Whether you’re an artist, writer, designer, or entrepreneur, physical products can be the perfect canvas for monetizing your creativity. It's time to look into print on demand as a model for your business.
From t-shirts to posters, backpacks to books, you can put your own original spin on everyday products and sell them online. However, if you go the traditional route of buying and holding your own inventory, you may be left with a pile of products that aren’t selling.
The print-on-demand (POD) industry has grown by 12% over the past four years. On top of that, a recent survey from Printful found that 45% of print-on-demand store owners saw a surge in sales throughout 2020.
Print-on-demand services offer an easier way to bypass the time, investment, and risk associated with managing inventory, letting you go from creating to selling custom products at a fraction of the cost than manufacturing them on your own.
Want in on the action? This guide will give you an overview of the print-on-demand world, with tips on how to start your POD business today.
What is print on demand (POD), and how does it work?
A print on demand business is a process where you work with a supplier of white-label products (like baseball hats or tote bags) to customize those products and sell them on a per-order basis under your own brand and with your own designs.
You don’t pay for the cost of the product until after you’ve actually sold it, so there’s no need to buy in bulk or hold any inventory yourself.
Plus with print-on-demand services, everything after the sale, from digital printing to order fulfillment and shipping, is handled by your supplier. Once you’ve set everything up, it takes only a few clicks to fulfill an order after you’ve made a sale.
The print on-demand industry shows no signs of slowing down. There’s ongoing demand for unique products and personalization options for today’s consumers. Print-on-demand services allows any size business to provide customized products at a fair price.
You can use print-on-demand services to:
- Test a business idea or new product line for an existing business without the risks that come with buying inventory. It also makes a great side hustle.
- Monetize an audience you’ve built (print on demand is a great option if you’re a YouTuber or cartoonist who wants to spend your time creating instead of fulfilling orders)
- Create original products for a niche of customers (e.g., t-shirts for people who are super passionate about long distance running)
- Print one-off or small batches of print on demand t-shirts, books, shoes, bags, wall art, phone cases, clocks, laptop skins, mugs, and other merch
The pros and cons of print on demand for your ecommerce business
Print on demand can be used to build a business based on the dropshipping model—where the products and shipping are all handled by a third party. It’s one of the most accessible ways to source products or start an online business, but you should know the perks and limitations before you dive in.
Shopify’s print-on-demand resources allow anyone to get something up and running and into testing mode in no time.
- Create products quickly. Once you have the design, you can create the product and put it up for sale in minutes.
- Shipping orders is taken care of. Shipping and fulfilment is out of your hands and into your supplier’s. After the sale, you’re just responsible for customer service.
- Low investment, lower risk. Since you’re not physically holding any inventory, it’s easier to add or remove products, test ideas, or pivot your approach.
- Lower margins. Naturally, your costs per item will be higher than if you buy in bulk.
- Less control over shipping. Shipping costs can get complicated, as it might vary for different print-on-demand products. Your options are also limited if you want to create a standout unboxing experience.
- Limited products. Your ability to customize products depends on the vendor and the product. You’ll have to weigh base costs, customization options, and available sizes when deciding which products to customize.
Best print-on-demand services for creating custom products
While many print-on-demand services might seem relatively similar at first glance, you’ll have to carefully consider the ones you choose based on the products you want to create, where you’ll be shipping them, and the retail prices you want to offer, among other factors.
For example, a low base cost for one product might make it an obvious choice, until you realize that it would take 21 business days to reach customers with your most affordable shipping option.
Exercise due diligence when evaluating the right company for you. To help you out, I put together a quick overview of some of the most popular services that cover a variety of scenarios. All of these services are free to set up (you only pay when you order a product), plus they integrate with your Shopify store.
Printful is a popular choice among print-on-demand sites because of its wide selection of high-quality products and brands (Gildan, American Apparel, etc.), easy-to-use mockup generators, and options for adding your own branding to the unboxing experience.
For apparel products in particular, Printful offers a number of printing techniques you’ll want to be aware of:
- Direct to Garment prints directly onto clothing—especially good for simpler designs (i.e., witty t-shirts). You can only print on certain areas of the product as a result.
- Cut and Sew issometimes known as “all-over print.” The article of clothing is cut, printed on, and then put back together for a seamless print across the entire piece. While the base costs may be higher, this lets you create a more premium product that could sell for more. This is not to be confused with “sublimation printing,” which is a less accurate but more economical method of achieving an all-over print.
