought well, that could be cool having some resources, and then I could sell those online and it would be just another stream of income. I didn’t really think of it much beyond that.

And it’s been, I don’t know, maybe four years or something into, you know, publicly posting stuff as Michael Essek and having things out there. And yeah, it’s been a good, a good really good experience and especially when you do something under your under your name, it’s it’s it’s a lot more personal and everything’s kind of tied up in that and you’re so I am like naturally quite introverted and like to keep to myself and um, you know, quite a private person. So, when you’re doing stuff like live streaming, or, or you’re speaking on stage or something is quite a new experience for me. So I think it has has been good in that sense.

And I think I’ve just enjoyed, I do enjoy the process of teaching and I enjoy sharing stuff, especially when it’s something like, you know, here’s an insight that I’ve gained and I can share it with you and here’s how I can teach it you know, step one, step two, step three. It’s been it’s not been like a steady business in that sense, it’s not been something that’s, you know, made more money every month if you like, compared to like t shirts, it’s been more, you know, I’ve launched a book. So we have a spike of income there. And then I’d launch another book a year later or something and have another spike of income. So it’s not really a business, oh, it’s not a regular business in that sense. And more, just think of it as I’m going to create a new article, or I’d like to read an article about this. So I’m going to write it and just keep putting stuff out there and sharing news.

And I do like, you know, I’m genuinely interested in, in print on demand, and in the space and in what’s happening, I think there’s technology that’s really moving at quite a pace, you know, I’ve been to some of these facilities, I’ve been invited to, you know, look around, you know, look at the printers and talk to the people who were behind the scenes on this stuff. And it does, you know, genuinely interest me. And I think it’s exciting for artists and designers that there is this technology that allows you to create something and someone on the other side of the world can have it on a T shirt within a few days.

It’s been interesting, I am, you know, always working on like new projects, whether it’s like a little book or a course or something that can can help people. But it’s not something that’s taken over the T shirt stuff, and I don’t think I’d ever really wanted to I think I’m, I’d like to have that balance of being able to create, you know, silly, funny designs. And then on the other hand to go and write a blog post or live stream or something like that. It’s nice to have those that variety in the day.

Stacy Caprio 41:32
Yeah, that is nice. And maybe you could even sell your own Michael asik branded t shirts one day.

Michael 41:40
Yeah, I actually, I put some some stuff on redbubble the other day just to kind of what I was doing, but I was doing like a tutor. I was doing some like a walkthrough blog post on how to upload to redbubble or something. So I was just using my Michael Essek logo was, you know, a T shirt design and stuff and putting a few of them on redbubble. And I thought, oh, that’d be funny if someone bought them and started wanting my classic merge. But yeah, as far as I know, so far, I’ve not sold any of those.

Stacy Caprio 42:11
Oh, yeah. Well, we can put the link in the show notes. And maybe we’ll pick one up. But yeah, I think yeah, I think is there any thing in terms of any current offers are things that you’d like, the listeners to know about?

Michael 42:30
and not so much right now, I think, you know, if, if listeners are interested in in print on demand, and in the space, then I do have a email newsletter, which goes out usually a couple of times a week, but certainly every Friday, I kind of do a roundup of, of any news in the space. And I try to keep on top of things that are happening and bring them to people fast. So they can be you know, first to market with whatever’s going on. So definitely subscribe, but Michael lesyk.com. And I’m also doing live streaming right now on YouTube every Thursday at 3pm. UK time so you can join me on there. I do questions and answers and critique designs and do all kinds of different stuff. So you can you can check me out there too.

Stacy Caprio 43:13
Awesome. And yeah, is there anywhere else? They can follow you? Or mostly your newsletter and live streaming?

Michael 43:21
Yeah, all the usual places. I think I have an account, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Quora where you can ask me questions and stuff like that. So yeah, if you search Michael Essek you’ll find a lot of places where I am online.

Stacy Caprio 43:36
Awesome. And thank you so much, Michael. This was so helpful. And I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy hearing your experiences as well.

Michael 43:45
No problem. Thank you, Stacy.

