I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and work for myself, almost right out of college. The job search had left me exhausted, with little to show, and frankly I’d never wanted to live under someone else’s thumb like that. Obviously, making a living and providing for yourself and your loved ones is a good thing. A necessary thing, actually. Working hard is a good thing too, when you’re doing it in a healthy way for the right reasons. But I needed to create something of my own. Something that would get me out of bed in the morning; that lifted the spirit instead of crushing it.
I’ve tried a number of different businesses, and found success in a few, but starting up a print-on-demand t-shirt business was one of the best choices that I made. Maybe you’re looking for a business opportunity yourself, or trying to break free of an oppressive workplace that sucks away all your time. O trying to boost your income to the next level.
An apparel business of your own, using print-on-demand, is one of the best methods I could recommend. Here’s how my wife and I launched our shirt store to $507 in sales within 10 hours of opening our webstore!
#1: Make A Plan Before Launching
Before you dive head first into launching a business (and picking up a few expenses), make sure you know how you want to approach it. I say this because there are multiple ways to make a lucrative business out of print-on-demand, not just one. You need to make sure you pick the method that fits you the best.
These are the approaches you can take:
- Do your own artwork, by hand or on the computer. This is how my wife and I launched our business. She’s excellent at drawing. We used a free app called Cam Scanner to scan pictures of her artwork (thus creating them into web files). Then we built a social media presence, opened a Shopify store, and used several of the free Shopify apps to print our designs onto EVERYTHING! Mugs, canvas wall prints, flags, yoga mats, t-shirts, hoodies, sweaters – you name it. This is my #1 recommended method, but you have to customize your plan to what works for you.
- If you don’t have drawing or designing skills, don’t sweat it. It may cost you a little bit more (we got our designs totally free), but you can get designs from pro freelancer designers for pretty cheap on Fiverr or Freelancer.com. And if you don’t want the extra challenge of owning your own store, you can sell on online marketplaces like Etsy, where many of these print-on-demand companies will integrate. Amazon also has a print-on-demand option called Merch by Amazon, where you essentially license out your work and make commissions when your shirts sell on Amazon, but this method is not necessarily recommended because it’s a closed program, meaning you have to qualify for it with Amazon.
- The third option is ideal for beginners who may not be sure of their plan or ambitions yet. There are a few print-on-demand companies that let you sell your products right on their site! These companies will produce the items for you, and you can then set your own profit margin directly on their site, and list them for sale there. We have used some of these companies, including Redbubble, Threadless, and TeeSpring. They’re a great way of gaining exposure, and if your designs stand out a lot you can generate a lot of sales through them! The only downsides are that it’s hard to develop brand distinction, hard to be noticed next to all of the competition, and hard to keep much profit. If you’re a beginner though, and you want to keep your start up costs at 0, this is a great way to start!
I’LL EXPLAIN IN MORE DETAIL BELOW!
The designs can have any artwork on them, sort of like this (if goblins holding sea horses happen to be your thing):
Or it can have words with jokes, popular slogans, or messages that people connect with:
Making this decision depends on who you are, and what your natural skills are. Both approaches work.
The easiest and initially cheapest ways to start are with online marketplaces. Amazon and Etsy are some of the best known, but stores like Redbubble and Threadless allow you to just print right on their clothes, and sell right on their marketplaces. This is incredibly easy because these marketplaces already have a lot of traffic, and they’re specifically made for t-shirt selling from private designers (not corporations).
But I don’t recommend this method unless you absolutely have to use it. They charge too much for the clothing, so for you to set any kind of profit margin, you have to charge an insane amount of money for your clothes. And that makes it hard to sell. The structure also makes it difficult to define your own brand. You will be a part of the wall of t-shirts for sale on Redbubble or Threadless, blending in with the rest. This isn’t bad for everyone! And you can certainly make some money with this approach. But it’s not my most recommended method if you’re truly trying to develop a sustainable brand.
Renee (my wife) and I built our store on Shopify. At only $29/month it’s reasonably cheap to have your own store, and as you own it, you not only don’t have to pay the commissions that online marketplaces would take, but you have more control over pricing, making your products easier to sell.
This is the approach I will focus on the most.
#2: How To Build A Sweet Store, Brand, + Logos
That was one of our first logo designs, above.
