Are you a graphic designer who wants to sell stickers touting silly quips or cute animals? A burgeoning YouTuber looking to offer your newfound audience merchandise with your face on it? Maybe you’re an anime fan who wants to turn those drawings of your waifu into dollar signs. Perhaps you want to use your creativity to raise awareness and funds for a cause?
The possibilities are truly endless. No matter what your reasons are, you can start your own print on demand business, provided you have some artistic skills (or pay someone to have them for you).
Especially for new entrepreneurs, the fast-growing and demanding world of ecommerce can be daunting and just plain confusing, but using a print on demand service takes (almost) all of the guesswork out of starting your own business. It can also be an extremely lucrative venture, but you have to go about it in all the right ways.
In this guide, we’ll let you in on everything you need to know about how to start a print on demand business, from the basics, to the dirtiest of little secrets, and everything in between.
What is a Print on Demand (POD) business?
It may go without saying, but the first thing you need to know before starting a print on demand business is what a print on demand business is. A print on demand business is a business that employs the use of a print on demand (also known as POD) service or platform.
Companies that provide POD services offer their users the unique ability to remain (almost) completely hands-off during the selling, manufacturing, and shipping processes. Print on demand services work with businesses by acquiring white-label products, which are unbranded items like t-shirts or throw pillows, hold inventory, print the requested design on the sold items, then package and ship the merchandise to the buyer once it is purchased.
As the name suggests, print on demand services only make products “on demand” or when they are ordered, unlike traditional merchandise manufacturers which hold pre-printed excess inventory on hand for extended periods of time. This ensures that POD companies can keep costs low for the businesses they work with.
Additionally, there are many print on demand platforms, like Redbubble or Merch by Amazon, which not only provide POD services but also have their own online marketplaces, eliminating the need for print on demand businesses to host their own websites in order to sell their merchandise.
Starting your own print on demand business makes selling merchandise a breeze. However, there are some questions you need to ask yourself before launching your own.
What should my Print on Demand business sell?
Since POD businesses rely so heavily on art and design, as the creator, your interests, talents, and desired niches are the most paramount deciding factors behind what you should sell. However, as any good marketing executive or comedian will tell you, you need to know your audience.
Assuming you are an artist or designer, you likely already have your own distinct art style. What do you like to create? There are no bounds to what consumers want to buy, so your POD journey should begin with what you want to create.
(Note: For those who like to keep it a bit saucy, you should keep in mind that some print on demand platforms, like Redbubble, ban explicit art.)
However, you should try to stick to a niche.
For example, if you mainly design geometric patterns based on complex mathematics, you can imagine that your fans and buyers would be shocked to see you release a t-shirt depicting a design of Sarah Jessica Parker as an opossum. While you can certainly stray from your regular content, it is best to stick to a few subjects, topics, or art styles — differentiating these on your shop’s pages — in order to establish yourself as an artistic authority in a specific niche and avoid confusing consumers.
Once you’ve identified your artistic niche (or niches), you need to ask yourself two questions:
What would my audience or other people who like this subject be interested in?
When you’re just getting started, a little bit of stereotyping is okay, in fact, it’s recommended! But by stereotyping, we mean market research.
For example, if you’re a video game streamer who wants to sell merchandise, you can assume that your fans are watching your streams from a device, such as a computer, tablet, or phone. It would be prudent to sell your designs on merchandise such as phone cases, laptop sleeves, or stickers.
You should also think about what your audience is not interested in. For example, if you want to sell erotic art, it’s likely your audience will be less inclined to purchase a bumper sticker emblazoned with your saucy designs. Instead, you could offer less conspicuous products, such as framed prints or notebooks.
Once you have launched your print on demand business and your items have begun to sell steadily, you can stop stereotyping (ahem, market researching) your audience, because you now have the ability to analyze concrete data that tells you exactly what your audience is and isn’t interested in and offer product selections accordingly.
What type of products would my artwork best with?
Not all of your designs will look great on every type of product. An intricate digital painting doesn’t lend itself well to a tiny sticker, because the details will be lost. On the other hand, a simplistic sticker design may look blown out or plain as a wall art print.
Using your designs’ dimensions, style, and composition (and your best judgment), choose merchandise that will be appealing and present your art in the most optimal format.
Alternatively, many print on demand sellers — explicitly digital artists — will slightly alter their designs, making it different for each product type, to ensure that their art looks its best on all their merchandise offerings.
Which Print on Demand company should I use?
