Online Business: My Experience with 5 Print-on-Demand Platforms

Things you need to know before you start selling on print-on-demand websites; plus some tricks on how to promote your products and make sales.
Platforms discussed in this post are Zazzle, Redbubble, Cafepress, Threadless, and Printful.

Online business can be considered as an active income and a passive income option. And there are various methods to run a business online. I went through 5 of the passive income ones in last week’s post 5 Online Businesses That Work.

In this post, however, I’m discussing the method I have tried so far which is selling products online. I tried several websites and here I will be sharing the pros and cons through my experience with Zazzle, Redbubble, Cafepress, Threadless, and Printful. (You can jump to Zazzle’s section to skip the intro.)

For starters, I’m not a professional designer, far from it actually, I’m just someone who enjoys playing with images and fonts. I discovered this sometime in the fall of 2016 when I was thinking of a gift to get for a specific someone; and I have a bad habit of putting an insane amount of thought into gifts (that’s why I only buy gifts to very few people in my life, because it can get really overwhelming).

So, I thought instead of buying a normal gift or asking someone to make me something, I was going to customize that gift myself. I only found that option on Zazzle and so I created an account there and started working on that design. That’s how I realized I enjoyed the process.

But this part of my life was a bit tricky on a personal level; around that same time I had a very bad fight with that person and they were out of my life, which happened 2 days after I had quit a job that I thought was my dream job (the copy editor one), and things at home started going south as well. So, all in all, my life was a wreck at that point. And the two things that have kept me sane through that time were my new-found love of design and National Geographic (yes, the TV channel. It served as the soundtrack of my life for a few months).

Now back to Zazzle!

Zazzle

On Zazzle, you upload your design and create each product separately and they have a huge selection of products to choose from. You can watch this video to see the steps on how to create designs there.

I loved it in the beginning when I was just designing stuff and customizing products, and I found the interface really attractive, so I created my first Nightingaled store there.

But then when I went through the process of setting up a payment method which was early 2017, I realized it was not an easy process.

If you are not a US resident, Zazzle requires filling out a tax form (which requires a lot of information and a lot of reading) and sending them requests and waiting for acceptance so that you are approved for a payment (or not!).

Also you need to have made sales first before your application is even considered for approval or rejection– something they don’t mention anywhere and I had to figure that out after going through the whole process (twice) and eventually being told “sorry, we cannot consider your application because you haven’t made sales during this current year yet” (although I did make sales the previous year.. That money is still stuck there.)

Yes, many people did it, of course! So, it’s not impossible, but I didn’t feel like it was worth all the hassle for me; especially when I found there are other platforms that provide the exact same thing minus the hassle!

Redbubble

I started looking for other alternatives. I did a quick research and Redbubble along with Cafepress seemed to be on close level to Zazzle’s popularity and variety of products. But I decided to go for a Redbubble Nightingaled store.

I liked its interface; although it took me a while to get used to it because it’s quite different from Zazzle’s, but now I have come to really love it.

You upload a single photo that goes onto all the available products, but then you have the option to customize each one separately or upload a new photo for a certain product. You can read more about how to upload your designs to fit each product here.

Though one of the best things about it is that you can actually get your money! There is no hassle in the transaction procedure even if you are not a US resident. Getting paid there is as easy as adding your Paypal account; no restrictions, no applications to fill, no extra fees, no minimum threshold to transfer your payments (unlike Zazzle where you need to have $50 USD before they would transfer or you can request it with an extra fee).

So, with Redbubble, as long as you have a verified Paypal account, you will get paid regardless of how much money you make or on which side you are on the planet. (Life can be so much easier if we want it to be!)

The real effort in this type of business lies in two things:
  1. Coming up with the design ideas 
  2. Promoting the shop/products

Coming up with designs can be tricky for some people sometimes because:

A. they don’t want to be copying other people, but they also want to make something that sells, so it needs to be something that is “viral” or “trending” to get the attention and

B. they think they don’t have enough talent, and for this one I will say, you don’t have to have talent, I don’t have talent and people still buy my stuff (some of them), so don’t worry about that part you just need to practice a lot and try your best to make it look like something YOU would buy. That’s what I try to do.

“Practice is a talent.

Perseverance is a talent.

Hard work is a talent.”

Abhinav Bindra

As for coming up with ideas, I don’t stress over this much, because I initially started this whole design thing for fun, so I try not to lose that. Whatever inspires me or whatever I feel like creating today, I will create it and add it to the shop, and cross my fingers that someone somewhere will have the same taste as mine and decide to buy it. (Not the most brilliant business strategy, I’m sure.)

