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.

Before getting involved with Redbubble, please read this update first.

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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