Once you have identified what you want to sell and what your audience wants you to sell, you can start thinking about what company you want to partner with to start your own print on demand business. There is a huge variety of POD companies available, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Here are five companies you need to know about when learning how to start your own print on demand business:
Best for (mostly) family-friendly independent artists: Redbubble
This print on demand platform is absolutely huge, boasting one of the largest marketplaces in the industry, so there is no need to create a personal website. It is completely free of charge for artists, calculating artist payment based on a percentage chosen by the seller (usually around 20%) that is added to the sale price. Redbubble also offers a vast product selection, offering things like jigsaw puzzles, aprons, water bottles, and dresses in addition to the basics. However, Redbubble does have strict content guidelines.
Best for those who want to be in control of their business: Printful
Printful is not a platform in itself, but it more than makes up for that with customization options and flexibility. Though they offer upgraded subscriptions, the basic service costs nothing until a sale is made, after which the company charges fulfillment and shipping fees. As an added bonus, nearly all online ecommerce marketplaces and platforms offer integration with Printful, making it easy for POD businesses to work the way they want to.
Best for people who want to print their designs on everything: Printify
Not to be confused with Printful, Printify is also a non-platform POD service with a large number of integrations. However, this company sets itself apart by offering a whopping 500+ products to users with extremely competitive pricing because they allow manufacturers to bid on usage.
Best for increased exposure: Merch by Amazon
Another service-platform amalgamation, Merch by Amazon offers its users access to the largest online marketplace in the entire world: Amazon. Despite a scant selection of products and meager seller payouts, MBA has no out of pocket costs. Unfortunately, sellers have to apply to join this program and being accepted can take months.
Best for beginners and digital products: Sellfy
For newbie print on demand business owners who want to sell their designs without being tethered to a specific marketplace, Sellfy makes the process easy and painless. The company specializes in digital products like videos, ebooks, and online courses, but still has a healthy selection of physical merchandise. Sellfy has payment options starting at free to “price upon request” depending on your needs.
These are just a few of the most popular print on demand companies out there, but the list could go on for ages. Don’t get overwhelmed by so many choices, though — depending on what is important to you as an artist and small business owner, your choice may be clear.
How can I set my new print on demand business up for success?
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” A statement that certainly rings true when it comes to fledgling print on demand businesses. Though you will learn a lot about how to be successful after your POD business is up and running and you can analyze key data and sales metrics, but without the right preparation, you may never get to that point.
If you want to learn how to start a print on demand business that is truly successful, learning what not to do is just as fundamental as learning what you should do.
These are our most significant do’s and don’ts of starting your own print on demand business.
DO: Make an awesome website for your products.
If you are not going to use a POD platform, you will be selling your merchandise on your very own business website! Your website contributes a great deal to the way your customers perceive your art and your products. Make sure that your website is easily navigable, aesthetically pleasing, is peppered with relevant keywords, and clearly demonstrates who you are as an artist. As an added bonus, a great website is a must-have when it comes to search engine optimization.
DON’T: Give your customers too many options.
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. While adding clear subsections on your website’s menu to differentiate between product solutions can help, adding too many product selections for a specific design (such as product type or color) can get overwhelming for your customers. Give customers the freedom of choice, but only offer a reasonable amount — only print your designs on the 2-3 products it looks best on and don’t offer more than 5 colorways for each product.
DO: Use social media to spread the word.
Small business owners know that your friends and family are (usually) your first customers. What better way to let them know you’ve learned how to start your own print on demand business than by posting about it on Facebook? More importantly, social media is an invaluable tool for artists — you can share your artwork, announcements, and upcoming releases with your pre-existing fans. If using a POD platform that only offers mock-up product photos, you can take your own and post them on your Instagram page to put your art in perspective. Plus, it’s a great way for new customers to find you, as they can stumble upon your page.
DON’T: Start a print on design business thinking it will be a “get rich quick” scheme.
Using print on design platforms like Redbubble and Merch by Amazon makes it extremely easy to start your own business, but that does not mean that it’s easy. If you aren’t artistic in the slightest and think you can slap some clip art on a JPEG and call it a design, you’re going to have a hard time turning a profit — but if you want to learn how to create art to sell, that’s fine! Even some of the most talented artists have difficulties making their POD businesses profitable because it doesn’t just skill — you need business savvy, too!
DO: Establish a cohesive brand for your print on demand business.
As a small business owner and artist, you are your brand. This doesn’t mean that your brand is exactly your personality, but rather an image that is derived from who you are and optimized for aesthetic and continuity purposes. In addition to finding a niche for your products and designs, your website, social media accounts, and customer interactions should all echo your personal brand so that you and your print on design products are easily recognizable and let your customers know what you’re all about.
DON’T: Get discouraged.
Learning how to start your own print on demand business is daunting, and launching said business is even more intimidating. You may get lucky or already have a large audience interested in snapping up your merchandise, but in all reality, there will be more days without sales in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that your print on design business is a failure! Keep learning, practicing, and promoting until you find your groove or your customers find you.
Best of luck to all of you budding print on demand business owners!