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Turning a pink slip into a permission slip with print-on-demand

Published 3 months ago • 10 min read

In 2013, I was laid off from my art director job when the company I worked for sold off our division to another company too far away for me to travel.

For me, it was bittersweet because I was ready to leave that job by the end of the year, but I would sorely miss some of the friends I made. Looking back though, I recognize that it was the best thing that ever happened to me because although I may not be making the same money I was back then, I have complete freedom to chase any creative pursuit I can think of.

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This post is the first in what I’m calling Pink Slip Pursuits, where I talk about creative project ideas for anyone who has been downsized from their jobs and is looking at the future with a severance check in their hands.

Each edition will begin with the concept, “How I would start a [ blank ] business today,” Then I fill in the blank with different creative business ideas, and today we’re talking about print-on-demand.

TL;DR

  • Building a strong foundation with smart choices
  • The riches are in the niches
  • A product-first approach to design
  • Promotion and marketing
  • The Do Nots (avoid at all costs)

Read Time: 11 Minutes

How I would start a POD business in 2024

First, it says “I,” but really, this is about you. I want to make sure that’s clear because I’m sharing my advice in your direction.

Also, I need to make an important distinction before digging in because print-on-demand can mean different things to different people. There are there basic approaches to print-on-demand. - Marketplaces (RedBubble, Threadless, Society6) - Self-print with home/studio printer - Print Partners (Printify, Printful)

Marketplaces are the lowest barrier to entry for anyone because they are sometimes free or cheap to start, but they come with the lowest profit margin. Customers who buy your designs are not your customers, and you have no connection to them.

Self-print comes with the highest start-up costs, with entry-level dye-sublimation printers costing thousands of dollars, but you are completely autonomous and have full control over what you can print. However, different product lines require other printers, so you may be initially limited in what you can offer. You also have complete access to your customer base, which is ideal.

I’ll use print partners for this article because they provide a good balance of product variety and autonomy in both my designs and the profit I retain. This option requires that I run my e-commerce site (Shopify, Wix, Squarespace) or operate on Etsy, and it also gives me the same access to my customers as self-printing.

Build a Solid Foundation

If you’ve never used POD, I suggest first testing the process with a service like RedBubble. Learn the basics of designing for products. This will take some time to become comfortable with the process, so be patient.

I also recommend buying samples of your products to see what they look and feel like. With RedBubble and other marketplaces, you don’t have as much control over product quality, but creating samples will help your decision-making later if you move to using a print partner.

I am a graphic designer by trade with years of experience in product and publication design. I have a good understanding of POD product design, so I choose to use the services of both Printify and Printful. I prefer Printify because they are less expensive and have the most flexibility because they operate as a 3rd party, connecting different POD print shops around North America, with some in Europe and Asia.

Printful is a self-contained company that does all the printing in-house, which means more overhead and higher costs that get transferred to the customers (you). However, they have some products that Printify doesn’t offer, and vice versa.

Depending on what products I want to design and publish, I would start accounts with both services, defaulting to Printify but having the option to use Printful for select products or to pick up the slack on fulfillment if Printify cannot produce and ship my items in a timely basis.

• E-commerce Choices

You need a place to host your products because you cannot sell directly through Printful or Printify. Again, the low barrier to entry is Etsy because it’s free to start, but you’re reliant on their services and are only given access to customers for the duration of the purchase. You cannot collect from the people who buy from you, which is a dealbreaker for me.

In the past, I’ve tested both Wix and Squarespace for e-commerce, and each has its merits. However, if you have more than a dozen products available in your shop (which is highly likely), those services are more challenging to manage inventory and product listings.

NOTE: It’s been years since I used Squarespace and Wix. Their inventory management may be considerably better than in the past. Please do your research on this.

I prefer Shopify for my e-commerce needs. Unlike the other services that added it after the fact, the platform was built as an e-commerce solution from the beginning.

Also, the connectivity and support between Shopify and the print partners are better because both Printify and Printful built their platforms for Shopify.

• Product First Approach

Everyone wants to start a t-shirt brand, so your competition is everyone. I don’t recommend this approach for a few reasons.

First, broad-concept t-shirts and streetwear brands require big, loyal followings. The only way t-shirt brands grow is by having a voracious fanbase. If you don’t have that, you will struggle to grow. Hundreds of independent shirt designers rise up and then crash and burn out every year. I don’t want that for you.

Second, one of the most effective ways to grow a POD brand is through advertising on Meta and Google. However, the margins on t-shirts are much lower because of what average individuals are willing to pay for them. It’s easy to go over budget with advertising on t-shirts alone.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have t-shirts; instead, consider starting with products with a better profit opportunity. This could be outerwear like hoodies and jackets, housewares, or art prints and canvases, to name a few. This takes research, and a big part of the decision will be determining who your ideal customers are.

Riches in the Niches

Most creative people hate this advice, but it is shared often because it WORKS!

The reality is that most people do not give a damn about your creative impulses. They want to know if they can trust you before becoming a repeat customer, but if you’re chasing all kinds of design ideas, they will not trust you enough to return.

That said, niching doesn’t have to be hyper-specific. These are a few ways to figure out a niche that works for you.