When it comes to promotion, though, it can be challenging at first; especially if you do not already have an audience or connections or dedicated followers/fans (as it is in my case). However, I am still reading articles and books and trying to learn about it from other sellers and people who managed to succeed in this industry.

Four tips on promoting:

When it comes to promoting an online business, the first obvious step is to do so through social media; however, it is better to create dedicated social media pages to the shop and not promote through your personal accounts.

I created pages on both Facebook and Twitter. I also started an Instagram and Pinterest ones, but I haven’t really used them much yet.

Which brings us to the second tip, that is, it’s much better to focus on just one or two social media websites and try to grow on them instead of using all of them at once, because each of those platforms have their own techniques and certain strategies to grow on them. So, it can be too much to try them all at the same time.

Honestly speaking, though, I’m a bit lazy in this department. I’m not that active on the shop’s social media pages, not as much as I should be if I want to turn this into a source of income.

But I have noticed something that is really worth paying attention to, even though I’m not active, I don’t have many followers, and I don’t get any interactions yet, I do make sales! And that’s not even the surprising part, when I checked the traffic history to my shop (another brilliant feature on Redbubble), almost half of it is through social media! That blew my mind.

What I did to move from flat-line sales as you can see below to a few sales per week (and sometimes few sales per day, if I’m lucky) was become more active, as in upload new designs to the shop; and every now and then I’d share the new ones on Facebook and Twitter (again, with no interaction whatsoever).

A graph of my sales on Redbubble from Dec 2017 to Nov 2018.

The fact that I am making sales and getting traffic to my shop with a very minimal effort on my part is a very good indicator that this can definitely turn into a profitable means of income, if I pay it more attention.

So, the third tip from here is to remain active, upload new designs and promote on regular basis, regardless of the interaction rate you get or the number of followers you have. And I assume this should only be until one grows a dedicated audience.

Recently, I have decided to try other POD platforms as well, because the fourth tip is in order to make proper sales, it is best if you have your designs spread around many print-on-demand platforms not just one. Besides the exposure your products/brand will get, you can also benefit from each one’s offers and discounts which helps in attracting customers. So I went ahead and tried a few other ones. (Though I haven’t managed to do much with my shops on those other websites yet; I’m still getting used to them.)

CafePress

This is an equally popular website to Zazzle and Redbubble. It also has a variety of different products to have your designs on.

When you upload your design on CafePress it adds it to all the products available (like Redbubble) but with much less (if any) ability to customize on each product separately.

You can get paid through your verified Paypal account; however, there is a minimum threshold of $25 for transfer. Also, there is a required tax form to fill for non-US residents who wish to get a discounted tax rate, but it is not mandatory to get paid.

The other downside is that this one is not available for all countries. You can use the website and add your products and all, but when you come to set up a payment method, you may not find your country listed. There is a specific list and mine was not among them; therefore I would not have been able to get paid if I went ahead and made sales on this one.

Threadless

I initially thought this one is focused on clothing products like t-shirts and hoodies, but when I set up my shop there, I found they have a wide variety of other products to select from. And it is also similar to Redbubble in that you upload one photo that goes on all products but then you have the option to customize each one separately before publishing it. You can check out this guide to learn more.

On Threadless you are also paid through your Paypal account with no minimum threshold or any extra fees. US residents, however, are required to fill a tax form first.

The cool thing about this one is you can order samples of your products, and because you are the designer you get the product at a discounted rate; so you only pay for the base cost. You also get free shipping when you order for more than $20 within US and $50 anywhere else.

There is only a tiny drawback for me which is they do not watermark or protect the uploaded designs, so they are available for anyone in their full resolution copy, unlike with Redbubble where they give you options to protect/watermark. However, after you upload and edit the design, you can replace the original image with one that you watermark yourself without affecting the design on the products, so there is a workaround for it.

Printful

This one’s process is a bit different as you don’t just set up a shop on their website. First, this one gives you the choice to sell your own physical products (and use their warehouse) or use the print-on-demand service to sell your designs on their products. Of course I went with the print-on-demand option. When you go with that option, you will need to merge an already set-up online store to your Printful account.

Here’s how it works:

  • I set up a Nightingaled store on Shopify (they have a 14-day free trial so I figured I’d try it).
  • I then logged into my Printful account and chose to connect it to my newly-created Shopify store.
  • After that I would start uploading my designs on the products on Printful (they have plenty).
  • Then sync those products to my Shopify store (this can be set to sync automatically)
  • People can then navigate products on my Shopify store, place an order, and make a payment.
  • The order is automatically sent to Printful who prepare and ship the product.

