What is “Print On Demand?”
Print on Demand (or POD for short) is both a process and a business model.
The process is simply printing products on-demand (ie per order), on custom printers, with your designs. POD products range from perfect bound paperback books to a wide range of apparel, wall art, home decorations and more.
The business model is where you work with a company to print products on your behalf. You pay the company for the printing and fulfillment (aka packing & shipping). All you do is design products, collect money, and provide support to your customers. It’s like drop-shipping, where you pay someone to store & ship your products, except without any inventory.
Basically, you create a design that is printed on various products. Usually these products have no other branding so it looks like you are the maker. This is called white labeling, where the manufacturer does not include any of their branding in the final product.
Note: When you sell POD products on certain marketplace websites, the products will often be branded by the marketplace (example: Threadless & other t shirt sites).
Why does POD rock for creatives?
Print On Demand is the perfect business model for creatives.
It’s a set-it-and-forget-it type of business model, resulting a in passive stream of income. Passive income means that the money comes in regardless of whether you’re working on it regularly or not.
You set up a shop, add some products, and then everything from taking an order to mailing the products is done for you. Adding more products is quick so you can easily increase your products for sale. Your job is then to attract fans who want to buy stuff from you.
Obviously, attracting fans isn’t easy – but it is necessary if you’re a creative who wants to quit their day job. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion though, so I won’t discuss it further here. Let’s just imagine you have anywhere between 5 and 500 fans who’d like to buy something from you.
The main idea is that if people enjoy your art online, they might be willing to buy merch from you. You just have to decide when it’s the right time for you to make the leap and open up a shop.
If you have very few fans but have free time, it might be good to get started and take the learning curve slowly. If you have a ton of fans who are dying to buy from you but not a lot of free time, maybe an account on a marketplace is enough. The question then is which marketplace offers the best profit margin.
And one more thing: while deciding between your own website and selling on a marketplace feels like an either/or question – it doesn’t have to be. You can sell on your own website and sell on a marketplace (especially if the latter is free to do). You just have to decide on pricing and whether it makes sense to send fans to multiple links.
What print on demand products are available to sell?
There is a wide range of printable products available that varies from service to service. These products include but are not limited to:
- Apparel (shirts, hoodies, leggings, swimwear, skirts, joggers)
- Drinkware (mugs, tumblers, glasses, water bottles)
- Bags (backpacks, tote bags, fanny packs, laptop cases)
- Accessories (hats, socks, phone cases, jewelry, flip flops)
- Home decorations (pillows, rugs, prints, posters, towels)
- Stickers & magnets (typically not available for self-hosted POD)
While the range of products is wide, shipping costs and fulfillment times will vary from service to service and might make a particular product harder to sell – that is: more expensive to your customers.
Where can print on demand products be sold?
POD sales can either occur on your own website, an e-commerce shop, or on a marketplace website. I’m defining these as follows:
- Your own website: a website & domain that is all yours, that you have control over. You have a shopping cart and a blog, and you get your organic traffic from search engines. You’ll need to integrate a POD service with the site. You pay for hosting, and possible for the e-commerce features.
- A not-you-own e-commerce shop is a store that has a catalog and handles transactions. It does not have a custom domain – your url depends on whoever is providing the service. It may be a standalone site (ie reliant on traffic from search engines) or it may be connected to a marketplace (ie reliant on traffic from search engines and the marketplace). POD is included with the service, which is usually free.
- As a seller in a marketplace website is a site where hundreds or thousands of sellers compete to sell products. Your ‘shop’ is more like a profile with products. You have minimal control over anything, and your traffic comes from either search engines or (more likely) the marketplace. POD is included with the service. Some POD marketplace websites you may have heard of: RedBubble, Society6, Cafepress, Zazzle, Teespring, Threadless, Etsy, Amazon, Ebay. In most cases, accounts are free.
Is print one demand a good business model?
POD isn’t a good business model – it’s a fantastic business model. It’s cash flow positive, meaning you make more money than you spend. All businesses need to be like this to be successful but the POD takes it a step further because it minimizes risk quite a bit due to the low investment required. The model is almost always cash flow positive.
Here’s how it works, when you host it yourself:
- A customer submits an order on your site & pays for the order. The money is typically available to you in 2 business days (if you use Stripe, it will be automatically be deposited in your bank account after 2 business days).
- The POD services charges you for the production cost of the order. Because there’s a wait to receive the money your customer paid, this is a brief period if time where more money has gone out than come in. The POD services queues the order for printing.
- Depending on the items ordered and the busy-ness of the POD service, it takes 2-7 days for most products to be printed, packed, and shipped to clients.
It’s even easier on many POD marketplaces:
- A customer submits an order. The marketplace accepts the payment and fulfills the products.