  • Hobbies where you can sub-niche for different people like baseball fans and their teams (careful here—tread lightly). Example: fansidea.com
  • Attitudes like snark and humor toward a general idea like politics, parenting, or even regular life. Example: meriwether.love (Warning: graphic language)
  • Passions are an excellent way to cater to voracious fans like golfers, book lovers, and travelers. The people that do these things love to emblazon their passions on everything. Example: airportag.com
  • Animals will always be a favorite, and though domestic animals are the most popular, exotic prehistoric animals are a fun option, too, and you can combine animals with any of the things listed above for that highly-coveted niche crossover. Example: natureismetal.com (Warning: Graphic content)

Design for the Product

Before you design anything outside your brand logo, pick the first few products you want to feature in your shop. I cannot stress this enough because many people will make designs based on what looks good on a t-shirt or mug, but they cannot transfer that to other products well. What works on a duvet cover may not work on a stretched canvas.

Also, lean into premium products whenever possible. They are more expensive, but you can charge a higher margin. This also helps with customer service issues because better products = fewer returns, and highlight that those products are premium in your listings.

Once you’ve chosen your initial product line, your first few designs should be more broad concepts within your niche. Starting with esoteric ideas is not a good idea because most people may not understand the references. Once you’ve established a handful of designs and are building traction, introduce the more nuanced designs.

When you pick a product, create your design for that product first, but while creating your design, consider what parts can be used on other products. That way, you can make micro collections around a single design.

Finally, over time, you will find out what your customers like most, and it’s ok to design with those customers in mind, but don’t be afraid to test new ideas. Get a little wild and share it with your fans. It may hit or doesn’t, so do not get precious over the designs. This is a product-based business you’re building, and your tastes may have to take a back seat occasionally to bring in the buyers.

Promotion and Marketing

Social media is tricky; if you’re like me, you’ve struggled with it like most others. Still, if you’re going all in on this POD business, your objective would be to have social media accounts that are hyper-focused on the niche, using popular memes and viral content often. And those memes should relate as closely to your design style as possible.

I recommend your first line of marketing be a presence on Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, and maybe YouTube Shorts. Since your goal, in the beginning, is not to design constantly, put all my remaining energy into social media.

The next objective would be getting as many people as possible on your email list. Social media can be a powerful tool, but we don’t want to depend on rented attention, but instead focus on owned attention, which is when people permit you to share your business with them.

NOTE: My writing course, Choose Your Words, focuses on helping people write effectively with as few words as possible for sharing on newsletters and blogs. That makes it the perfect course for people creating a POD-based business.

Once you have 4 to 6 designs in your shop, establish a basic social media presence, and have a way for people to join your email list, it’s time to start advertising. Start with Facebook and Instagram ads, and as you grow, incorporate ads on Google and perhaps Pinterest.

I know advertising is a scary topic for some, but it’s a vastly untapped resource for many creative people. If you click on any of those example links above, you might get served ads by them. Instead of ignoring them, pay attention because they will show you what’s working.

If you’re doing all these things (which I know is a lot) and focused on creating a cohesive product line, you will pick up momentum. Patience is required, and it will take time. Also, invest as much of your profits back into the company. This will help you grow and get you to more profit quicker.

The Do Nots!

There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and you’re going to have to make them for yourself to learn what works best for you and your customers. However, these are mistakes you should avoid at all costs.

• Avoid the Marketplaces

There’s no love lost between RedBubble, Society6, and me. Even though I advised beginners to test the process through these marketplaces, trying to build a business on them is not a good idea. In 2023, those companies and others like them showed their true colors by changing the rules for designers in ways that financially benefit the corporations.

• T-shirts and Mugs

I’ve already stated this, but 95% of people who start a POD business begin with t-shirts and mugs. Although these products are the most popular for shoppers, it’s a surefire way to kill your business. Again, you can have them but not make them the cornerstone of your business.

• No Thieves

DO NOT COPY other people’s designs, even if they are simple text-based ideas. Copying puts you at risk of being sued, which could kill your business before it starts. Plus, it’s a dick move, and if you get found out, the least of your problems is the trolling you’ll get from the fans of the original designer.

• No Deviation

I know you have this impulse to go down a rabbit hole of new ideas, but I’m begging you not to do that. Stick to the path because the payoff comes faster if you do. If you feel your divergent ideas are good, write them down on paper and put them in a folder.

After a month, revisit those ideas and see how you feel about them. The ones you feel good about still may be worth looking into, but only after you’ve exhausted all the ideas within your shop’s niche. At best, you could start a second shop focused on that new line of ideas, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a team helping you.

• Quit Now

Before you begin, commit how much time and energy you’re willing to put into this. If the commitment isn’t at least a full year, don’t start. I’m serious because you are about to invest a lot into this idea, and if you’re not willing to see it through for at least the next twelve months, then you have no business starting.

This is the only time I suggest using a POD marketplace because there’s no commitment, and you can stop anytime.

Final Thoughts

Running a POD business is not easy and definitely not a fast-money side hustle. This requires deep, thoughtful attention, but if you can focus on the concept and keep your designs tight and on target to your audience, you can build something cool that puts money in your pocket.

I haven’t done this myself yet because I’m focused on The Hungry right now. If I figure out how to make this project more turn-key, I may start a POD shop because, like you, I have a folder filled with great ideas.


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The Hungry

By Dave Conrey

The Hungry serves up practical and actionable creative business news, information, and insights twice weekly. Join thousands of other artists, designers, and creative professionals looking to demystify marketing, strategy, selling techniques, and the technology necessary to run a thriving business.

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