The reality of running an online t-shirt business- alone

Penny Pang
Published in
7 min readMar 23, 2021


The reality of running an online t-shirt business- alone

Another online t-shirt business? Not again... Knowing that the market is extremely saturated, I found a gap in pocket t-shirts market to be fun, meaningful and long-lasting. So I had a mission to collect all the happy moments using ‘pocket’ where people can always remember what truly makes them happy… because happiness doesn’t last long. Here’s a story behind Pocketi’s success and also the mental side effect that comes with it.

Living the dream

In December 2019, Pocketi was born starting out with the Guilty Pleasure Collection to collect yummy happy moments like donut, hamburger and ice cream. We had a signature Pocketi Drip to represent the overflowing of happiness onto the pocket. My target market was usually food bloggers and donut enthusiasts which happened to be lot in America. We collaborated with top donut shop in Sydney, Donut Papi. My Ice Cream Pocket T-Shirt sold out within 2 months thanks to National Ice Cream Day and I was invited to multiple events to talk about my new business to inspire other future entrepreneurs. Within 6 months, I was shipping out to USA, Canada, Australia and UK. Within 8 months, I was growing to 7000 followers organically with a handful of loyal customers who would support Pocketi in every single launch. The whole business made profit in less than a year. It was quite an achievement considering it also happened during COVID, working full-time job and other multiple side hustle things I was doing.

Fast forward a year later…

In reality

Honestly, writing out that last paragraph of what Pocketi has achieved brought tears to my eyes as I questioned myself everyday whether to close down this business. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and the mistakes I did in running this business- alone.

De-valuing my products

Pricing was probably the most difficult decision I had to make. When I started out Pocketi, finance and accounting were the last thing I had in mind. I priced my shirt for $30AUD or 2 for $50AUD free shipping. It got me heaps of sales and people were buying it until I realised that shipping overseas was $24AUD. I was making a loss for every shirt I sold and didn’t take into account the shipping, packaging, transaction fee, website fee, marketing and all these small expenses. For 3 months, I never realised this because I had people saying $30AUD was expensive for a simple design. For the sake of business, I finally priced up my shirt to be $60AUD (including shipping). Surprisingly people still buy it and I felt so bad because even for myself I think that’s expensive for a shirt, but I could finally use that profit money to re-invest into the next t-shirt launch.

I sometimes get people messaging me asking for the price of the shirt. When I told them the price, they said they have no money or ‘broke’ at the moment. So I would give people more discount because I feel bad and didn’t want people to miss out on this limited edition shirts. I started to give large discount or sell as a bundle to make it cheaper, sometimes forgetting to calculate the profit I made. I realised I never took pride in my work and the time I put into this. I was just happy that people were interested in the shirt no matter how much they paid whether it was $5 or $10, money didn’t matter to me.

Finally the moment of truth revealed when I set up my accounting and finance spreadsheets. Inputting entries for every income and expenses were eye opening and I decided to step up my game. We were then able to continue with the launch of the shirt.

You can’t please everyone.

Social Media Marketing is Painful

My social media scheduled has become a part of my daily routine, or in other word… another full-time job. I was scaling globally so I needed to engage with people from across the world especially US, UK and more exposure locally in Australia. My goodness, my brain became a timezone clock. I wanted to try out $0 marketing strategy (because I was barely making profit myself) so here’s my schedule:

  • Wake up: Reply to DMs, Reply to all comments, like a couple of photos from the feed (this is when all the feed is from your loyal fan)
  • 9am- time to post, write caption and get the hashtags ready
  • 9:30am- reply to all comments responded to your new post
  • 12pm- engage with US fans (like, follow, comment). This is around night time for Americans where they’re most active on social media
  • 8pm- engage with Aussie fans (when they’re most active)
  • 10pm- engage with UK fans (it’s morning there)
  • 11pm- sleep and think about how many followers I would gain the next morning

This routine would go on for about 8 months to build 7000 organic followers without paid ads. Until my brain could no longer take it and affecting me mentally. The biggest mistake I did was buying followers. When I hit 7k, I stopped doing the routine and turned to buying more followers to reach 10k and unlock the business potential Instagram had to offer. I gained extra 500 followers within a blink and thought to myself that all of this hard work routine could be replaced with just a click. Little did I know that the followers gained were fake followers and Instagram detected that and blocked their account. Not only I lost 500 followers, I also lost the money I spent on it. Since then, my Instagram no longer grow, even the routine didn’t help.

My next option was to do paid ads. In my first month I started with $5 a week Facebook ads and then increasing month by month. At one point, I spent about $300AUD on ads with no idea how much in return because I never tracked it (I really should). Now I am using WIX to run Facebook/Instagram ads and it has definitely helped a lot with sales. I no longer have to do this insane Instagram routine and it saved me so much time.

You must spend money to make money

Coming up with Pocket T-Shirt design

I spent countless hours doing user and market research to find the next design launch for Pocketi shirts. We usually launch limited edition meaning that only 80 shirts per design will be made and once sold out, we will no longer produce it. This will help us move forward to the next design and reduce the stocks at home at a faster rate, making these shirts a novelty pocket t-shirt. As I have mentioned previously in the first paragraph, I had a mission to collect every happy moments one pocket at a time. So far, we’ve done donut, burger, ice cream, pizza, taco and boba-bao. There are many designs potential to come but had to really be sure that it will be a ‘hit’. You never know really if the launch will be a hit but can only take risk to find out.

The most disappointing launch was probably the taco shirt where I had 2 selections of black and red t-shirt. I still question till this days whether it was the colour, the design, the price listed or maybe taco just wasn’t popular. That demotivation led to the last time of launching anymore Pocket T-Shirts because now there is this fear of unsuccessful launch no matter how many surveys you did to get a public opinion.

When designing a pocket t-shirt, I had to consider the size of the design and using the advantage of a pocket to play around with the design. We needed to keep our brand in there with the Pocketi Drip incorporated to remind ourselves of the overflowing happiness. Design process is done through Adobe Illustrator, then approval from the public, then it gets manufactured. Including 2 weeks of market research, one shirt will take nearly 2 months until it can be listed for sales. Yes, anything can be put into a pocket, but how do you design a novelty pocket t-shirt that allows people to know your brand without having to see the logo. This was a massive challenge.

People buy stories before they buy stuff.

Customers get the shirt before I do

For the whole year of running Pocketi up until this date, my customers get the shirt before I do. This is because my manufacturer is overseas and shipping back and forth for samples will take quite long and expensive. I could have done local manufacturers but a lot actually rejected my design because it was too technical, adding more cost to the shirt (they also outsourced overseas too). So I relied a lot on natural instinct and faith that the quality will be good. I wished I was physically there to audit my product before sales but with COVID and restrictions, it was the best I could do. I can now assure you that after changing manufacturers 4 times, the quality has been upgraded each time for sure.

What’s next for Pocketi?

With all the reasonings above, I am still sitting on the fence whether I should continue with Pocketi, go on a break or stop launching anymore design. Combining with my personal values and my career as a UX/UI designer, I have been looking to invest more in younger generations through teaching and mentoring. Currently, I am doing a lot of upskilling in my area of expertise in order to pass down my knowledge to people and eventually establish another ‘side hustle’ that will allow me to do that and be part of their growth.

For those who have been following Pocketi journey, there’s still hope. There’s still a lot of potential in the food design but in the pipeline I have Pocketi Kids in mind! (Where are all the mum’s at?)

Thanks for the read!

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Penny Pang

Full-time UX/UI Designer, Part-time online entrepreneur, Casual food blogger and innovation advocate