Print on demand (POD) is a great lifestyle business for a fistful of reasons. Here’s a few of them:
- With graft (and a little caffeine), you can set up a print-on-demand business in a few hours.
- You don’t need any up-front investment for inventory.
- You can set up a POD business without needing your own website.
- You can start a business with a handful of designs you produce with free tools.
- You can grow your business cheaply by building a social media following.
- The setup costs are low, and if you can do design work, next to nothing.
- It’s great fun!
Sound good? Let’s break it down.
Table of Contents
Before print-on-demand services, if you wanted to sell printed t-shirts, it was a risky venture.
You’d have to pick a design, invest money printing up stock, promote and sell your t-shirts, and hope you could sell enough to turn a profit.
Now, print-on-demand technology has flipped the process. You pick a design, promote it, and only print your t-shirts after you make a sale. The best part is that the POD company you work with will print your t-shirt from their stock and ship it directly to your customer.
This simple rearrangement of the process allows for a new type of business venture—one where you can earn money selling a range of your designs.
And it’s not only t-shirts—there is a whole range of POD products you can sell. Baseball caps, hoodies, books, jewelry, stickers, even shoes! Print on demand businesses have catalogs stuffed full of blank products just waiting for your creations.
You don’t need to buy stock, so you don’t need a place to store it. And as the print-on-demand model cuts out the initial setup costs of selling your branded items, it leaves you time and funds to build an audience for your products.
It’s absolutely genius and one of the fastest ways to get started building a lifestyle business today!
There are two ways to go when you start your own print-on-demand business.
You can partner with a POD service that lets you list your products for sale on their website. They handle everything except design creation. When you make a sale, they manufacture the item and ship it directly to the customer.
The other route is a self-hosted solution. You set up your own website using an eCommerce platform like Shopify, list your products, and use a print-on-demand service to manufacture and fulfill your orders.
Let’s look at each approach.
Some POD service providers let you sell your designs on their websites.
For this approach, think of yourself primarily as an artist/designer. You create designs for the type of product you want to sell, then choose the products you would like your design to appear on.
The primary benefits are the low-start up costs and the speed at which you can start your print-on-demand business.
A further benefit is that all-in-one print-on-demand providers have lots of visitors to their websites. The downside is you’ll have plenty of competition on the site. Your products could get lost amongst all the other ones making it hard to get sales.
A good friend of mine has a business selling on Zazzle and we recently got together for a discussion about how it all works.
You can see the video or listen to the audio here;
You can launch a POD business with your own website. You can set up an eCommerce store with Shopify (or similar) and choose your own custom website address.
If you choose Shopify, you can integrate your store with a print-on-demand supplier using a Shopify app. Many top POD providers have Shopify integrations you can install with a few clicks, linking your store directly with their services.
From there, you build out your store with your designs. You can create a mockup of the finished product using stock images, so people can see what the finished item looks like. Once you have some products listed, you’re ready to take orders and have them fulfilled by the POD provider.
The major benefit of your own website approach is that you appear like a ‘normal’ eCommerce store. You can create your own look and store image, so you can use all your creativity to create a brand promise and stand apart from the competition.
The biggest downside to this approach is you need to attract traffic to your store. This means you’ll need to put some work in on marketing; social media, blogging, and maybe even paid adverts.
However, another option you may want to consider is linking a print on demand company with your Etsy storefront. This gives you the benefit of selling your products under your unique brand, but utilizing the traffic already going to Etsy.
Whether you follow the no website or own website approach, you’ll need to follow a similar process for starting your print on demand business.
Choosing a niche is a crucial step. A scattergun approach to design probably won’t serve you well. Creating funny slogans one day and pictures of Owls the next will make your store seem disjointed.
Focus your designs on one niche; it will help you solidify your brand and win repeat business.
For example, this is a brand on Zazzle that specializes in wedding cards, stickers, and invitations, etc.
Here’s a brand with their own website that focuses on workout gear;
A further benefit of having only one niche is that it makes your marketing more effective. If you spread your designs between different niches, you need to market to different groups, which is more complex—and more expensive.
Even Amazon started life as an online bookstore!
So, pick a niche and focus your designs on appealing to that one sub-group of people.
OK, you do need a brand name, and you’ll probably want to agonize over a logo too. But, if you only take one piece of advice from this blog post, let it be this:
At the start of your business, only you will care about your brand name and logo. It’s really easy to waste far too much time and money obsessing over your brand image, logo, and color scheme.