- Embroidery is perhaps the most complex printing technique because the final product is actually a threaded design with a 3D effect. This is best for simple designs that involve only a handful of colors, and for products like hats.
I use Printful [for my online store]. They’re amazing because you don’t have to put a lot of money into it upfront. I get an order in the store, they will print my design on a shirt and they’ll ship it out. I’d go insane if I had to ship everything myself.
You should also be mindful of how additional customizations affect the price. Printing on the sleeve or inside label, for example, will usually mean paying a nominal fee on top of base cost.
Besides apparel, Printful also offers mugs, bedding, pillows, framed posters, beach towels, aprons, and more.
2. Lulu Direct
Lulu is a self-publishing platform for printing and distributing your own books and ebooks, offering many of the tools you’d need.
Lulu Direct is its print-on-demand offering and lets you choose from a wide selection of book sizes, binding types, and page/print quality to build your own book product.
While there is no built-in editor to design your book, Lulu Xpress does offer downloadable templates to get you started. It even has a transparent pricing calculator to help you cost out your project, including various shipping options.
There are also discounts available if you’d like to order in bulk.
Like Printful, Gooten offers a wide range of products that you can customize with several that are unique to Gooten, such as calendars and dog beds.
However, since Gooten uses an international network of vendors and dropshippers to print its products, there’s also a lot more variance between its items in terms of quality and shipping. But that also means you’re likely to see lower product and shipping prices as well.
Gooten has an intuitive image editor that gives you a good sense of what your final product will look like.
Printify is another print-on-demand service that features the usual selection of t-shirts and hoodies. What’s notable about Printify is it also offers an international vendor network that enables a number of unique white-label products you’re not likely to find elsewhere, such as jewelry, clocks, shoes, and water bottles. In fact, the platform boasts over 200 products you can print on.
While Printify is free to use, a premium subscription is available that gives you 20% off of all products for $29 a month, which is a solid option if you’re looking to scale up later and improve your profit margins.
Explore more print-on-demand services by reading 10 Paid + Free Print-on-Demand Companies for Selling Custom Products.
Creating designs when you’re not a designer
It goes without saying that design plays a crucial role in creating successful print-on-demand products. But you don’t need to be a full-time designer to source original designs. In fact, recent surveys show that nearly 32% of shop owners outsource designs for their stores.
There are many ways to commission or produce your own designs, as long as you understand a few key concepts that will help you work effectively with designers.
First, and most important, is preparing your design file. When working with designers, you should specify that your design is for printing. This implies that it should be saved at a resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi). The dimensions of the images you upload should be the same size as the printing area for the product.
Note that print specifications will change depending on the printing technique used. When in doubt, just send the designer the print specs for the specific product so they understand the context.
In most cases, the file you upload will be a PNG or PSD. Keep in mind that if you use a transparent background, the color of the t-shirt will be your background color.
Where to find design ideas and designers
In the best case scenario, you’re a designer or know one you can work well with. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t have access to design skills. That’s what outsourcing is for.
- Share insight into your audience. Tell them what it’s for and who your audience is. Showing them your website can help.
- Clearly explain what you want. Use your initial pitch and subsequent revisions (you should get at least one or two) to over-communicate what you’re looking for, and try to provide concrete feedback every step of the way.
- Provide examples for inspiration. Give them a reference to base the design on, or point to past work that you liked.
There are lots of talented designers, so you should be able to find someone to bring your idea to life. The really tricky part is figuring out what you want to design in the first place.
This will depend on your target audience for the product, but you can find design inspiration on:
You can look for content, messaging, or styles that already resonate with your target audience to brainstorm ideas worth pursuing. Just be sure you’re not infringing on anyone else’s work.
Social media is also a great place to litmus test your ideas. If you’re looking to turn the web into your focus group, try the following:
- Post to your personal network on Facebook or to groups
- Use Instagram’s Poll and Question stickers to solicit feedback
- Share a rough version of your design idea with a relevant subreddit
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Tips for starting with print on demand
Using a print-on-demand service might be easier than managing your own inventory, but there are some considerations unique to this approach that you should be aware of. Luckily, for most of these challenges you’ll face, there are creative solutions.
1. Always order samples
Quality assurance is essential when you’re using print-on-demand services to sell online.
