Understanding the Custom Merch Business - (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 2

Everest Guerra

Everest Guerra

Assortment of custom merch in Y2k style

Welcome to part 2 of an 8 part guide to starting your own campus merch business. Each week we'll release a new part until the guide is complete. Once all issues have been released, we'll make the complete guide available in PDF form. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please send them to me everest@stitchi.us! Hope you enjoy 👋


Introduction (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 1Ever wanted to start your own business as a college student? This is part 1 of an 8 part guide on how to successfully launch a custom merch business on your campus. Learn from experts who've done it before!

Welcome to the world of custom merchandise, a dynamic and creative industry that's all about personalization, self-expression, and community building! Custom merch, as it's affectionately known, is all about crafting products tailored to a specific audience or niche, adorned with unique designs, logos, or slogans. This vibrant market caters to a wide range of items, including:

  • T-shirts

  • Hoodies

  • Hats

  • Mugs

  • Phone cases

  • Tote bags

  • Stickers

  • Pins

And that's just the beginning! The charm of custom merch lies in its ability to not only express one's individuality but also foster a sense of belonging among members of a group. Whether it's a tight-knit college club, a passionate sports team, or a community organization, custom merch has a magical way of bringing people together.

But that's not all! Custom merch is also a powerful promotional tool for businesses, events, and causes. Imagine your brand's logo splashed across stylish apparel, turning heads and sparking conversations. Custom merch can make it happen!

So, get ready to immerse yourself in this exciting and lucrative realm. This chapter will provide you with a solid understanding of the custom merch business, setting the stage for your own journey into this fascinating world of self-expression and entrepreneurship. Let's get started!

How is custom merch made?

The process of making custom merch involves several steps, from design creation to production using various printing techniques. Here is an overview of the process:

Idea and Design Creation

The first step is for you to collaborate with your customer to generate an idea that serves their needs. This could be a unique design, a logo, or a slogan. Once you have the idea, you need to create the design using graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Alternatively, you can collaborate with a graphic designer to bring their idea to life. This will be discussed in detail in Designing Your Custom Merch.

Choose the Merchandise

Next, the entrepreneur needs to decide which products they want to customize with their design. Popular choices include t-shirts, hoodies, hats, mugs, tote bags, phone cases, stickers, and pins. They should consider factors like the target audience, budget, and the suitability of their design for different products when making this decision.

Select a Printing Technique

There are several production methods used to create custom merch, and the choice depends on factors like design complexity, order quantity, and budget. Some common printing techniques include:

Screen Printing: Involves using a stencil (or screen) to transfer ink onto the product. It is cost-effective for larger orders and produces high-quality, durable prints. However, it may not be suitable for intricate or multicolor designs due to the setup costs involved.

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printing: A digital printing technique that prints designs directly onto the fabric using specialized inkjet printers. Ideal for intricate, multicolor designs and small order quantities, as there is no setup cost involved.

Heat Transfer: Uses heat and pressure to transfer pre-printed designs onto the product. It works well for small orders and is suitable for various materials, but the print quality and durability may not be as high as other methods.

Embroidery: Involves stitching the design directly onto the fabric, creating a high-quality, long-lasting result. It is commonly used for hats, jackets, and polo shirts, but may be more expensive and not suitable for intricate or multicolor designs.

Sublimation: Uses heat to transfer dye onto the fabric, allowing for full-color, all-over prints. It works best with polyester materials and is often used for sports jerseys and promotional items.

Printing Technique Comparison

Printing TechniqueIdeal for Large OrdersIdeal for Small OrdersWorks with Multicolor DesignsWorks with Intricate DesignsDurabilityCost-EffectivenessSuitable Materials
Screen PrintingYesNoNoNoHighHighMost textiles, various other materials
Direct-to-Garment (DTG)NoYesYesYesMediumMediumTextiles, primarily cotton
Heat TransferNoYesYesLimitedLowLowTextiles, ceramics, metals
EmbroideryYesYesLimitedNoHighMediumTextiles, especially hats and jackets
SublimationYesYesYesYesHighMediumPrimarily polyester materials


Once you have chosen the printing technique, you can either produce the custom merch yourself or work with a third-party manufacturer or print-on-demand service. These services typically handle production, inventory, and shipping, allowing the entrepreneur to focus on design and marketing. We will discuss these options and their advantages in more detail in Manufacturing and Delivering Custom Merch. This chapter will provide valuable insights to help you make informed decisions about your production strategy, ensuring the success of your custom merch business.