You can always come back later and rework your logo, even your brand name, once you start to see the money coming in.
When the print-on-demand industry started, the only products you had to pick from were t-shirts, hoodies, and baseball caps. Today you’re spoilt for choice.
You can sell water bottles, jigsaws, tote bags, jewelry, all sorts of clothing, and, of course, face masks for the pandemic.
It’s better to pick a narrow product range to start with. You’ll save design time and launch your business faster. Once you have a bit of traction, you can widen your product line to include more items.
This step is where the rubber meets the road. Print-on-demand, in many ways, is a design business, and you need to create some attractive designs to put on your products.
But before you hire anyone, check their design portfolio first. Then give the designer detailed instructions about what you want: the more information you can provide, the better. Let them complete one design for you first to check their quality before hiring them for more.
Here’s a design I was trying out on an experiment site I was playing with a year or so back. You can read my story here.
A picture paints a thousand words. If you want to make sales, you’re going to need to mock up some products flaunting your designs. Some online tools simplify the process, like Printful’s own mockup generator, which allows you to add your design images to over 205 products quickly.
If you decide to work with a different POD service, they may have their own mockup generator. Failing that, you can find images on sites like designbolts.com (shown below) and create your own mockup using a service like placeit.net
Finally, if all this is too much, you can hire a freelancer to create them at about $10 a pop.
If you have chosen the no website approach, this step should be straightforward. Follow the instructions provided by your print-on-demand provider, and you should be open for business in a snip.
If you’re creating your own store, the easiest solution is Shopify. Shopify will host your store on their servers, and you can register a custom domain name with them. So your site can be what-ever-you-want.com.
Promoting your products is the most challenging part of any eCommerce business—you can’t make sales without web traffic.
You can promote your store for free using social media, which is great when you already have a following. But if you are starting from scratch, prepare to roll up your sleeves. Set up social accounts on popular platforms, research hashtags popular with your niche, and start creating content.
You can use paid advertising to send traffic to your products. But you need to be very careful about your profit margins, and we’ll talk more about this later.
Another thing to try is using social media influencers. Identify a few popular influencers in your niche and reach out to them to set up a campaign.
A good friend of mine who runs an arts & crafts website selling mainly art brushes and paint has had incredible success using influencer marketing as his only source of traffic.
Some influencers can charge high fees per post, and some will be happy to promote your product for a free sample. You reach out to influencers yourself or use a service like Upfluence, which is a bit like Upwork for influencers.
The designs you create will be a major factor in your success. In many ways, a POD business is really a design business.
People don’t simply buy a t-shirt, mug, or notebook; they buy one because of the connection they make with it.
The t-shirts below are Redbubble’s best-selling ones at the time of writing. You can see there is a mixture of anime, a stylized landscape, and some funny trash-pandas.
The t-shirts are all the same quality, made by the same manufacturer; it’s only the design that connects with the shopper.
The design promises the buyer, ‘if you buy me, you are buying a membership to a unique group of people.’
That could be anime enthusiasts, the environmentally conscious, or simply ‘I’m a little crazy, watch out!’.
The designs you create have to make an emotional connection with people passionate about your niche.
If you know your way around a photoshop tool, you can go ahead and begin creating your designs. Canva is a popular free choice, and you only have to pay to use premium images. You can use a totally free alternative like Photopea and use copyright-free photos from sites like Unsplash.
One resource you might try is 99designs. Vistaprint created 99designs to match up experienced designers with entrepreneurs looking for premium design services. Designs start from around $150, but you can use the same graphics on different products.
Before you set prices, figure out all of your costs for setting up and running the business.
Grab a calculator or start a spreadsheet and detail all the costs of getting your products to market. Include;
- Design costs.
- Mockup costs.
- Website/Shopify hosting.
- Advertising costs.
- Marketing costs (like hiring Influencers).
Add all of these together to get your startup costs.
Next, find the POD manufacturing and shipping cost-per-unit price for each product you’ll sell.
Then, add a profit margin to each item, and calculate the number of units you need to sell to make a profit.
Here’s an example.
Let’s assume my startup costs are $500. And the manufacturing and shipping cost for a single t-shirt is $15.
If I sell my t-shirts for $20, it will give me $5 profit per unit. So I would need to sell 100 t-shirts to cover my setup costs. After that, each sale I make will earn me $5.
