From the May 2007 issue of Startups

Want to know more about printing your shirts? See our Online Exclusive "Print Ready" at www.entrepreneur.com/shortcuts

It wasn't always John Earle's plan to put a cupcake on a T-shirt. Like so many nicknames, "Johnny Cupcakes" was just one that stuck--a name given to him when he worked in a record shop years ago. The short version of the story is that Johnny Cupcakes is now a multimillion-dollar company with two retail locations and an online store selling limited-edition tees around the globe. And if you ask him for the long version, he'll tell you it all started as a joke.

Earle, who also worked at a silk-screening shop at the time, decided to put the "Johnny Cupcakes" moniker on a few T-shirts. Record shop customers soon started asking about them. "All these random people started coming into my work, and I'd have to pretend to go to the bathroom [so I could] sell [shirts] out of the back of my beat-up 1989 Toyota Camry," says Earle, the 24-year-old founder of Boston-based Johnny Cupcakes.

T-shirts like Earle's are part of what is now a multibillion-dollar industry--one that "has almost indefinite room to grow," says Rodney Blackwell, a veteran T-shirt entrepreneur and founder of T-ShirtForums.com, a Sacramento, California-based online resource that serves more than 8,500 T-shirt entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and experts from around the world. "Almost everyone wears T-shirts, whether it's for casual Fridays at the office or their daily dress for school."

Even blogs and social networking sites are inspiring designs, with consumers buying shirts that represent their favorite online spaces. On Spreadshirt.com, LINKwhere individuals and entrepreneurs can design and sell shirts, "some of our more popular shops are associated with blogs," says Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt Inc. in Boston. "The graphics represent what the blog is about."

T-shirts have become a blank canvas on which consumers are expressing their innermost thoughts, wants and needs--and they'll gladly buy shirts that represent these personal statements. The time is right to express yourself, too, and make a profit while you're at it.

Design on a Dime
You can get started with little more than a computer with design software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Outsource the printing and you don't need to worry about spending tens of thousands on printers. "Either you're the designer yourself, or you hire someone," says Peter Rinnig, owner of QRST's, a print shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. "Incredible designs and great websites--they're what sell."

Earle designs the shirts himself and scans them into his computer; he then sends them to artists for tweaking. They send the final designs to a printer and, using American Apparel shirts (a popular wholesaler of plain T-shirts), the printer silk-screens the designs on and attaches the Johnny Cupcakes label. From there, the shirts are shipped back to Earle, who sells them in his retail stores and on his website.

Johnny Cupcakes' two Boston-area shops are every bit as interesting as the shirts themselves. They're set up just like bakeries, complete with glass display shelves, employees wearing aprons and the smell of vanilla frosting in the air. And every shirt is limited-edition--Earle calls them "wearable art."

Because they're collectibles and not just apparel, customers are willing to pay $60 for a Johnny Cupcakes shirt--and even stand in line for a new release like kids waiting for concert tickets. "We had about 500 kids in line waiting for the release of these [monster] shirts on Friday the 13th of October," notes Earle, who started selling the shirts online in 2001. "The price tag doesn't matter if they like the design and what's behind it."

But don't assume you should price high. Kareem Blair, the 25-year-old co-founder of Lemar & Dauley in New York City, says that entrepreneurs can only get away with higher prices if they have the brand and distribution to support them--so you'll have to research and think carefully about your target market. "Some people won't pay more than $30 for a T-shirt," says Blair, who launched his line of urban tees in 2003 with co-founders Brian Bachelor and Daniel Pierre, both 25. Lemar & Dauley now sells its apparel, which includes screen-printed T-shirts and sweatshirts, in about 85 boutiques and projects 2007 sales of $2 million. Says Blair, "A lot of customers who used to buy this stuff now know how to do it themselves."

Threads That Inspire
Consumers appreciate shirts that reflect their passions, so keep that in mind as you design your tees. Meri Zeiff had that passion built right in when starting Verymeri, a Los Angeles company that sells T-shirts designed by children. Zeiff, 32, is a former first-grade teacher who started her company after noticing the lack of children's tees with inspiring messages. "I started asking the kids, 'If you could have anything you want on a T-shirt, what would it say?'" says Zeiff, who has sold more than 2,500 shirts at about $24 apiece since launching in May last year.

Zeiff put her students' answers right on her tees. Today, she sells children's and adults' shirts through her website, retail stores, her own home parties ("tee parties") and at a weekly farmer's market, where kids submit their T-shirt ideas and passersby vote on their favorites. Then Zeiff digitally redesigns the winning sketches and sends the files to a local printer. And even when Zeiff gets ideas from parents, she keeps her original mission in mind: "giving a voice to children," says Zeiff, who donates a portion of the sales to the nonprofit Free Arts for Abused Children.

Likewise, Patrick Gray and John Betz, both 32, have designed a line of shirts that give a voice to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sold online at www.takepride.com, the shirts feature words and images that tell service members' stories without making political statements. They're also fashioned by up-and-coming designers, so they're nothing like typical military garb. "Everything in [the] military tends not to be stylish, so this is different," says Gray, who started New York City-based TakePride in June 2006 with Betz, a third-generation Marine. By February, they'd earned roughly $88,000, and they expect that number to grow as they expand into department stores this summer. They also donate 20 percent of their profits to military-related charities.

T-Shirt Crafters, Unite!
A resource like T-ShirtForums.com is an excellent way to get your questions answered. You'll find fellow startups discussing the design, printing and marketing of their shirts, and Blackwell himself isn't shy about chiming in on discussions. "After you get inspired with a great T-shirt idea, figure out [what] your target market [is]," Blackwell says. "Then follow up that great idea with a practical marketing plan to get your shirts in front of [that market]. The best idea in the world will sit on the shelf if no one knows it's out there."

Just for Kids
There are plenty of niches to explore in T-shirts. One of the hottest is specialty tees for kids. Choosy moms are demanding fashionable clothing for their children--threads that won't be seen over and over again on the playground. Carrie Ferguson Weir, for one, wanted clothing for her baby that would reflect her Cuban ethnicity and also stand out in a crowd of shirts with messages printed in English, so she designed a line of infant and toddler tees featuring Spanish words and phrases. "I wanted to reinforce the heritage and language I'm trying to teach my child," says Ferguson Weir, 39, founder of Los Pollitos Dicen ("The Little Chicks Say") in Kingston Springs, Tennessee.

Ferguson Weir, who started her business in 2005 with co-founder Oscar Alonso, 36, sells the tees online and in select boutiques. The partners have focused on online sales because they initially wanted to get feedback directly from consumers. Now that they've introduced their clothing to retailers, they're able to use their online sales as a barometer in determining the best cities in which to sell their line. Ferguson Weir says they're adding bibs and hats to the mix this year, and she expects sales to more than triple in 2007.

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance writer in Southern California specializing in small business and education.