One of the first things you want to do when you’re creating a brand of your own is develop some memorable logo(s). Again, if you really want to avoid doing any of this yourself, you can get one made for you at reasonable rates on Fiverr or Freelancer.com. But if you’re going the independent route, I’ve been able to create professional looking logos and designs on a few free apps that I use on my tablet.
Canva, and Logo Maker by Desygner are both free apps that you can use. Not only can they help you build a logo in a matter of minutes, but they also allow you to size different pictures/logos to fit wherever you’re posting – blog banner, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, they all have different ideal sizes that you can easily adjust to.
For free background pictures that look amazing, just use Unsplash.com. You should never be selling these photos on clothes, or for profit in any way, but you can use them on your site for free to make it look awesome!
Finally, Shopify will help you establish the look and feel of your brand. You don’t just want a catchy name, a logo, and a few good designs. Go for an actual ambiance. A message and a story that you want your store visitors to know. Establishing and selling a good brand is almost like selling an entire lifestyle, not just the coffee mugs or t-shirts that you’re selling.
#3: How Do You Print On Clothes? How About Cost? And Company?
For starters, when I say print-on-demand, this refers to a method in which you can give a print company your unique, original design, and they will print and ship it to your customer when and only when you make a sale. This means that you don’t technically have any expense. You don’t have to buy inventory, or pay for the service. When a sale is made, they automatically subtract their profit from the overall sale, and the rest of it gets sent to your PayPal or bank account.
It’s a pretty risk free way of doing business.
Keep this in mind though – not all print-on-demand companies are equal! So choose wisely. The quality of your print-on-demand company will directly reflect on your brand. Good quality products, reliable delivery, solid customer service, all of these things will affect your customer experience. And customer satisfaction needs to be your #1 goal. Not only will a satisfied customer become a repeat customer, but their satisfaction will result in positive reviews and social proof (i.e. posts on Facebook and Instagram with your products), and that is platinum for your business success.
These are the 5 companies that I use and recommend. Each one suits a different need.
Printful is the best known and most used print on demand company that’s available on Shopify. The huge advantage to Printful is just that there are SO MANY OPTIONS! Printful has an enormous variety of products, and color variations. You can offer your customers anything from bucket hats to door mats. Most other companies lack the full range of options that Printful has.
The cons of Printful? Most of their products cost too darn much. While a t-shirt from one of Printful’s competitors may cost $8.50, the same quality t-shirt from Printful may cost $12.50.
Printful’s products are of good quality, and we use them often for tank tops, but if you want to make good profit margins they’re not my top choice.
By far the company we use the most on Shopify is Teelaunch. Teelaunch doesn’t have the kind of variety that Printful has, but its prices are much better, and their quality is usually as good.
The lower costs of Teelaunch have made it possible for us to set decent profit margins, so we can keep more of each sale without compromising on the quality.
Teelaunch is our #1 choice for mugs. Especially accented mugs. They look good, and the price is right. See below…
The cons of Teelaunch? They have a small variety of colors, and their all-over-print options are not good. The full coverage print sweaters are not the best quality, and their “all over print” shirts are only covered on the front. Regular t-shirts and mugs are best with Teelaunch.
Printify may be the overall best option on Shopify. They have a variety almost as diverse and awesome as Printful’s, with better prices. There prices may not quite top Teelaunch every time, but they’re one of the most competitive.
Printful is probably my favorite choice for all over prints. They’re one of the best quality and the most affordable.
These are the socks we were able to make through Printify…
You ever see one of these things stuck to the back of a phone? Maybe you have a phone grip yourself. Printy6 is a U.K. based company. And even though their prices aren’t always the best, they are my top resource for print on demand phone grips. These things are selling by the ton.
In addition to phone grips, Printy6 is also a great resource if you want to print some of your artwork on wall prints and canvas.
There are 2 major factors that have caused people to avoid this newcomer. Skyou is tough to use. While these other companies can set you up with tons of products in a matter of seconds and a few clicks of a button, using Skyou is like using a slightly outdated and detailed graphic design software.
It’s also a Chinese based company, and there is a distinct language barrier that might make a western business owner hesitant (the English translation isn’t the most impressive).
It would be a mistake to ignore Skyou. While there prices are higher, it’s the most customizable, high quality print on demand option in existance. You would easily elevate the level of a streetwear brand far and high above your competition with the magic of Skyou. Just be warned, you may want to be pretty well established first. This is the kind of company you build $100 hoodies with.