If you use a POD service like Redbubble, then most of the work is done for you. They provide a base price that covers hosting your products, manufacturing, and customer shipping.
The markup you earn has a default setting of 20%. Though you can raise or lower it as you like. Just be aware that it doesn’t cover your initial design costs, nor any advertising costs if you choose to run a campaign.
When you run a POD business, your product’s quality is the same as everyone else’s. As an entrepreneur, there are only three levers to pull when you run a print-on-demand business.
- The price you sell at
- The quality of your designs
- The effectiveness of your marketing
There’s lots of competition as a POD seller because it’s an uncomplicated business to start. It’s all too easy to compete on price alone and get caught in race-to-the-bottom price wars.
The end result is slim profit margins and means you’ll have to sell container-loads of items to make good money.
The better way to approach this business is to focus on your design and marketing.
If you look at the sample below of an 80s inspired t-shirt, multiple sellers are selling the same design. There is nothing any of the sellers can do but compete on price.
There are loads of examples like this on the POD websites. Boring designs with little thought behind them. Sellers hope to attract a few sales here and there, by putting a high number of designs out. Don’t let this be you!
Alternatively, a unique design that connects with a customer on an emotional level has a greater chance of multiple sales at a higher price.
Here’s an example. The t-shirt below plays on the beliefs and emotions of conservative Republican gun owners in the USA.
The t-shirt has made over $100,000 alone in sales because it sits squarely in a niche and connects with the target audience.
Of course, once you have a quality design that your niche can relate to, you need to drive traffic to your products.
Because of the low margin nature of selling POD products, paying for adverts is risky. You can easily find yourself out of pocket if you don’t quickly optimize your campaigns. It’s much better to drive free traffic using other methods.
Build a social media presence to create a story behind your designs. Many popular brands succeed because they have a tale to tell.
- Apple says their products help creative people experience their world.
- Patagonia says their products are long-lasting and kind to the environment.
- Volvo says you’ll be safe if you’re unlucky enough to have an accident in one of their cars.
Decide what the story is behind your designs, and then get the message out to the world.
Set up a blog, launch a YouTube channel, build an email list, and more. Create an audience for your message, then direct them to the products you have for sale in your print-on-demand store.
Remember, you are starting a business in a bustling, crowded marketplace. If you want to attract customers to your stall, you need to shout about the products you’re selling.
Starting a POD business today is a quick entry into the beautiful world of solopreneurship.
Here are the steps you need to take to make a start:
Choose a niche—focus on a group of people with similar wants/needs.
Create a name and brand—don’t spend too much time obsessing over it.
Choose your first product(s)—decide what you want to sell.
Create your first design—either yourself or hire a designer.
Create product mockups showing your design—lots of online tools available.
Choose an online storefront—either self-hosted or an all-in-one solution.
Promote!—get your story and message out there.
The world of the POD business is not just about selling caps, t-shirts, and mugs. Here are examples of other types of print-on-demand products. Use them as inspiration for launching your own line of POD products.
You can set up a publishing business on Amazon using the “>KDP program. You don’t need to be an accomplished writer to make sales either. Many people run a business selling no-content or low-content books.
Often these are notebooks that are blank inside or have minimal text.
You can now enter the jewelry business working with a POD supplier. Shineon.com is an interesting solution and has a Shopify app to integrate with your store.
Incredibly, you can now sell shoes as a POD designer! Printify has a range to choose from, including boots, heels, trainers, and flip-flops.
The POD service prodigi has a whole range of products, one of them is these cool Apple watch straps.
Some POD suppliers specialize in products. Society6 focuses on homewares and wall art, along with things like the stickers and wrapping paper shown below.
I’m currently helping my 14-year-old daughter launch her first print on demand site – ceryscosmetics.com (not yet live at the time of writing). We’re using a platform called viaglamour.com which manufactures cruelty-free vegan makeup products.
I hope that this post has given you an insight into how to launch your own print on demand ecommerce business.
With the print-on-demand industry predicted to continue growing, there’s never been a better time to launch a POD business.
I’m so excited about the print on demand dropshipping industry that not only am I helping my daughter with her business, but I’m soon to be launching my own set of journals & diaries for solopreneurs and digital nomads building lifestyle businesses.
It’s such a fun and exciting business model.
For further reading about print on demand and ecommerce in general see my article ‘How to Start an Ecommerce Business and Sell Stuff You Love’.
Thanks for reading. Good luck with your business! 😁