Printful then bills me with the production and shipment cost. These costs are already clear when you set up your product so you can set your prices based on the margin you would like to get after the cost is paid.

For example, they charge $10 for a T-shirt. So, I can set a price of $15 for the t-shirt on my Shopify store, so that after paying Prinful fee, I would still have $5 profit.

The good thing here is that you are only charged after you make the sale. So, no upfront cost (except of course for the cost of your actual Shopify store which starts at $29/month). But you have plenty other options to choose from when it comes to choosing a platform to merge with Printful. I just decided to go with Shopify as a start because I was curious to see how it works.

The other thing that I really loved about Printful is how you can literally create your own brand.

  • You can add your own logo printed on the products and the payslips the customer receives (for free!).
  • They add their address for return, but add your store’s name not Printful, so to the customer they are dealing with your brand only.
  • And you can also send flyers along with the product (which come at an extra cost).

And that’s only what I managed to figure out so far, but this is an amazing feature! You are creating an actual brand with products shipped with your name on it when all you really do is just upload designs on a web-page!

Besides Shopify, the other platforms you can use include ones like Etsy, Amazon, eBay, and more. They either require you to pay a subscription fee (like Shopify) or a commission on sales. You can read about the prices for each one of the platforms on this comparison page.

I can sum this up by saying that to me the most convenient platforms I found so far are Redbubble, for a free platform, and Printful, for a paid one. I am actually thrilled I found out about Printful, but I still need to decide which platform I will be using with it.

I will be posting about this topic again in a few months to share my progress and any new tips I gather along the way. As for my next post, well, let me surprise you this time.

Till then, happy days and happy new year!

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Passive Income: 5 Online Businesses That Work

This has been a hard post to put down because there is a crazy number of methods where you can make money online. Not all of them will make someone rich of course, but they do add up. However, I figured I better not overwhelm myself by trying to list every single one of them, but rather choose the ones that would actually have a decent return of money over time. 

I will most likely write another post later on the other little ones that do make money, but not as much as the ones on this list.

So, here we go! A list of the profitable online businesses (in no particular order):

1. Affiliate Marketing

In a nutshell, this is you helping someone else make sales and getting a cut. If there is a particular service or product you have tried and found to be of good benefit, you can sign up for that company’s affiliate program to have a unique referral link, and then start telling your followers/friends about it and every time someone makes a purchase through your link, you get a commission. 

Now I have not tried this thing yet because, well, I am just starting out, but mostly people who do make a lot of money out of this are those who have a huge following on social media websites, on YouTube, or on their own Website. So, if you do have a decent number of followers, you might start making money this way.

The most popular affiliate program is Amazon’s; you can sign up and advertise all products that are sold on Amazon and any other Amazon-linked ones like Kindle or Audible. There are some territories that may not be allowed to sign up with Amazon though. A good alternative to that is flexoffers.com, it has a similar affiliate program with variety of categories, and you can sign up from anywhere in the world.

If you want to learn more about how affiliate marketing works and how to approach this in the best way, you can check out Getting Started with Affiliate Marketing For Beginners.

2. Teaching

While teaching does not sound like a “passive income” kind of method, there are ways to turn it into one. If you are experienced in one specific field, you can create an online course on a website like Teachable.com or similar ones, where you upload videos of you teaching material of a certain course and every time someone signs up to your course, you get paid.

The good thing about this website in particular (because I signed up and checked it out) is that they provide you with resources to help you make a good course; they even offer a free webinar to show you how to create a professional course to make money. But here is a list of all the other similar websites out there. 

I initially thought that to teach, you needed to be some kind of a professor or have a teaching degree, and you ought to be teaching something academic, but, in reality, you can actually teach anything, from languages to crochet or gardening to makeup, anything, literally. You just need to be good at it and also it kind of needs to be something that someone else will have the interest to learn about. Here is a helpful article on how to start, if you want to create your own course.

There is also another option, if you’re anything like me and are not very comfortable in front of a camera, you can then go for an e-book course where people can download your course as a PDF file instead. There are several platforms where you can put your e-book up for sale and they’re mentioned in this article.

If you think of going through the e-book route though, you can go for a course, or just a guide (how-to), or maybe an actual book (which I’m planning to do at some point).