- You get paid every two weeks or once a month.
That’s typically how sites like RedBubble, Society6, Threadless, Amazon, et al work. An exception is Etsy because you need to hook up a POD service, similar to your own website. There’s a list of on-site and off-site POD options at the end of this post, with notes.
How do you earn money with POD?
There are two ways to earn money by selling POD products:
Royalties are a simple percentage of each sale. This is the method on some marketplace sites. Royalties can also be called commissions.
Markup is the difference between the production cost and sale price. Marketplace sites can have fixed or customizable markups while on self-hosted site markups are fully customizable.
The Pros Of Print on Demand
- Passive income (set it up, make some products, focus on your art & finding your audience)
- Minimal effort after initial setup (mostly fun stuff like designing new products but occasionally some customer support)
- No need to buy printing equipment
- No minimum orders
- No need to store inventory
- Low to minimal investment (thus low risk)
- Someone else handles the packing & shipping, saving you time
Saving time might be the most underrated aspect of this whole endeavor. Receiving an order, finding the product, and packaging it for shipping might take 5-10 minutes. Bringing the product to the carrier and paying to ship it may take 20-30 minutes. That’s roughly 30 minutes to ship one product.
You could consolidate orders and ship once a week, thus limiting the time you spend shipping – but this defeats the benefit of having products available to ship immediately.
You could set up the ability to weigh and print USPS shipping labels at home and ship your products with the mail – but that will take a small investment of time to setup.
You’ll also have to spend time deciding on what shipping method you’ll be using and thus what the shipping costs will be. You’ll then have to configure those shipping costs in your shopping cart. If those costs change or you switch carriers, you’ll have to configure the shipping costs again. Almost all of the print on demand companies mentioned here calculate shipping costs for you.
And don’t forget: you’ll need to buy packing and shipping materials.
All of this time adds up – and eats into your earnings. If your hourly rate is $25/h and you make a $15 profit on a product, the 30 minutes it takes to pack and ship one product is time lost that could have made you $12.50. Or it could have been 30 minutes to devote to your current creative focus. Or the interruption for shipping could have prevented you from getting in the flow.
Time is finite. You can always make more money but you can’t make more time. So be picky about what you spend your time on.
The Cons Of Print on Demand
- Lower profit margins than printing in bulk (especially on most marketplace sites)
- Less control over printing, packing, and shipping
- Shipping fees could be high (you’re not paying them but it could reduce sales)
- Quality can be variable from company to company (cheaper costs often translate to poorer quality)
- Order fulfillment is much longer than selling pre-printed products
- During the end of the year holidays, printing & fulfillment times can easily become 2-4 weeks (forget about impulse purchases right before a holiday)
- Limited customization options (example: on regular shirts, you can only print in a 12″ x 16″ area, some services will you print on part of a sleeve for additional cost, etc.)
- Self hosted POD cons
- You will either need to build your own website (with a nominal hosting fee) & add a shopping cart OR
- Pay monthly for a website service & additionally for a shopping cart
- You will need existing traffic to your site or a mailing list for sales (sales won’t happen on their own, you need an audience interested in buying)
- Marketplace POD cons
- You may not get the list of buyers (you can’t make a connection with someone if you don’t know them)
- Lower profit margins than self-hosted POD (typically)
- Standing out in a marketplace can be hard or cost money (site traffic is dependent on Google and the marketplace’s own search features)
- A marketplace can have a distinct vibe or ethos (Amazon, for example, is all about low prices, high volume, and working Amazon’s internal SEO)
I want to note that for many creatives, the end of the year shipping delays aren’t really a con. We’re not in the business of impulse buys (as nice as they may be) – we’re in the business of connecting with people. Merch sales are an outgrowth of that. The best we can do for the busy holidays is to communicate with our fans and let them know the deadline to receive an order in time, reminding them gently if needed. Then our work is done and we can go back to being creative and (hopefully) enjoying the holidays.
The best thing to do when evaluating the pros & cons is to consider them from the perspective of building relationships. Does [factor] help build relationships or not?
Personally, the more time & energy you can spend on creating the content that attracts fans, the better.
How to choose a print on demand company
Which POD service you use depends on a few things:
- Do you already have a website?
- What are you goals? And what kind of time can you devote to them?
- What’s your budget?
Let’s look at each of these factors.
Do you already have a website?
If you already have a website, there’s a good chance you can add a shop and integrate with a print on demand service. You probably want to your fans to have only one place where they can find you too. Plus, why manage multiple websites when you do it all from one website?
It also means that you have enough knowledge to handle the integration. It will still take a time and learning, but the learning curve won’t be as steep.
What are your goals?