Stacy Caprio 43:48
I love Michael’s story, not only because it is so similar to my own, except we went in opposite directions, but also because he is so willing to share his own journey to try to help others succeed with T shirt design and sales. We went in opposite directions, as Michael started out, creating and selling a website and then realized he needed to build up a new income stream. Once his website monthly income stream disappeared. So he dove into creating t shirts. And I started out inspired by his journey creating t shirts, and then pivoted into buying more websites with monthly income streams that I could grow more steadily than I found I could grow my T shirt income stream business month over month. One thing we can learn from Michael’s story is that selling apparel or any type of design or custom product online, takes a lot of showing up day after day, producing new designs constantly and really having consistency to see results as well as seen it take a while to build up to a consistent income stream. In Michaels case taking two to three years for his t shirt income to match his day job income. Michael has had great success following his own gut intuition and his own sense of humor when designing and selling shirts, he knows his own strengths very well, including his ability to generate ideas and his sense of humor, which has helped him find his design niches and actually sell designs, as opposed to a focus on keyword research, which is how I kind of got into the space. I love his advice to always create from a place where you think, hey, that’s a cool idea. I like it, and maybe someone else will like it, and then buy it. I’ve always focused more on keyword research, like I mentioned, using tools like Amazon BSR, Chrome extensions, and seo keyword research tools, like the Google Keyword Tool, as well as platform specific keyword research tools. But I like Michael’s approach, because it allows you to be the first one in a niche, or targeting a specific keyword to build your own style, and your own brand, which is better for long term success, as opposed to what I did, which was creating a ton of design variations when you’re focusing too much on keyword research. And you’re just diving into niches that are super competitive. And it doesn’t give you the opportunity to build your own brand or really grow something that will have long term success. One thing that is different from my T shirt focus. And Michaels is I have always been focused on evergreen designs as opposed to trends, which is also what I focus on when creating website content sense. I like creating something that will last and generate recurring sales, instead of trying to chase trends or individual sale spurts. However, maybe that is a reason my T shirt sales have never been as successful as Michaels, who has hit a few home runs on trend t shirt designs. I was also intrigued by his mention of submitting t shirt a day sites, like t fury is I’ve never done that. And even though it’s technically chasing a sales spirit, as opposed to gaining a long term, organic incomes dream, which I’m always drawn to. I’m also now inspired to submit a few of my best designs to the daily t shirt sites just to see if they’d be approved or if I would get any type of sales from that.

It’s also interesting to hear about people’s experience marketing with influencers. And I enjoyed Michael’s tips that he found the most success when he worked closely with the influencers in every way to make it more of a partnership, as opposed to an ad buying space where you’re just slapping up a mock up and making sure he really knew the niche inside and out in the accounts he was using inside and out. And then using that influencer marketing to tell a story. The tip that surprised me is to not make the influencer ad about the product. My background in running ads for companies, we always focused on the product because we were paying for an ad. And especially for non impulse purchase products, you don’t want the potential customer to miss the fact that you’re running an ad and that you have a product you’re trying to sell because that defeats the entire purpose of the ad, which is letting them know they can buy the product. However, I do like this approach and it makes sense for t shirts and smaller items that are more impulse buys to structure ads. So the focus is on the idea. And the purchase becomes an impulse afterthought which makes the ad less salesy. And thinking about that it makes sense that Michael found more success using this structure for influencer ads. And I like the specific example he gives where when the influencer does something funny, like telling a joke that really resonates with a niche and then wears a T shirt that matches that joke at the same time. But it seems like the teacher is an afterthought. But when people think the joke is funny, and then they see the T shirt and it kind of triggers like oh, I want that shirt I want to buy it and it makes it their decision to purchase the shirt as opposed to them feeling they are being sold to and seen an ad So giving them the ownership of that decision seems like it would be really effective as opposed to shoving a blatant ad in their face. And it’s something that I definitely want to try in the future.

The only issue with influencer marketing is it does seem it’s hard to find a good niche, and to find accounts that really fit your niche where the person is also influential in the minds of their followers. It seems like something you would have to spend a lot of time and energy doing that, in reality could be refocused on other important things, like creating new designs, or posting your designs on new platforms and really optimizing them to get found in organic search. My favorite takeaway from this entire episode, is when Michael said that if you already have a brand or following, that is when it becomes incredibly easy to sell tons of related t shirt designs. This really struck me, my past and T shirt design has taken the exact opposite approach than this because I don’t have a large following in any niche or a huge brand that would make sense to create t shirts around. So I’ve taken the opposite approach where you spend hundreds of hours trying to do the keyword research and create designs that fit into the existing keyword demand. And then spending tons of time to get those little crumbs and trying to get your T shirts seen kind of individually and pick up a sale here and there. It makes much more sense to take the opposite approach and build a large following. Or if you already have control of a large brand, then you already have an audience that you can sell t shirts or really anything else if you understand what they’re looking for. And it makes me think maybe time is better spent, especially if you have a long term view by building a large audience or following first and then launching something rather than trying to spend hours to get only one or two short term unrepeatable t shirt sales. It’s definitely something worth considering. But also, building a brand of any kind takes a long time. It’s more of a long term play. And as Michael was saying, you can really sell a few t shirts right away and get that immediate gratification. If it’s something you just kind of slapped together. So it definitely takes more discipline to play the long game in building a brand. Also, I think it would be kind of miserable if you actually became truly famous. So it’s kind of a double edged sword in that sense.