3. Photography

If you love photography you can use that hobby as a means to make money. But there are 2 types of people who love photography.

Those who are like me. (Yea, I keep telling myself I need a better camera..)

Now I’m pretty sure no one will be paying money to use this photo (by me, in case it wasn’t obvious)

And those  who are actually good at it.

Someone would definitely pay money to use this photo (by my good friend Mahmoud AbdelGhany)

So, if your love of photography is anything like me, I’m sorry to say, this one is probably not for you. If you’re more of a “I-know-what-I’m-doing” kind of photographer, then please keep reading. 

Aside from the fact that you can take on events that require a photographer, as in weddings and conferences and such, which is more of an “active” thing, but from a “passive” approach, you can certainly make money  by uploading your photos on websites like Shutterstock and whenever someone wants to use one of your photos, you get paid.

There are actually plenty of other websites you can use to sell your photos, this article lists the best of them and it also gives an insight on the types of photography that sell the most.

(Side note: I’m working on polishing my photography skills a bit, so I will be sharing some useful tips later on for those of you who are like me.)

4. Drop Shipping

This one to me seems to be the most complicated one on the list, because it requires more planning and a lot of work done before it can become “passive.” It took me a while to get everything about it.

Drop shipping is you selling certain products online that you don’t really own or have. You set up a shop for people to navigate and select their desired product. You contact the supplier who actually has the products, usually a wholesaler or manufacturer, pay them for the products that the customer selected on your shop, and then they ship the product to the customer.

The difference between this and a traditional shop is that with drop shipping, you don’t have to purchase a product until you already made the sale and have been paid by the customer. So, that is less chances of losing money.

The trick with this method is deciding on the niche or the market. Because drop shipping is a widely famous business among entrepreneurs and so some markets have a lot of competition. A high competition means that you won’t have the luxury to set high prices for your products and therefore the profit margin you make may be very small in the beginning which will require more effort on your part to reach more customers. Here is an article on how to choose the products to dropship.

The other trick is choosing the right suppliers to deal with. Because they will be the ones shipping the products to your customers, so they need to be reliable and have a good reputation. The better and more professional the supplier, the stronger the business will become since this will build trust between you and the customers who try your shop and whether or not they will want to buy again or tell others about it.

There is a very informative article with some useful tips on the steps required to build this business here.

If you want a longer, more extensive read to go even deeper in understanding this business, Shopify has a free eleven-chapter guide that walks you through the whole thing. Shopify is also one of the most popular platforms where you can build this shop.

5. Online Shop

Now this is also selling products online, but with a more traditional, less tricky approach. And this one can refer to two types of an online shop: one where you actually create and ship physical products yourself and another where you use a website that takes care of the product and the shipping and everything else and you just provide the designs to print on the products. The latter is the online business method on this list that I actually tried so far and which I will discuss in my next post.

As for the former type where you would sell your own physical products, I have read this step-by-step article earlier by Nat Eliason who built his online tea shop in exactly 3 weeks. You might find it helpful as an insight on how to start one yourself. Though I’m not sure if this actually fits in the “passive income” category.

Anyway, this wraps up the list of passive income businesses you can do online. At least, this is the list of things I know can work so far. And as mentioned earlier, I will share my experience with the online shops using print-on-demand websites in my next post.

Till then, happy days!

Passive Income: 4 Real Estate Investing Options

This post introduces the meaning of passive income, the different sources where you can achieve it, and 4 ways through which you can invest in real estate as a passive income option.

First, What Is Passive Income?

Passive income is income resulting from cash flow received on a regular basis, requiring minimal to no effort by the recipient to maintain it.
Some of them, however, would require quite the effort in the beginning, just to give it the required push to start off, and then it starts giving you that regular income later on.

What Are Some Passive Income Sources?

After lots of research and comparisons, I was able to come up with the below list. I would say most of them are safe methods, ones that has the least amount of risk and don’t really require a crazy amount of money to start. This is not everything out there, but those are the ones I found so far which seemed possible to start with. I will be adding more along the way.

Here are the risk-free ones (in no particular order):

  • Real estate investments
  • Google AdSense/Affiliates
  • Online business
  • Retirement accounts

And then there are the methods which can be a little bit risky, but not so much if you know what you’re doing:

  • Real estate investments
  • Stock market
  • Index funds

Ho Do You Choose The One To Start With?

When it comes to making a choice, you would mostly just need to check which of these options you can afford or which of them you have the access to try and invest in. Also, if you already have some sort of knowledge or know someone who can help you get started.

