2020 has been the year of the digital hustle. As Amy Cubbon writes, “there’s no better time to start a business than today.” My country’s extended coronavirus lockdown meant I spent months away from my partner. I wrote affiliate marketing pieces and started a YouTube channel. But this was a natural progression for me; I’m a writer, and I can make videos. E-commerce was mostly outside my wheelhouse. But after some research, I was drawn to print on demand business and decided to give this form of side-hustle a shot.
I started by reading guides and watching tutorials. Hidden between all the YouTube videos promising me I could become a print on demand business God (if only I bought their course), I found two great channels. Greg Gottfried and Wholesale TED both give out fantastic free advice. I pored over their videos, and after taking in what I thought was enough information to get started, I dove in.
What follows are the lessons I’ve learned and a guide to help anyone start a print on demand business with no marketing experience.
Laying the Foundations
The first thing I did was decide on a niche. There’s a paid website available called MerchInformer, which can help you with this. I decided to focus on where my interests and qualifications lie — archaeology and those who work in the heritage industry, and I already had some design ideas in mind. Although historically themed shirts were common, I predicted the latter category would not be heavily catered for.
The next step was to start print on demand storefronts on Redbubble and Teespring. The reason for choosing these two sites was threefold:
- There are loads of sites out there, but these are two heavy hitters and receive a large amount of traffic.
- There is no application process. Anyone can make an account and start uploading designs.
- These sites handle the fulfillment and shipping process for you. This was an important consideration for me, as my experience in e-commerce is limited.
Unfortunately, even these two sites are not created equal. Teespring will not actively ‘market’ your shirts until you receive around 10 sales. This means you need to drive external traffic to your designs yourself. To do this, I set up an Instagram account for my store, where I could link to designs I posted in the bio. I was fortunate that I already had an Instagram theme page on archaeology that I had set up earlier in the year with around 50 followers. Although not a lot by any means, by renaming the page, I had reduced some of the early Instagram interaction work, and I already had a captive audience interested in my specific niche. With the infrastructure of my print on demand business in place, I now needed to make some shirt designs.
I am not a designer. I can use Photoshop, but that’s as high as my skill ceiling goes. Thankfully, the burgeoning print on demand business sector had created just the tool to help. Placeit.net is a website with thousands of available design elements and logos which can be easily modified and adapted into t-shirt designs. If you are using the resources a lot, the monthly fee is more than worth it, and any designs you make can be downloaded and kept should you decide to cancel your subscription.
I knuckled down and created my first range of simple history-themed designs. Once downloaded, you can upload the Placeit designs straight to Teespring and Redbubble. Both sites allow you to set sales parameters such as color, price, garments, SEO, etc. The whole process is very streamlined, and if you have the time, there is nothing to stop you from uploading hundreds of designs very quickly.
My next step was to add some designs themed around job titles. I guarantee you’ve seen the type: ‘I’m A Horse Surgeon Don’t Mess With Me,’ etc. As these designs are popular as gifts, there is a veritable sea of competitors. To stand out, I focussed on specific job titles unique to my niche, made sure I had a suitable image, wrote an accompanying slogan that changed with every design, and showed the buyer or gifter I knew a bit about the role in question.
As I mentioned above, Teespring requires a bit of marketing on your side to drive initial sales. Placeit had me covered for this, too, as the website gives you a great range of model photographs you can add your designs to. These images are great for Instagram, as they stop your post from looking like a simple advert.
Now that my shopfronts and Instagram pages were filling with content, there was another extra step worth taking. Amazon, the retail heavyweight, has a specific program from print on demand businesses, known as Merch By Amazon. The program allows your designs to be listed on the Amazon store just like regular products, where they will reach the site’s ridiculous audience.
Why did I leave joining Amazon until now? Quite simply, Merch By Amazon is invitation only and requires filling out an application. Amazon is only looking for serious contributors. If you’ve already got the beginnings of a brand and several storefronts in place, I believe you will be more likely to be accepted.
