For many new and would-be self-publishers, print on demand (POD) sounds like a dream come true. It offers the opportunity to publish without investing capital in inventory and warehousing, yet still recoup costs by selling copies one at a time as orders come in. Print on demand used to refer exclusively to books, but nowadays, entire print on demand businesses are built on things like tote bags and t-shirts.
A print on demand business is an easy way to sell products without investing a lot in physical space. Your POD business can be a great complement to other business ideas and efforts. The drawbacks, like low profit margins, can be ameliorated with high volume sales, employing a graphic designer, and having reasonable expectations about how much money you can make.
This guide will help you set up your own print on demand business, either through marketplaces like Redbubble and TeePublic OR on your own website with Printful or Printify. Let's get started!
Step 1: Decide if you want to run your own store, or just design Print on Demand products
An online business is wholly different than just selling print on demand products. To sell under your own brand, you will need a website that can accept payment from customers, and then print, package, and ship the product. So if you're just starting out with an idea for a new business, you should consider whether building your own website might be a better path than selling through marketplaces like Redbubble or TeePublic. It is legitimately faster to use a marketplace to start selling.
Method 1: Starting your own print on demand business
If you do want to start your own business, you'll have to do a lot of prep work before you're able to list your first print on demand product. We won't walk you through starting your own online store step by step in this guide, but if you want to save yourself time, I recommend reading the Definitive Guide To Starting An Online Sticker Store.
If you do start your own store, there are services like Shopify and Wix that make it easy to set up an online store. I prefer WordPress, but there's not one right and only way to get your business online. The most important thing is that your website makes it easy for you to create new products and list them.
Method 2: Just listing print on demand products on marketplace websites like Redbubble
If you don't want to go through the hassle of setting up your own website: Don't. Marketplace websites like Redbubble and TeePublic can help you list your own print on demand products in under an hour. You don't need to pay for any hosting, and there is no risk of your website going down if the service shuts down.
One of my favorite things about selling on marketplaces is that you can still brand your products under your own username or business name. You'll have complete creative control over what you sell, but it will be listed on a uniform place that receives a lot of organic traffic. Plus, these types of websites do NOT have listing fees (I'm looking at you, Etsy) – so it's literally free to start creating designs and uploading them.
Step 2: Create your first design!
The most important thing for your new POD business? Creating. Seriously. You can agonize over 1 design for two weeks, or you can create 14 designs (1 a night) in that time frame. They might not all become cool shirt designs, but quantity breeds quality. If you do want help getting started with creating your own designs, I recommend looking into:
- Paying a graphic designer to mock up some of your ideas (this is the fastest and most expensive way of doing it)
- Signing up for a design course like on Skillshare or other e-learning platforms to gain skills to start designing
- Using free templates on Canva or other free templates. Make sure that you can sell what you make on those platforms.
How to get inspiration for your t-shirt graphic designs
If you're struggling to find good design ideas, there are a few ways to brainstorm:
- Search on Etsy for successful designs you like and use them as inspiration. Keep in mind that just because something is listed on Etsy doesn't mean it's selling well. See if you can come up with some designs that might be better sellers.
- Use Pinterest for t shirt design ideas. There are a few Pinterest groups that might be helpful for your design needs. Pinterest is also an amazing source of inspiration – just open it up and start scrolling to find ideas. Below you can see how I use Pinterest for t shirt designs, but the same process works with pretty much any type of graphic design you want to make.
- Brainstorm with friends and family. You never know what kind of people you have in your contacts. They might think outside the box better than you and give you inspiration for designs that you hadn't thought about before.
- Design something based on a trending topic or current event. Just be aware of copyright infringement if you do this. You don't want to create anything on protected items like peoples' likenesses or trademarks from other companies.
MASTER TIP: Don't Just Design For T-Shirts.
T shirt business is super popular, but it's not the only product that Print on Demand suppliers can produce. You can also find wall art, sweat shirts, fine art prints, books, calendars, canvas prints, and even a wall decal or two. Phone covers are an especially popular print on demand product.
If you find a supplier that makes most of these products, then you can use the same website to list them all. You don't need to register a separate account with each print on demand provider. Plus, you'll have more room for your designs in your online portfolio if they're not limited to one type of product.
MASTER TIP: Do design with one product in mind at a time.
Redbubble will let you upload different graphics for each type of product, but TeePublic won't. Both services will let you restrict the colors or products that your design appears on, though, so design with your product in mind. If you're making a clock, make the design fit the space. Then make a variation of that design to put on a t-shirt. That way, your design is optimized for the medium that it's on.
Step 3: Understand the limitations of your platform
This advice mostly applies to people working on marketplaces like Redbubble and TeePublic, but it could also apply to a website that you're creating on your own. You need to understand the restrictions of your ecommerce platform. Not all ways to sell online are created equal.
For marketplaces, you need to be aware that they have automatic copyright checks. If you label something as Harry Potter, it will be immediately removed, and you may be prevented from ever selling on that platform again. So make sure that your print on demand product ideas are legal and original, not based on popular culture.
MASTER TIP: You can't really customize print on demand products.
What we mean by this is that you can't create a version of a shirt for “Brandon” and another for “Angela” – you'll have to design more generically than that. You can do that on your own website, but you'll probably need to develop an online mockup tool. That could be expensive. This means that you can't really use Redbubble or TeePublic to sell things like pet t shirt templates or truly custom t shirts. You CAN make a design highly specific, but you might only sell a few of them.
If you do want to run a names/dates custom printed merchandise business, you'll just need to do your primary selling through social media or your website, and then special order your final design on the product that they want, whether it's a cool hoodie design, an all over print, or a fun set of phone cases. Customizing print on demand merchandise like that kind of eliminates exactly what the benefit of POD merchandise is, but, to each their own.
Step 4: Don't Forget About Marketing Your Print On Demand Products
Even if you're selling on a marketplace, you'll need to market your products. Selling t shirts is about getting in front of your target audience. So, do some t shirt market research if that's what you're selling. If you're selling stickers, make sure to see what your competitors are selling. What pops up on Google when you type in multiple or related keywords? Following just a few pointers like these will maximize the amount of money you can make from your ecommerce store.;
Making money designing POD merchandise isn't hard if you're patient. Design a few cool hoodie designs and you can have your life made for you. In the end, it's all about reaching your target market, be it through social media or ads. The best print on demand stores are the ones you see when you're looking for something to buy.
Example marketing tip for your online store
Why not market your custom tote bags to people who love to recycle? They're a great way to save plastic. Or, why not market your wall art to new homeowners who are looking for something to brighten up their walls? Coming up with unique and creative ways to get your shirt design ideas in front of your target market will help you sell more items. And remember, with POD, you don't actually have to MAKE or STORE the items. Selling them is all you need to do.
We hope these tips will help you grow your ecommerce store with custom cool shirt designs and other print on demand products. If you liked this article and are going to take a step to sell online, why not let us know? We love it when our readers succeed! From wall art to t shirt graphic design, we're excited to see what you create. So, leave it in the comments below!