For me, I decided to start with the real estate investment option. And I have listed the real estate option in both the safe category and the not-so-safe one, this is because investing in real estate has multiple methods, some of which can be risky and costly, but others not so much. I will briefly explain the details of each one below.

The 4 Real Estate Investing Options

1. Buying Property

This is the typical type of real estate investment where you would need to have a sum of money that is enough to buy a property (residential, industrial, or commercial) and you would then decide to either rent it and have a fixed monthly income or renovate and sell it with a higher price.
You can check out this video on how to buy at a lower cost so you can make a profit in reselling.

Usually the trick in this one is that it could take a long time to find a buyer for a property; and if you rent, you may end up with tenants who do not pay. So, it’s got a bit of risk to it if you’re not experienced in that field I guess.

2. Real Estate Funds

And there are three types of funds: there is the Exchange Traded Funds (ETF), the Real Estate Mutual Funds, and the Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).

ETF and Mutual Funds are somewhat similar in many aspects. However, deciding on which fund to invest in would typically rely on the cost vs the profit you will get, and also the flexibility of the trading and how long you plan to hold your shares. If you’re interested in the topic, you can find a more in-depth comparison between the two here

A REIT, however, is a company that owns, develops, and manages real estate properties that produce income. The benefits of investing in REITs include their lower investment entry costs;  and that they are highly flexible, allowing investors to invest in a range of real estate from commercial properties to shopping malls. Check out this article for a comparison between REITs and Mutual Funds including their pros and cons.

Interestingly, I found out that real estate funds were only introduced last year in Egypt (where I live) and apparently there are only two launched at the moment one of them is Naeem Holding fund which provides an annual profit of 26%; and they accept both local and foreign investors with minimum share price of LE 50K. And it looks like there will be more launching soon too. (I am so excited!) More on this here.

3. Online Real Estate Investment

I came across this gem of an option, but sadly I couldn’t find one that accepts funds from where I live (and I will be saying this sentence frequently along the way).

Basically these are online websites where you can buy shares with whatever amount you want, starting with as little as $100 for some websites, and they search for properties to buy and sell and you get an annual profit.

For example, I found this website called Fundrise where you can start investing with $500 and it is not required to be a professional like other websites. This one is limited to investments from U.S. residents only, though. I couldn’t try it, but I have read a lot about it and they were mostly good reviews. There are plenty of other similar websites listed here.

4. Home Construction Companies

This would be investing in a company that builds houses. You can find homebuilder companies in your city or online. And this is the real estate investment option I started with. 

I myself am not a realtor and I cannot afford something like buying a property to rent or renovate and sell, for example. (And I only found out about the Egyptian real estate funds when I was writing this post, so it was a bit too late..)

However, luckily, I found another way to get involved in real estate investments which is through a local construction company where I can buy shares and they use the money I pay along with many other investors to build properties and then sell them; and the investors get a fixed amount of yearly profit.

It was easy for me to choose this one also because I already knew a realtor in that company. I started with the least amount of money to buy only one share for LE 50K (that is about $2800) which is all the money I had on me, literally. And I could have waited until I had some extra money, but I thought the earlier I start, the earlier I will be getting a revenue, and so I just did it.

It is hassle-free and almost risk-free, so it is a good start for me to have some kind of investment to generate a passive income. My plan is that throughout this coming year, I would try and save up money so by the next year I would be able to buy a second share.

(Side note: I would not recommend spending all you have on a single investment option unless you are certain that it is a safe and trusted investment. I did that because 1. I know the people involved and know people who are long-term investors with them, and 2. I knew if I’d kept that money it would have been spent on meaningless stuff especially since it’s SALES season!)

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.

Chinese Proverb

One of the other passive income options mentioned in the lists above which I also find interesting is the index funds. Index funding is a type of mutual fund with a portfolio constructed to match or track the components of a market index. It is said to provide broad market exposure, low operating expenses, and low portfolio turnover.

I’m planning on trying this as a next step. I’m currently still searching for the best index fund to invest in in Egypt. But the good thing is there are options to invest in international index funds even if you are not a resident of the country. Although, it seems to have a more complicated procedure, but it is possible. So, I will be doing more research on the matter and will be sharing my findings in a later post.

The other passive income option which I found possible and somewhat easy to start is the online business. Online business however is an umbrella term for a huge number of businesses that you can try. In my next post,  I will be sharing all the online businesses that most people sort of have agreed to have been the most helpful and which ones I myself have tried so far.

Till then, happy days!