If you don’t have a website, you have to decide what your goals are – and how much time you have for them.
Do you need a website or will a free shop or marketplace account be enough? For most creative professionals, a website of their own is a must. But someone with a big following on Twitch or Youtube might do fine with just a simple shop – especially if they use the one POD service that lets them sell merch directly to their followers.
If you want a website, what do you want to learn? How much time do you have to learn?
Here are your 3 main choices for the type of online presence you can have to sell POD products (with the monthly cost for their eCommerce plans).
- Your own website. It does everything & is customizable, including a blog, contact form, & shopping cart. This includes WordPress & WooCommerce (as little as $5 for hosting), Wix ($23) , Squarespace ($30), & Shopify ($29). You have to build & configure all of these sites, with WordPress being the most complex option (it’s really not so bad, the bang for the buck is worth it). The other options are easier but will still have a learning curve. These options tend to have the largest profit margins and the added benefit of having one place for your fans to go to.
- A not-your-own e-commerce shop. It’s a store and nothing else, which might be connected to a marketplace. This includes Cafepress, Etsy, Gumroad, Spreadshop, Sunfrog & Threadless. These options will have a limited amount of customization and are quick – but the profit margins tend to be less.
- As a seller in a marketplace website. This is a page/mini shop/profile that is strictly part of a larger marketplace. This includes Designs by Humans, Merch by Amazon, RedBubble, Society6, Spreadshirt, Teefury, Teespring, & Zazzle. These are the easiest to get started with, and account customization is limited. Profit margins tend to be lowest. And some of these only print t-shirts.
There’s an inverse relationship between the amount of time you spend on getting a site going and the profit margins involved. The fewer choices you have to make, and the fewer options you have to configure, the faster it will be to start selling. Just don’t expect to make a lot per sale.
What’s your budget?
Budget is often the deciding factor for many of us. If you can’t spend anything, then you’ll be limited to an account or a free shop that is part of a marketplace.
If your budget is $0, you’re looking at having a page/mini-site on a marketplace.
If your budget is $5-10/mo, you’re looking at WordPress and WooCommerce (note: this is not the same as WordPress.com, whose eCommerce plans do not integrate with any POD services). Be prepared for a learning curve, but it will be worth it for the lower costs and higher profit margins.
If you can afford $23-$30/mo, then your options are greater, with sitebuilders like Squarespace and complete eCommerce solutions like Shopify open to you. The savings in time might be worth the cost of spending $276-$360/yr to run your shop.
Note 1: successful stores with more products & features often require an upgraded e-commerce plan.
Note 2: if you don’t have an existing audience, higher monthly charges might burn a hole in your pocket.
What kind of profit margins do different services have?
I went through the main players in the online POD space, scoped out their cheapest t-shirt and calculated the profit margins to give you a rough idea. Each print on demand company offers a different set of products, and some only offer t shirts. And since t shirts are the most common merch item, I chose that for a simple comparison.
I also emphasize the rough idea aspect because not all shirts are made the same. An $8 t shirt might sound great … until you realize it’s going to be a stiff, boxy shirt that feels slightly better than cardboard. You might make more per shirt but few people are going to be excited to buy another one. In my experience, the nice, soft shirts people enjoy wearing daily start around $12-14.
Now some services like Printify will have some nice shirts available for $9-10 – but it might not be available in your country, a printer might not have all the colors you want, printers’ prices vary, and their support is non-existent.
My recommendation is to not compete on price, because lower prices means competing against both the largest number of competitors and the biggest competitors with whom it’s impossible to compete on price. Competing on price is a race to the bottom that can only be won with high volume. That also doesn’t lend it self to making connections with fans.
Choose a higher quality shirt, sell a higher quality product, and charge enough for a 40% profit margin. Anything more is gravy.