You want to ensure your physical product looks and feels as you intended, and the best way to do that is to be your own customer, so you can experience first-hand what it’s like to receive your products. Some services, like Printful, even offer a sample discount of up to 20% off or free shipping, so be sure to take advantage of that if it’s available.
Beyond ensuring product quality, samples are also good to have on hand for taking your own product photos for your website and social media profiles.
2. Be strategic about shipping
Even when you’re not shipping products yourself, shipping still offers some complexity in the form of shipping times and costs, and how to set the right expectations with customers.
You’ll want to be sure that you’re accounting for printing times when it comes to shipping. Whatever the shipping times are, be sure to add anywhere from two to four days for production, or more depending on the product.
Always be upfront about shipping times or you’ll wind up with a support inbox full of shipping questions. Outline what to expect on your FAQ page or consider creating a separate Shipping page to explain shipping to customers.
If you can, try to partially or fully absorb your shipping costs into your retail price. Year after year, studies show that surprise shipping costs added at checkout can deter customers from buying. On top of that, free shipping bolsters a number of your other marketing efforts:
- Free shipping is still a great sales sweetener, even if you can only offer it for specific regions, and provides customers with one more incentive to buy.
- Conditional free shipping (e.g., “Get free shipping when you spend $30 or more”) encourages customers to add more to their cart to reach the threshold and usually helps you achieve a better total shipping rate by shipping everything together.
- You can use free shipping to justify longer wait times. Many consumers will wait a bit longer for an order if they know it will save them money on shipping.
3. Create mockups that show off your products
While models can help you snap compelling photos of your products, mockups are also an effective alternative and will be a prominent part of your product pages.
Many print-on-demand services can help you create your own mockups, showing your products on a person or as a flatlay. But there are other services and plenty of free mockup templates that can also bring your products to life.
These mockups are what will sell your products to customers, so it can literally pay to go the extra mile. PlaceIt is an easy-to-use mockup generator that lets you create photo and video mockups for $8 each. Or, if you know the basics of Photoshop or other photo editing tools, you can browse Mockup World or Behance for templates.
4. Find your niche and build an audience
Since your margins will be a bit thinner with print-on-demand products, you’ll want to be strategic about how you position your brand. Having a clearly defined audience (e.g., dog owners) can actually help you lower the costs to acquire customers and maximize your potential profits because your targeting will be much more precise.
Having a niche makes it easier to grow an audience that becomes an asset. Some marketing tactics you can try right away include:
- Start an Instagram account and create/curate content to serve your target audience.
- Spend $10 on Facebook ads (to start) to test your products with your target market.
- Collect emails from visitors so you can continue to market to them for free.
Growing an audience is a must for building a long-term business, print on demand or otherwise.
5. Create your own online store
If you’re getting into print on demand, you’ll come across different marketplaces to sell your custom designs on. For example, RedBubble and Zazzle offer POD services when you create a store on their platforms. People also sell custom products through Etsy, eBay, and Amazon.
These marketplaces do come with some benefits: Amazon alone has 300 million active customer accounts worldwide, putting more eyeballs on your products. Etsy has over 80 million active buyers. Zazzle has a good reputation, listing hundreds of millions of products since its founding in 2005.
Marketplaces give shoppers choice and an easy way to find products. But what they don’t do is provide a shopping experience that you control. This gives you a unique startup opportunity.
When you build a branded storefront on top of an ecommerce platform like Shopify, you can control the experience: how your store looks and feels, how people interact with you, how they discover your brand. It also offers integrations with top POD services so everything happens from one dashboard. Not to mention the lower fees you’ll pay from owning your own store.
Shoppers who aren’t loyal to brands like Etsy or Amazon may enjoy getting to know your brand and browsing your site. Your email list, remarketing ads, and social media profiles make it easier to stay connected with them and build a relationship that extends beyond the marketplace.
Design, test, sell, and grow
Print-on-demand services offer an accessible place to begin for new entrepreneurs or for anyone who just wants to test an idea before they invest in it. There are thousands of white label products out there that you can make your own, and no shortage of possible designs to pair with them.
Select combinations will inevitably sell better than the rest, but it’s relatively easy to repurpose the same core design for several products.
If your business idea pans out and you start generating a meaningful number of sales, you can always graduate from print on demand to holding your own inventory, or continue to use these services while finding new ways to grow your audience.
The greatest advantage of the print-on-demand model is the flexibility it affords your business and the time it gives you back to focus on growth.