If you're one of those people who have been actively trying to find ways to be more financially independent by starting your own online business or side hustle, you've probably heard of drop shipping. While drop shipping in itself is branded as a lucrative business opportunity with tons of pros like not having to manage inventory and low startup costs - it's fast fading away from being the go to choice for first time e-commerce entrepreneurs.

Inspired by the idea of working from wherever in my own time and setting up an e-commerce business, I started my own drop shipping store in 2018, hoping to see success in the field. You truly don't know what you are in for until you actually get started because boy, was I in for a surprise. The long shipping times and high cost of inventory meant extremely low margins. On top of that, I was spending tons of money on advertising and seeing no real return. Needless to say, in a couple of months, I had exhausted my budget and only seen 10 sales.

After a couple of years, I started hearing another buzzword in the e-commerce circles. More and more people were talking about "Print-on-demand" stores and how they were making a killing with their e-commerce stores using this method. There was more, the startup costs seemed as low as drop shipping and the processing time was nowhere near standard drop shipping because of the improved shipping model. Have I piqued your interest, yet? Read on!

What is Print-On-Demand?

Print-on-demand is a low-cost and easy to setup way of offering custom-made merchandise like mugs, clothing, magnets, diaries and other printable items to your customers. It's a great way to monetise and existing blog by selling your printed merchandise, but you can also setup a full fledged e-commerce store if you have the right niche and e-commerce platform. You create your designs and then outsource them to any one of a number of suppliers who then handle everything, from printing your designs on the merchandise of your choice, to shipping it to your customers.

Benefits of POD

There are a number of key benefits to going down the print-on-demand route over standard e-commerce and even drop-shipping!

  • It's easy to set-up
  • The startups costs are low
  • You don't have to manage your own inventory
  • You can choose to use an external platform to sell your merchandise which means that you don't even have to invest in building your own web store

How to start your own Print-On-Demand store

In this section we will give you a step by step breakdown of how to start your print-on-demand e-commerce store. This is by means no easy task, but by following this guide you will be able to get most of the legwork out of the way.

Step 1: Figure out your product niche

This is by far the most important step when you're trying to setup your e-commerce store. Picking the right niche can more or less make or break your online business. You want to pick a niche in which you are most likely to succeed. It helps to pick something you like because you will have knowledge about the subject and not get bored when things get a little slow (and believe me, every business starting out goes through a period of lull). Think about your favourite sport, or your eating habits and try to recognise a pattern that might be useful in helping you figure out what other people could be interested in as well.

Once you've identified your niche, it is always a good idea to validate your thoughts. One possible place is to use something like Google Trends to understand what people are saying about your niche. Using relevant hashtags, you can also explore the popularity of your niche on various social media.

If there is little to no chatter about your niche, then it might not really have the potential to become a great print-on-demand business. On the other hand, if there is too much chatter, you might have to compete with some big fish. But remember, competition is not a bad thing - it only means that your idea is pre-validated and has potential for big payouts!

Next, you will want to think of 5 or 6 product ideas that fit within your niche. Some popular items include mugs, phone cases, stickers and hoodies. While you might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to you, stick to things that fit your niche while being popular at the same time. Figure out what is selling right now, what is in trend? For example, in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak, masks were a hit product!

As a last step, explore market places such as Redbubble and Amazon Merch and explore their product offering to see what is being currently sold in the market and to scope out the competition.

Step 2: Create eye-catching designs

This is where the real work begins! But don't worry, it's also the most fun part. Now is your time to think of and create beautiful eye-catching designs that you think have the potential to sell. If you have the design skills then this step should be quite easy for you, but if you're not don't worry! You can craft your own designs using a simple tool like Canva or modifying copyright-free design assets like those available on Creative Market. Always remember to use work that is original or copyright-free if you want to truly stand out and of course, avoid legal complications.

You can also hire designers and outsource this design work to freelancers on platforms such as UpWork and Fiverr.

Step 3: Choose your sales platform

There are two ways to start selling your print-on-demand merchandise. You can either choose to sell your merchandise on a third party marketplace such as RedBubble or choose to setup your own e-commerce store with a custom domain using something like Shopify or BigCommerce.‌‌

Using a third party marketplace

If you are looking to start a Print on Demand business but are on a tight budget, then selling custom prints on free marketplaces is a great place to start. These websites are completely free to join and allow anyone to sell merchandise.

To get started, all you need to do is create an account on one of these websites, select a bunch of products you would like to sell, upload your designs and prints onto your products. Once you're done you can list your products on these marketplaces which handle shipping, logistics and payment processing!

Some good marketplaces to check out are Zazzle, Threadless and Merch by Amazon.

Setting up your e-commerce store from scratch

If you're trying to create a print-on-demand business which is brand-worthy and entirely your own, we recommend setting up your own e-commerce website so that you can have complete ownership of everything, from the website design to the marketing plan.

There are plenty of platforms that support e-commerce platforms, but the most popular ones are are Shopify, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce/WordPress. There are plenty of positives to using these platforms instead of having your own custom built website. Primarily, they let you use out of the box themes which means that you can set up your print-on-demand business in no time. They also offer seamless integrations with print providers such as Printify. These platforms also take care of payment processing and inventory management which will make your entrepreneurial life a whole lot easier.

Once you have your website setup, you will need to select a print provider. A print provider is a third party business application that will help you print and ship your orders. Many of these print-on-demand suppliers integrate directly with ecommerce platforms like Shopify, so you will be able to handle order processing from within just one application. Some of the most popular ones that integrate directly with Shopify are Printful, Gooten and Printify.

Step 4: Promote your store

This is essential to the success of your business. You've set everything up correctly and now you're ready to get the ball rolling, drive traffic to your website and see some real conversions. For this, marketing your website to the appropriate audience is absolutely imperative.

Setup your social media accounts

While you can drive traffic to your website through most social media channels, lately, the world of Marketing has been taken by storm by TikTok and Instagram. TikTok's algorithm makes it easier for newer businesses to reach a wide audience. Instagram has followed TikTok's footsteps and similarly businesses can increase their reach using Instagram reels. Here are some of our other top tips you can follow:

  • Reach out to influencers and send them your products so that they can show them off on their accounts
  • Host giveaways to increase your following
  • When it comes to making TikToks and reels, use the 80/20 rule; this means that 80% of the content you make should be informative and entertaining while the remaining 20% should be sales driven

Optimise for search engines

It's 2021 and google search still remains the number 1 way to drive traffic to your website. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a very powerful tool which you should leverage in order to take your brand to the front pages of major search engines for high ranking keywords that are relevant for your business. You can do this by writing blog posts for your brand and including a lot of keywords that people are searching for.

Run paid advertisements

Initially, it might be a good idea to run paid advertisements for your e-commerce brand, specially when you're still trying to get the word out there.

Step 5: Sell and improve!

The only way to make sure that everything is working as expected is to see it in action. Once you've got everything set up and are driving customers to your website, you should start gathering feedback. Constructive criticism will help you improve and optimize not just your website, but also your products.

You can also start identifying your best sellers and keep them in mind as you increase and diversify your product catalogue.

In Conclusion

Print on demand is a great online business model. With the right skillset you should be able to leverage its many benefits and get up and running in no time. Not handling logistics takes away some of the responsibility one might feel when running an e-commerce business. By outsourcing this you can take some of that risk away and rest easy.