|POD Service||Method of Sales||Earning Method||Cheapest T||Shirt Sale Price(s)||Profit|
|Best profit margin|
|Printify||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$6.39||Variable||$18.61||74%|
|Gooten||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$7.90||Variable||$17.10||68%|
|Printful||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$7.95||Variable||$17.05||68%|
|Printed Mint||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$9.00||Variable||$16.00||64%|
|Teespring||Marketplace||Base price + markup||$10.22||Variable||$14.78||59%|
|PrintTech||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$10.95||Variable||$14.05||56%|
|Merch by Amazon||Marketplace||Base price + markup||$13.07||Variable||$11.93||48%|
|Spreadshop||Shop||Base price + markup||$13.99||Variable||$11.01||44%|
|PrintAura||Website Integration||Base price + markup||$14.00||Variable||$11.00||44%|
|Threadless||Shop & Marketplace||Base price + markup||$15.00||Variable||$10.00||40%|
|RedBubble||Marketplace||Base price + markup||$16.58||Variable||$8.42||34%|
|Cafepress||Shop & Marketplace||Base price + markup||$17.99||Variable||$7.01||28%|
|Spreadshirt||Marketplace||Fixed $4 royalty||n/a||$18.99||$4.00||21%|
|Teepublic||Marketplace||Fixed $4 royalty||n/a||$20.00||$4.00||16%|
|Zazzle||Marketplace||Base price + markup||$14.95||Variable||$3.75||15%|
|Designs by Humans||Marketplace||Fixed $3 royalty||n/a||$25.00||$3.00||12%|
|Society6||Marketplace||Fixed 10% royalty||n/a||Variable||$2.50||10%|
|Teefury||Marketplace||Fixed $1 & $2 commissions||n/a||$22.00||$2.00||8%|
|Etsy||Shop & Marketplace||Depends on Integration||n/a||Variable||Variable||Variable|
|Gumroad||Shop & Marketplace||Depends on Integration||n/a||Variable||Variable||Variable|
|POD Service||Method of Sales||Earning Method||Cheapest T||Shirt Sale Price(s)||Profit on $25 shirt||Best profit margin|
Notes on the print on demand companies
Some website integration services work with Amazon, but you’ll have to pay Bezos $39/mo for this privilege and compete in an overcrowded marketplace where people expect the lowest prices. This is a terrible option for creatives because the only way to succeed is via volume because your design WILL get ripped off.
The internet’s original POD service, where anyone could make fugly POD products. Marketplace sales have a reduced commission of 10%. A race to the bottom.
Designs by Humans
A fixed $3 profit per shirt? Other print on demand companies will treat you better.
Etsy & Gumroad
They work with a couple of the companies that do website integrations so profits are variable. Just keep an eye on costs for listing with Etsy or Gumroad.
Integrates with Etsy, Shopify, & WooCommerce.
Merch by Amazon
T shirts only. Brutal marketplace with success predicated on the lowest price and highest volume. Successful sellers have 1000s (that’s NOT a typo) of shirts for sale. THE race to the bottom.
Integrates with Etsy, Shopify, Storenvy, WooCommerce. Website looks 20yo, I wouldn’t trust them.
Integrates with Etsy & Shopify. It’s weird they have a WooCommerce logo on their home page but don’t have an actual integration. Why bother when Printful exists?
Integrates with Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Gumroad, Shopify, Squarespace, Storenvy, Wix, WooCommerce and more (seriously). They also offer warehousing & fulfillment – you could get shirts printed in bulk and have them fulfill orders for them through the same shopping cart as POD products. Prices are on par with other integrated services. Good support because they handle everything. The most stable option.
Integrates with eBay, Etsy, Shopify, Wix, WooCommerce. They offer a $25/mo plan that makes base prices 20% cheaper. They let you choose a printer (cool!) BUT: shirt you want may not be available to ship to your country; may have higher shipping fees (they’re different for each printer); printers may have longer production times; etc.. Can’t get support directly from printers because Printify is a middle person. Is playing telephone worth the cheaper costs?
Integrates for monthly fee with Amazon ($20/mo), Etsy ($10/mo), Shopify ($10/mo), WooCommerce ($10/mo). Is their service worth the monthly cost? I’d like to know what they do better than their competitors.
Redbubble, Society6, Spreadshirt
In all marketplace sites, you have work to do in being found. Plus sharing a site with hundreds or thousands of other creators means distractions. You might send a fan to the site but they might find another creator’s product that they decide to buy instead.
A decent option for a straightforward shop, with a good profit margin. No custom url available. Integrates with YouTube (merch visible beneath videos for channels with 10k subscribers & other factors). Might push products to the Spreadshirt marketplace too but docs are not clear.
Shirts are $16 when first available with $1 royalties (6% profit margin). Profit margins SUCK, why bother?
Sale items ($14) have $2 royalties (14% profit margin).
Good profit margin and integrates with Connects to Amazon, Ebay, Twitch, and YouTube. The latter two are no-brainers for any streamer with a significant following on either platform. Note: selling on social media may require meeting specific requirements, like 10k subs on YouTube & more.
The original cool t shirt site and they’ve expanded their product line. Solid profit margin for direct sales but marketplace sales have higher base prices.
The first Cafepress competitor, attempting to be less ugly. They let you set your royalty rate BUT have a 5% transaction fee on royalty rates over 15%. And if someone refers a sale to you, guess who pays the 15% referral commission? Not Zazzle – the 15% gets taken out of your earnings for the sale. Zazzle gets a huge F for these policies, avoid them like the plague.
What questions do you have?
Leave a comment to get some answers!