So I sent off my Amazon application, and for the following weeks, used all my spare time to add new designs to Teespring and Redbubble.
So… What Happened?
Over a month later, my 20 designs on Redbubble had garnered 10 views in total. 1 person had favorited my Classicist shirt. That was it.
I had been promoting my Teespring designs like crazy on Instagram, using the model photos from Placeit. The posts were getting likes, but those weren’t translating into views or sales on Teespring. Being unable to place links in Instagram captions is not ideal, as it forces viewers to take another step to view your product.
I was demotivated but continued nevertheless. I broadened my store’s niche to other areas I was familiar with, such as Dungeons and Dragons. Then I noticed more and more of my designs were being favorited on Redbubble, but I still couldn’t get enough views to translate into sales.
To alleviate this, I decided to run a Facebook ad to promote the Classicist shirt pictured above. I chose this shirt as it had the most favorites and views on Redbubble, but I decided to make the ad click-through to the identical listing on Teespring. This was because if I could get just a few sales from this ad, my Teesping store would be actively marketed, rather than restricted to search results. Aware that I was sinking more money into the store without any return, I optimized the ad the best I could. I utilized a female model mock-up from Placeit as the first photo and paired this with a caption showing I was knowledgeable about my niche and a call-to-action. I targeted it to young people with degree-level education.
A few days into the ad campaign, I made my first sale. I was off the mark. It was the shirt I advertised. But it was on Redbubble, from organic traffic. My first reaction was probably more “finally” than any excitement.
The ad campaign eventually ran its course. My click-through rate was high, but I’d made no sales.
I shortly got an email from Amazon. I’d been rejected from the affiliate program. The good news is I could apply again as many times as I wanted. The bad news was that I didn’t know what else I could put in my application. I’d told them I had active storefronts elsewhere and followed all the tips I’d seen online.
At this point, I began to doubt my commitment. I knew I wanted to develop my writing and had already written some pieces for my first client. But I’d had one last product idea — a Christmas jumper design marketed to history fans and pagans based on the frequent association of Odin with Santa. I know, it sounds crazy. But I was so sure that the targeting allowed with Facebook Ads would allow me to reach the right people. So I doubled my budget, included a call to action for the target group, and set the ad to run for 10 days at the end of November. I hypothesized this would be close enough to Christmas but still leave time for delivery.
The ad got vastly more engagement — around 50 reactions and over 10 comments tagging others. I made a sale of the product, but ironically, it was once again on Redbubble.
What my experience taught me
So I started a print on demand business with no marketing experience. But after a couple of months of experimentation, what had I learned? My store never really got off the ground, and after Placeit subscriptions and ads, I’d made a net loss of around $40.
But there are some important take-aways from my journey:
- The competition in the print-on-demand sector is high. The barrier to entry for Teespring and Redbubble is low, and the current pandemic has undoubtedly curtailed spending. Being accepted onto Merch By Amazon seems like a lottery due to the saturation. Finding a niche is more important than ever. Should I have used Merch Informer? Probably. I’d also advise people to hyper-focus and produce a lot of designs for a very specific area. At least then, you will have the market cornered.
- Print-on-demand, like every digital business, takes commitment. After my early disappointment, I looked at the relevant subreddit to see how other sellers were faring. Most reported slow but steady sales. But these people had several thousand listings, and with their sales numbers, they weren’t going to be quitting their day jobs anytime soon. Like writing or making videos getting yourself to that point takes a significant investment of time and sometimes money. I was aware I had barely scratched the surface.
Most significantly, however, I realized that I had to put effort into doing something I was interested in and familiar with. While I enjoyed generating the ideas, I found the rest of the process tiresome. I’m also not a designer; Placeit was, at best, a crutch for me. More than anything, this experience has reminded me that I am a writer.
Always play to your strengths.