What is Print-on-Demand?
Print-on-demand is a business process in which a product isn’t created until an order is made. Rather than a retailer stocking up on products that may or may not sell at some point, these items aren’t created until a customer has requested it. You’re familiar with this because personalised products have become more popular in the past decade, but the same goes for non-customised products too.
Print-on-demand (POD) exists in many forms, from physical book publishing to the creation of 3D ceramics. In the form I’m most familiar with, POD refers to printing designs on clothing, homeware and other consumer goods.
I’ll break down the basic process from the apparel perspective:
The print-on-demand supplier has thousands of black, large-sized t-shirts in its warehouse. They have hundreds of affiliated businesses with stores selling black t-shirts, all with different designs. Business X then sells its Black Y t-shirt. Business X tells the supplier they’ve had a sales of Black Y, and who to send it to. The supplier prints the design on the t-shirts, packs it, and sends it out directly to the customer.
It’s a slick operation, provided you have the right suppliers and you know how to sell your goods.
I rate print-on-demand highly because it eliminates all of the financial barriers in the way of getting an ecommerce store underway. You don’t need to buy any of the inventory. You don’t need to fulfil any orders yourself. You don’t even have to do your own product photos, if you don’t want to. It’s a form of dropshipping where you’re actually responsible for the things you make.
How Do You Create the Designs?
For those that have any experience with graphic design – no matter how limited – you’re going to far just fine on here. You really only need very basic awareness of how to create a functional design to get on the ladder with print-on-demand. So long as you know your audience, you can get away with really simplistic stuff.
For those that have absolutely no experience with graphic design and fear that they need to buy a suite of Adobe software to get involved, chill. There are so many templates, icons, illustrations and other design assets you can literally take from the internet and mould into print-on-demand graphics using a platform like Canva.
Those that know their way around Illustrator or other advanced software are going to be capable of more complex designs, but this field is wide open and full of opportunity. People with no skills in this area can make a killing from designs if they can hone in on a very specific audience.
While print-on-demand is a great opportunity because you can get started without spending any money, you can buy designs for cheap. If you think you can make profit and it would save you time, consider it as an option.
What are the Best Print-on-Demand Platforms?
The list of print-on-demand platforms is growing. You really need to test them out thoroughly to know whether you can rely on them to create and ship out your orders to your customers. After all, you’re not really involved in that side of the process, and you won’t know something’s wrong until a customer complains. In fact, I did a test order of three different cushions last Black Friday. All three got to me, but so did another three from some other person’s shop. This being said, I can only recommend the ones I currently use.
In the UK, my favourites are based on their ability to integrate with third-party software, product diversity, quality and how reliable their services are. Inkthreadable and Kite are the only ones I really need to use for my needs. They cover all bases and get products to customers quickly.
For all of my American print-on-demand needs, I’m currently focused on Merch by Amazon. They’re extremely limited in the selection of product types – you can only create t-shirts, long sleeve shirts, hoodies and PopSockets – but the fact that you upload designs directly to the biggest marketplace in the world for free, it’s a major anomaly.
What’s My Experience with Print-on-Demand?
I once created an ecommerce brand built around a unique mug range. There were other products too, but these mugs were fire. The problem? I was applying each design to each mug myself. I began with a Cricut and advanced to a sublimation printer with a 3D heater, but I was making these mugs myself. I easily spent £500 – not even counting the website, flyers, packaging parcel inserts and all of those other extras – just to get things running.
I had to buy bulk loads of mugs (not knowing whether they would eventually sell) and then I’d have to act quickly if I got sales to make sure they were ready to dispatch in 48 hours.
I created a brand but had no concept of what scaling up actually involved. Yes, I wanted to make lots of money from my brand, but I honestly hadn’t thought about whether I would have the in-house resources to fulfil that many orders.
Fast forward a little, I wound the brand down and moved on. It wasn’t until a few months later I realised that I completely overlooked print-on-demand. I don’t know how I missed it, but I didn’t know that services existed were you could order single runs of products to be printed and dispatched to customers as and when they’re required. It changed everything. I could restart the brand again without any of the costs I had on the first run. I could literally get it going for free.
Since this discovery, I’ve got print-on-demand crazy. I’ve built a few brands since (only a couple of which are still active) that involve print-on-demand products. Whether they’re mugs, t-shirts, beach towels or socks print-on-demand just makes sense as an extra to bulk out ecommerce sites. Aside from the standalone store, I also sell on Merch by Amazon on the US marketplace. That’s a completely different beast and deserves its own post. They've since opened up to the UK, giving a whole heap of new opportunities that I haven't had time to get into.
Ultimately, print-on-demand completely changed how I operate. It made me a lot more willing to take risks, for the simple fact that I don’t need to spend as much money to find out if something going to work or not. Now I can just create a design, put it out in the world. If it sells, great. If it doesn’t, I’ve only lost time.
Volume is the name of the game and when you literally have no inventory limits, you can thoroughly stretch things to their limits. You can make and attempt to sell as many designs as your imagination can imagine. As volume is so important, I without doubt wouldn’t be able to run it without help with the designs. While you can make money doing this all by yourself, I’m much rather pay other people to bring my design briefs to life.
How Do You Get Started in Print-on-Demand?
I went in with a mission in mind for my first print-on-demand project but you really don’t need to. It’s something you can do really casually, if you have a few ideas for t-shirts, mugs, greetings cards and other consumer products. Your first step is to sign up to one (or a few) of the print-on-demand platforms (Inkthreadable, Kite, Merch by Amazon), see what products they offer, create and upload some designs, then list them.
In terms of listing when you’re brand new, Merch by Amazon is the easier option. However, if you want a more diverse product range than tops, it may be worth listing you’re items on eBay, Gumtree, Depop, Facebook Marketplace and marketplaces along those lines. Based on how sales go there, you can think about how you might want to tap into a particular niche and expand.
To help you get on your feet, I’ve listed all of the tools and tech I use for my print-on-demand-related businesses.
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