#4: It Pays To Be Social a.k.a. Promoting A Business In The 21st Century
Is social media really that important for marketing a business? It’s not just important, I would almost go so far as to say… it’s everything.
Check out my post on social media marketing for more details on strategy ==> Social Media Marketing
If you’re going to be selling physical products online (we’re talking about printing shirts, so unless you’re just selling “the idea” of clothes, or invisible clothes *awkward, then you’re in the physical products business), visuals are EXTREMELY important. So you need to be in places where lots of pictures are shared publicly. Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram are the 3 greatest places for getting traffic to your business.
I still have never paid for a single advertisement. 96% of our initial traffic came through free Facebook traffic. And through it we did just over $500 in sales within our first 11 hours in business. So yes, Shopify + Facebook works, and if you do it right without cutting corners… it REALLY works.
In the weeks following our launch, we continued to pull a steady stream of sales, ranging from the occassional mug order, to single orders of 100+ t-shirts at once. This traffic was 100% driven to our store through Facebook and Instagram. 100% free.
Our conversion rate surpassed the industry average as well.
My point is just this – social media needs to be a central part of your promotion strategy. That’s non-negotiable.
There are several ways that you can build a social media presence, and you need to do these things before you launch!
There are over 2 billion people using Facebook. That’s a lot of potential customers. But how do you start making a name for yourself on it without paying for a ton of ads?
Put some effort into your brand page on Facebook. Logos, artwork, lots of pictures, lots of posts. Getting pictures of your sample products is going to be extremely important. You can use free photo editing apps to improve the appearance of the photos, and then populate your Facebook with these images.
Your first initial likes will probably be from friends that you invite to like your page. You probably don’t want to seem like your selling to your friends, and I get that, but they will likely at least be your initial source of likes and shares. The more your content is shared, you will see a noticeable increase in traffic.
After your initial likes and shares give you a little credibility, you can start to grow by joining Facebook groups. It can be about fashion, but it doesn’t have to be. Does your store specalize in cat shirts? Find some cat groups. Aliens? There are plenty of Facebook groups about aliens. Find the people that will love your products.
Instagram is easy to grow organically, and its the perfect place to show off pictures of your brand. This is one of the earliest we released, of me wearing one of our shirts:
The picture is simple, and not especially professional looking, but within 24 hours of posting the picture this shirt had risen to be our #1 selling shirt at the time.
#hashtags on Instagram work like keywords. Just like using keywords on an affiliate marketing blog or business page, you shouldn’t overstuff your Instagram posts with hashtags. But choose the right ones and you can gain an enormous amount of traffic from other people who like or follow those hashtags.
If you use Instagram, try it out for yourself. I posted a photo of my cat one time on my personal Instagram, and used a few cat related hashtags. Within an hour I had been followed by a bunch of random cat lovers I didn’t even know.
It’s powerful visibility.
Pinterest is one of the best places in existance for promoting your brand for free. I actually wrote a guide on how to do it right here ==> How To Promote Your Business On Pinterest
The thing that makes Pinterest so unique is that people don’t go there just to socialize. They go their to be advertised to. Unlike most other social media, over 70% of Pinterest users have not only used Pinterest to make purchasing decisions, but they LIKE that brands and businesses are all over Pinterest.
So you need to be on Pinterest.
Take tall, attractive photos (if you don’t know how to shape pictures to be ideal for Pinterest, just use the Canva app, and they have an option to shape posts to Pinterest). Then post some Pins like this one:
People can find these pins. Many people may save these pins, and these pins may ever cause you to go viral. Don’t expect it immediately, but don’t get discouraged. Consistent, quality pins can eventually skyrocket your internet presence.
Social media is KEY for promoting your brand.
You Can Do This!
There are few business opportunities in today’s world with as much potential as a print-on-demand business. So give it a shot!
Build a Shopify store, connect those print-on-demand apps, and seize the day.
Remember, none of these recommendations I gave you are things that I did once and then sat back to enjoy success. They all took consistent, repeating action. They took constant evolving and learning. They took a small upfront investment, a lot of research, and a lot of time shooting and editing pictures (I’m a total noob with photography and still am. It’s a process).