I actually recently relaunched my Etsy shop after taking a few year break from posting any new designs. I designed the shirts with my mom who does the drawings and I do the keyword research, the design coloring and the marketing, which is one reason I was looking forward to recording this episode with Michael so much. You can check out my mom and my Etsy shop. It’s called Stacy’s shirt shop on Etsy. And I’ll leave the link in the show notes if you guys want to take a peek. So one thing I’ve taken away from this episode is that I originally made the mistake of casting too wide a net by throwing hundreds of random designs at the wall and not caring about building a brand or something that would actually attract a loyal following when I started selling on merch and Etsy. I remember when I was spending eight to 10 hours a day creating 10 or more designs a day, pretty much full time as my focus. I was still living with my grandma at this time. And I still remember the day I got 16 Amazon merge sales in one day, I felt so on top of the world and I was just so happy about that. It ended up that I hit kind of my max t shirt sales having a few two k profit months on merge back before they cut the licensing percentage again and kept rotating designs and changing the algorithm which is something they keep doing it definitely started to decrease my profits and I started focusing on other things and uploading last to merge because I found you really needed to upload consistently to keep even your sales level. And at its max my Etsy store got a few hundred in revenue a month. And so that’s not really much profit at all. So that was kind of my really peak experience. With print on demand, I remember when I hit my first two k profit month, that was the month where I had 16 merge sales in one day, I was just so happy that month with my T shirt sales, I was thinking, this is it, I found what I love doing. And I can just keep creating new designs and scaling it. However, that’s not really how it works. Just because you keep pumping out designs, it doesn’t mean your sales will keep going up at that same amount or even at all, especially if you’re posting your designs on other platforms not owned by you, such as Etsy, and Amazon, that are great because they have their own customer base that they sell your shirts to. And so that’s why they’re so great, because they’re pretty much a marketing tool where you get access to their audience, but selling on these platforms.

They work by trying to optimize their own sales. And they do this by rotating and testing through their design base. So this means that all designs you create will usually fade off in terms of sales after just a few months. And definitely after a year or more. Unless that design was in the top .001 of that platforms converting designs. And then look, they’ll keep it there. But they really do optimize test rotate, and your design is going to get pushed off eventually, t shirt selling platforms like Etsy and Amazon. They’re not like Google where you can put up a piece of good content, and it can rank for years or more. etsy and Amazon rotate through things much more quickly. And they’re really focused on testing conversion rates, and finding what will make them the most money. So they’re always optimizing designs. And this is one reason why it’s much better to target your designs with super specific keywords and targeting. Because this gives them a better chance that people who see your design when they search for the keywords in your title that they’ll actually convert. So when you have a high conversion rate, and everyone else is targeting really broad keywords in their title, yours will stay on the page for those keywords for longer. So there are things you can do to optimize and to win those algorithms. But it’s still not a permanent type of play. So I’ve always found it to be temporary. And it’s a numbers game where you have to have constant output, which I respect because Michael, he seems to do such prolific output every single day. He has so many ideas and is constantly creating new designs as well as designing around trends, which if you’re willing to constantly create the new designs, selling around trends, and doing this type of side hustle is actually a great way to create some type of income stream. And if it’s something you love to do, I would say give it a try. And it’s definitely something that I actually do love doing in a small amount. And I’m still creating designs just in a smaller way and in a more brand focused way with my mom. And I do enjoy doing it. And it’s also it’s kind of addicting when you make a sale Etsy gives you a notification and your phone dings. And it’s a nice dopamine hit. This episode made me realize that Michael and I should narrate one of those calm app episodes that helped people fall asleep. I think ours would be a best seller. So Michael, send me an email if you’re in any way. Let me know how you guys enjoyed this episode. And feel free to email me Stacy at hurt sto and if you think there any t shirt or apparel brands or sellers you think would be a great fit to have in a future episode. I’m always looking to learn from more successful t shirt sellers and ecommerce store owners so feel free to send me anyone you think would be a great fit for a future episode. Thank you for listening to this episode of the Hearst SEO podcast. I hope you took something away that you can implement in your own life or business. If you want to make me smile today, you can leave a five star review on the podcast player you’re listening to. Thanks again for listening and feel free to shoot me an email with any questions or comments at stacy@her.ceo that’s stacy@her.ceo Thanks again.

Contact Michael Essek

Buy Michael’s own T-Shirt design we talked about in the episode, actually pretty cute!

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