Print-on-demand (POD): The Low-Risk Online Business Models for Designers

Print-on-demand (POD) is an ideal business model for designers. Print arts or characters on various items, and start a business.

Dropshipping has become popular for several years, considered the low-cost eCommerce starter for beginners. And, not only does the trend keep going, but it also varies and evolves. Here comes a similar online business model: Print on demand (POD). It is ideal for designers to monetize their creations and artworks.

You can easily convert your designs to a physical product. Printing a character, an art, or a message on various items, like t-shirts, coffee mugs, pillows, and tote bags, or paper products, such as playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, and calendars.

This is a low-cost and low-risk eCommerce channel for designers. You do not need a big budget to start, and many steps are handled by the POD providers. Print-on-demand (POD) industry has grown by more than 10% over the past few years.

Let’s see how you can turn your works into physical products, and start your business right away!


Print-on-demand: Is it like another… dropshipping?

Yes, it is similar to dropshipping, and in fact, the mechanism is very much the same. However, POD is more focused on customizations, by both the designers and possibly customers.

Likewise, designers/shop owners do not need to deal with inventory, stock-taking, and management. Your POD providers will take care of them for you…

A brief look at how a transaction works at a print-on-demand shop:

  1. A customer orders a product from your online store.
  2. You then order the product from the POD provider.
  3. They print/produce the item.
  4. Lastly, the provider packs and ships it directly to your customer.

It works as in dropshipping, except for the additional procedure of printing your designs on various items.

A dropshipper selects the products for sale from suppliers at his/her shop. Likewise, designers here select whichever items they are interested in selling. T-shirts may be the most popular, and there are various accessories and clothing, like phone cases and face masks.

The web-to-print market is expected to grow by over US$520 million from now to 2025, at almost 8% of CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate).


How do designers prepare to get into the POD business?

This depends on the nature of your designs as well as the products you want to sell. Of course, the above two factors are somehow related: Some ideas look good on a product, but just not on others.

Some POD providers have many items available, like Printify and Printful. There are others specializing in certain areas, for example, paper products in QPMN. So, what to sell is the key to picking your business partners!

However, as in choosing suppliers in dropshipping, your POD providers should be reliable and responsible. This is critical as the quality of services could make or break your business, including poor quality, broken goods, and late shipping. This could have an impact on you as a designer and your designs as well. Remember, those unhappy customers are likely your fans/followers.

Apart from the designs, designers (as shop owners) still need to handle marketing and customer service. The challenge is that the product, packaging, and shipping are up to the POD providers, and you basically have no control. So, highly-rated and experienced business partners could be helpful to your business and give you peace of mind.


Print-On-Demand POD dropshipping designer design product coffee mug monetize fund creation web store e-shop print marketing social media sale
Credit: Tereza Rubá

How to start building a POD shop?

Should you already have a website, you can make the best out of the existing traffic. Some POD providers have offered plugins to link up your website/shop (e.g. WordPress, Shopify) to their services. A simple click can convert your website/shop into a POD store…

Some POD services also work as a website/shop builder platform. You can register an account and start a shop in minutes… This is ideal for designers who do not own a website/shop or are not familiar with the technology. No need to worry about setup, security, optimization, and so on!

However, you are still responsible for the strategy of marketing and promotion. Think about how you can boost awareness and sales… Be patient as it takes time to build any brand.

Lucky if your work has already gotten attention on or offline, then you have a group of potential customers. This makes marketing much easier to start. Your fans/followers would easily become customers…

On the other hand, if your designs are relatively new or less known, then you may have to rely on paid advertising, social media, and other ways (e.g. KOL) to promote them. This takes both time and budget and could be tricky to master.


Pros and Cons for print-on-demand business

Aside from the nature of dropshipping, there is something one may need to be aware of before stepping into a print-on-demand business.

PROSCONS
Designers can receive more attention to their work. Real products mean more than some images on the screenHandling customer services could be a challenge (Good news: You can hire staff to do the job!)
A step to building a brand from your workNot all the products are profitable (many people are tired of coffee mugs…)
Low cost to start, a good way to test the water before further investmentYou have no control over the products, hopefully, your providers are reliable and maintain good quality control
Easy to switch, in case any products do not work outDifficult for new/less-known designers, since they do not have the fan base
Large range of product variations to try, e.g. t-shirts (size, color, short/long sleeves, etc.)Need to run ads if you do not have many followers (advertising could be challenging and costly)
No need to handle inventory, packaging, and shipping (ideal for anyone who may not be good at business)Transactions are one-off/small batch, so the cost is relatively higher than in bulk
All you need to do business are: a computer and an internet connection
If your designs are popular, you already have a pool of potential customers
Well-known designers’ products could have a bigger profit margin
Print-on-Demand POD dropshipping designer design product t-shirt coffee mug eCommerce online shop business print package shipping customers fans followers
Credit: Annie Spratt

Some useful tips on starting your print-on-demand business

  • Product research: Check out what kind of products are more favorable to your designs. Some may not look good on a certain product, e.g. leggings may be tricky.
  • Pick the products first: See which providers are the best in that field. Check out the reviews and ratings from fellow entrepreneurs.
  • Where are your targeted audiences?: This may be something to consider. Some providers have factories in different locations. For instance, if you focus on selling to the United States, then you can offer quick delivery time and pay lower shipping fees from factories there.
  • No rush, start with a few products: It is easier to manage in the beginning.
  • Watch out for fragile items: Items like coffee mugs could be damaged during shipment.
  • Chase the trends: May consider selling products for festivals or events, e.g. Christmas socks.
  • Beware of copyright/trademark issues: Some royalty-free images may not be eligible for commercial use this way. Better use original design! Same for printing phrases, as they may actually be trademarked.
  • Order a sample first: This way, you can inspect the product quality, shipping time, and customer service, before committing to the provider.
  • Make use of your design website/shop: Get the best out of the existing traffic of your design website/shop. Some providers offer plugins to connect it and POD services together, e.g. QPMN.
  • Social media is the best platform: Instagram and Pinterest are good for showcasing designs.
  • Be patient: It could take a while for your audience to accept a new design, or attract attention from new fans. Building up an impression and reputation requires time.
  • Less is more: Don’t overwhelm your customers with too many variations, e.g. 10 colors. Try to stay with 5 at maximum. When customers face too many choices, they are likely to walk away in the end.
  • Designs vs Products: Some designs look good in one item, but not another. For example, a cartoon character may make a lovely coffee mug or tote bag, not necessarily on leggings.
  • Small batch vs Bulk: Yes, the orders are likely one-off or in small-batch, which drives up the cost. Some providers like QPMN offer Bulk Discount, which could significantly reduce the cost.

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