Quality Control

Before selling their custom merch, it's essential to check the quality of the products to ensure that the prints are clear, vibrant, and long-lasting. This step helps maintain customer satisfaction and protects your brand reputation.

Marketing and Selling

Finally, you should promote and sell custom merch through various channels like e-commerce platforms (e.g., Shopify, Etsy), social media, or local events. You should engage with your target customers, showcase their products, and create a buzz around your brand to drive sales.

By following these steps, you can create high-quality custom merch that resonates with your customers and builds a successful business.

Custom merch is popular for several reasons, which can be attributed to both consumer preferences and market trends:

Personalization: Today's consumers increasingly value products tailored to their individual tastes and preferences. Custom merch allows individuals to express their unique identity, style, or interests, which is highly appealing in today's culture of personalization.

Community building: Custom merch can strengthen the bonds between members of a group, fostering a sense of unity and belonging. This makes it popular among clubs, sports teams, and community organizations, as the merchandise serves as a visual representation of their shared identity and values.

Brand recognition: For businesses or events, custom merch is an effective promotional tool that helps create brand awareness and loyalty. Companies and event organizers can use custom merch to reach new audiences, reinforce their brand image, and create a lasting impression.

Fundraising: Custom merch can be sold to raise funds for clubs, organizations, or causes, serving as both a practical item and a reminder of the support given. This dual purpose makes custom merch an attractive option for supporters and an effective way to generate revenue for organizations.

Nostalgia: Custom merch often becomes a keepsake that evokes fond memories, which can make it highly desirable and valuable to customers. People tend to associate custom merch with memorable experiences or milestones, such as attending a concert, participating in a sports event, or being part of a college club.

Social media influence: Social media platforms have made it easier than ever for individuals and brands to showcase their custom merch to a wide audience. Influencers and celebrities often promote their own custom merch lines, which can create a buzz and inspire fans to purchase items to feel more connected to their favorite personalities.

Advances in technology: The development of printing technology, such as direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, has made it more accessible and cost-effective for businesses and individuals to produce high-quality custom merch. This technological progress has contributed to the popularity of custom merch by allowing more people to enter the market and offer diverse products.

Overall, the popularity of custom merch can be attributed to a combination of consumer preferences for personalization and self-expression, the desire to create a sense of community, the effectiveness of merch as a promotional tool, and market trends that have made it easier to produce and promote custom merchandise.

Success Stories from Custom Merch Entrepreneurs

As you embark on your custom merch business journey, it's both motivating and enlightening to learn from those who have walked the path before you. In this section, we will introduce you to the success stories of several custom merch entrepreneurs who have transformed their passion into thriving enterprises. Their experiences will not only inspire you but also provide valuable lessons and insights that can help you navigate your own entrepreneurial adventure. As we delve into various aspects of the custom merch industry throughout the guide, we'll continue to draw on these examples and others to give you a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to succeed in this exciting and creative field.


In 2012, Ben Francis, a teenager at the time, founded Gymshark (gymshark.com), a fitness apparel and accessories brand. Initially working out of his garage in the UK, Francis combined his passion for fitness and entrepreneurial spirit to create the company. With a modest initial investment, he started by personally sewing and screen-printing t-shirts and gym accessories, enlisting the help of his friends and family in the early stages of the business.

As Gymshark began to gain traction, Francis took a strategic approach to the company's growth by focusing on high-quality, functional, and stylish athletic wear that appeals to fitness enthusiasts. He also astutely recognized the potential of social media and influencer marketing, which enabled Gymshark to broaden its reach and cultivate a dedicated community of customers who resonate with the brand's values and philosophy.

By leveraging a combination of grassroots efforts, relentless determination, innovative marketing strategies, and a commitment to quality, Gymshark has transformed into a billion-dollar global brand with a loyal customer base, making it a true success story in the custom merch industry.

Fresh Prints

Fresh Prints (freshpints.com), founded in 2009 by Jacob Goodman and Josh Arbit, began as a custom apparel company catering to college students and organizations. The company's goal was to provide high-quality, custom-printed apparel at competitive prices, while also emphasizing exceptional customer service. Over the years, Fresh Prints has evolved into a successful custom merch business, partnering with over 500 college campuses across the United States and generating millions of dollars in annual revenue.

The foundation of Fresh Prints' success lies in its unique business model, which relies on a network of Campus Ambassadors who serve as sales representatives for the company. These Campus Ambassadors are college students who work on their own campuses, reaching out to student organizations, clubs, and events to sell custom merch. This grassroots approach has allowed Fresh Prints to build strong relationships with its customers while also providing college students with valuable work experience and an opportunity to earn extra income.

