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Selling t-shirts beats selling mobile apps (krzyzanowskim.com)
100 points by ingve on July 2, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

I expected to read about how OP built a successful e-commerce business after transitioning from full-time software development. Instead this is about how he earned $275 over three days on a one-time shirt idea. Click-bait.

The most interesting observation for me in this post was the realization that no-one would pay 25 bucks for my app while it's a normal prize for a T-shirt. Yet, arguable, the skills required for me to make a T-shirt are much less than the ones required to make a new app.

I sell t-shirts on the side. As a person who makes/sells t-shirts and uses apps (and only occasionally pays for them), here's how I think about it:

It's not about the skills required to make a t-shirt or app. Consumers don't care about that. All they care about is whether or not they're going to be using it. I'm usually hesitant to pay for apps because I don't know if I'm going to use them more than a couple of times. (Exception: I paid like $100 for Things 2 and 3, after using them during the free trial and realizing I loved them and was going to keep using them. And I have.)

It's easy to look at a t-shirt and think "Oh golly, I'm going to wear this all the time!"

Another really common reason people buy t-shirts is as gifts. I wonder if there's any corollary to that in the app world. Can people buy apps as gifts for friends? People will definitely spend ~$10 to send a friend a download link to gag app that mocks them, I bet.

There may also be the physicality of it.

A t-shirt is something you get, and can keep as long as you don't ruin it.

BTW, i recall reading that someone had more success with a "unlock feature X" model of payment, even though it in total was more expensive than unlocking everything at once.

For a great example of that look to the Android app Pleco, a Chinese dictionary. Free to download and use, but have to pay to unlock features. Between 5 and 30 dollars per feature, I've sent at least 70.

At least on non-mobile, people buy games for each other (e.g. by buying a gift code on Steam).

Yes, I often buy people apps on iOS for slightly-special occasions when we aren't going to see each other in person.

App prices are all about uncertainty. 90% of apps are total crap. 90% of the non-crap apps are not what you in particular are really hoping for. This makes the risk-adjusted cost of finding a good 99c app into $99.

If your customers were actually confident that your app really was worth $25 to them, they'd pay it. Unfortunately, it will probably cost you >$25 in marketing to get that across to them.

Users' price expectations call for different success models.

I suppose that if you sell a t-shirt via something like cafepress, you make something like $2 per shirt. If you sell a $3 app via app store, you make the same $2.

OTOH developing a nice elaborate picture for a t-shirt might be 20 hours, while developing a bare-bones first version of a useful app is 200 hours, and for a more polished app, easily 2000 hours over several versions.

So, a successful niche app should sell 10x to 100x copies than a successful niche t-shirt to bring in the same money.

The process of designing, making, selling and distributing t-shirts is highly productized. With apps and web services, it's manual custom labor. Almost like making (t-)shirts before the industrial age.

However, as the recently featured Indie Hackers story about Scott's Cheap Flight shows, there are already a lot of possibilities to build businesses on top of productized processes and softwarem instead of doing custom work.


I think part of it is also availability. We know, as consumers, the average price of certain goods, and in an effort to save money, avoid spending when it seems obscene, without looking at the bigger picture. If the average price of mobile apps was 40$, and your equivalent app was sold by 20$, it would sell like hotcakes.

In comparison I can buy t-shirts for 5$ so I would never pay 25 for one.

Thanks to those short-term campaigns, I could subsidize my WWDC trip to San Jose this year. Thank you very much to anyone who bought the t-shirt. I've met some of you during the WWDC, that was an excellent experience!

Anyone who could provide a quick overview/comparison of sites like Teespring, Redbubble, etc from a creator's perspective?

Are they reliable? Do they pay in time and for all the sales? Do they hide sales?

I can see the analogy of being indie musician and this - total income might not come from your main work but from all kinds of sources that is somehow related to it. In this merchandise.

I'd argue for non-indie musicians it's the same these days. Spotify and other streaming services aren't paying too much anymore, CD sales are down, direct sales (like iTunes) are not the highest anymore.

Not just these days - even before streaming got big. Most artists have always made pennies from sales and most of their money from tours and merch not to mention other unfavorable conditions imposed by record labels. Even the huge EDM artists and rappers make most of their money from charging 6 figures a show, not from record sales.

I would argue that now is a better time than ever to be a musician given that with the internet, a record label is not strictly necessary and you can market and sell merch to a massive audience and make money with just an internet connection.

>Not just these days - even before streaming got big. Most artists have always made pennies from sales and most of their money from tours and merch

In the last 10-15 years maybe, but up until the nineties or so, merch (even t-shirts) wasn't much a thing for most indie musicians -- except in the metal world perhaps.

As for tours, they were seen as loss-leaders for album sales. Some select concerts in big cities could get money, but the expenses of touring around e.g. the US where big too, and in the end it was a bet in getting even.

On the other hand, in the vinyl era, indie musicians (which had better profit-sharing deals and recorded cheaply, not spending $200,000 for farting around in the studio for 6 months) could sell 30.000 - 50.000 albums or so and be able pay the rent from that.

One of my favorite bands Unheilig (German goth / rock band) has a massive merchandising business, despite being one of the top selling German artists of all time. The store has way more than just t-shirts & posters, there's well over 200 SKUs:


I sometimes feel a bit cynical about it, but I'm glad they found a way to fund their tours & keep churning out more of my favorite albums every year.

Edit: To be closer to topic, Panic [1] used to sell t-shirts & hoodies, Atebits [2] used to sell pillows of the Tweetie app icon, and The Iconfactory [3] sold models of the Twitterrific Ollie blue bird.

[1] https://panic.com/blog/panic-goods-cheaper-shipping-coda-shi...

[2] https://technabob.com/blog/2010/03/03/tweetie-pillows/

[3] http://www.cardboardspaceshiptoys.com/toys-c-3/ollie-the-twi...

The dinosaur on the T-shirt is wrong. The tail should not be dragging along the ground but held high. You would not be able to sell this in the Natural History Museum!

Make of that what you will.

A side question about the t-shirt biz: business of that type(marketplaces) usually have strong network effects and usually it ends at a winner takes all situation.

But in custom t-shirt platforms we have many competitors.

So why isn't there one winner ? What's different ?

Basically no barrier to entry and no margins.

+ selling TShirts is another extremely competitive market.

Not sure if I am reading it correctly, but are you saying that you don't own the copyright for the design for the shirt?

I live in NYC and I see people smoking cigarettes which cost about $12-$14 per pack. Some people smoke 1 pack a day and some 2 packs a day.

This is rather normal in the real-world goods economy. $4 app on the phone is considered as a rip-off.

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