By leveraging the Campus Ambassador program, Fresh Prints has effectively created a peer-to-peer marketing strategy. This approach enables the company to tap into the trusted networks of college students, leading to increased brand awareness and sales. Additionally, the program offers incentives to Campus Ambassadors, such as commission on sales, bonuses, and opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Another key aspect of Fresh Prints' success is its commitment to customer satisfaction. The company offers free design services, quick turnaround times, and a "Love Your Order" guarantee, which ensures that customers are completely satisfied with their purchase. This emphasis on customer service has helped Fresh Prints maintain a high customer retention rate and generate numerous referrals.

In addition to its strong customer service, Fresh Prints has also focused on leveraging technology to streamline its operations. The company has developed a proprietary order management system that simplifies the ordering process and allows Campus Ambassadors to easily manage their accounts.

Fresh Prints' success story demonstrates the potential of a custom merch business that combines a unique business model, exceptional customer service, and innovative use of technology. As the company continues to grow and expand its reach, it serves as an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to break into the custom merch industry.

Johnny Cupcakes

Johnny Earle, the founder of Johnny Cupcakes (johnnycupcakes.com), started his unique custom merch business in 2001 by selling quirky, cupcake-themed t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. Today, Johnny Cupcakes has evolved into a highly successful, multimillion-dollar clothing brand known for its limited-edition t-shirts and unique designs (Marketing Mag). The company has gained a dedicated cult following, with fans eagerly awaiting the release of new designs, and some even camping outside their stores for special releases (Makers Valley).

Johnny Cupcakes now operates primarily online, but has also opened several brick-and-mortar stores over the years, including locations in Boston, Los Angeles, and London. These stores were designed to resemble bakeries, complete with pastry display cases and the scent of vanilla, further emphasizing the brand's creative approach.

Johnny's success can be attributed to his innovative designs, strong branding, and clever marketing strategies, which have made his custom merch appealing to a wide audience. He has been featured on various media platforms, including The New York Times, Wired, and Entrepreneur Magazine, for his innovative marketing techniques and business strategies.

By leveraging social media and engaging directly with his customers, Johnny has been able to build a strong, loyal fanbase. The brand has over 170,000 followers on Instagram (@jonnycupcakes) and more than 150,000 Facebook fans. This loyal following, coupled with limited edition releases, has helped the brand maintain its exclusivity and demand.

In conclusion, the Johnny Cupcakes case study demonstrates the power of creative designs, strong branding, and innovative marketing strategies in building a successful custom merch business. Johnny Earle's story serves as an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the custom merch industry.

Custom Merch on Campus

You may be asking yourself just how big is this opportunity? According to the National Association of College Stores, college students spent an average of $128 on spirit merchandise in the 2019-2020 school year, up from $126 in the previous year. This indicates that a single organization with 30 members spends nearly $4,000 each year on custom apparel, and with hundreds of organizations on campus, the potential market is vast.

Custom merch is especially popular among Greek organizations, which are estimated to spend over $100 million per year on merchandise. Greek organizations represent a significant market for custom merch, as members frequently don custom clothing and accessories featuring their letters or symbols. This helps them demonstrate their affiliation with the organization and express pride in their membership. Beyond personal use, Greek organizations often sell custom merchandise as a fundraising method for their organization or to support charitable causes.

Sports teams, clubs, and academic organizations also contribute to the thriving custom merch market on college campuses. These groups use custom apparel and accessories to foster a sense of unity and camaraderie among members, as well as to promote their group's identity and achievements to the broader campus community.

The custom apparel market is projected to reach $10 billion by 2025, with a significant portion of that market consisting of college students and university organizations. As a student entrepreneur, tapping into this market can be lucrative. By securing just 2 or 3 organizations (including your own!) as customers for your custom apparel business, you could find yourself questioning why you didn't start sooner. The popularity of custom merch on college campuses offers a unique opportunity for student entrepreneurs to make a substantial impact and generate revenue while still pursuing their academic goals.

Thanks for reading Part 2 of our guide on how to launch a campus merch business as a student. If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing it with others you think might be interested. If you have any suggestions for how to make the guide more effective, I greatly welcome and appreciate feedback everest@stitchi.us.

Next up

Understanding the Custom Merch Business - (The Student's Guide to Starting a Profitable Custom Merch Business) - Part 2Explore custom merch creation, its popularity drivers, and inspiring success stories from student entrepreneurs in this guide. Perfect for aspiring student entrepreneurs and anyone interested in the potential of this industry.

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