How to Start a Print on Demand Store in 2021

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Print-on-demand is one of my favorite ways to start an online business. Whether you’re looking for a casual side hustle you can do after work (or at work) or you’re ready to do this online business thing for real and make it your full-time job, the first thing I’d tell you to do is consider starting a print-on-demand store. 

(This post contains some affiliate links, so I might get a small commission if you click and make any purchases. A girl’s gotta eat.)

What is Print On Demand?

Print On Demand (POD) is a process where you create designs to sell on products like t-shirts, mugs, and posters, all of which are printed and shipped by your third-party POD partner. The benefit of print-on-demand is that there are no order minimums, so you can start a t-shirt business without investing a bunch of money upfront, without shipping anything yourself, all while running your own online storefront. All you have to do is manage your website, promote your products, and process orders as they arrive in your POD dashboard.

print on demand mockup model wearing white tshirt

The most common way to sell print-on-demand products online is to start an Etsy or Shopify store. Both of these have the ability to sync up with your POD provider so that whenever an order comes in, the POD company is notified that an order is ready for you to approve for processing. There are pros and cons to both Etsy and Shopify, but I typically recommend that newbies first start selling on Etsy before considering a Shopify store. You can learn more about the difference between Etsy and Shopify in this comparison post which will help you decide which one is right for you.

The Best Print On Demand Companies to Partner With in 2021

As print-on-demand has grown in popularity, more and more POD companies are popping up as well. Since you’re not going to physically see or touch the item that will end up in your customer’s hands, it’s crucial that you work with a company you can trust. I’ve tried lots of POD companies in the last few years, and no matter who comes on the scene, I always stick with Printful and Printed Mint. They offer the highest quality printing as well as customer service and transparency, which helps settle the trust and control issues I have to mitigate in order to run such a hands-off business.

How Printful Works:

  • Printful provides a template for each product so you know the exact file size to upload for printing. I keep all of the provided Printful templates in a folder in Canva (which is also where I create my designs), so I know exactly what size I need my file to be when creating a product design. Check out their full catalog here, which includes design requirements and templates.

  • Printful syncs with your online store – they are compatible with Etsy, Shopify, Amazon, eBay, WooCommerce, and many other e-commerce platforms. When you upload your design, all the product details and Printful mockups will upload to your store as a draft product with all the appropriate information in the description. You can then go into your shop dashboard to edit and publish the product to your storefront.

  • When you make a sale on a Printful product, all the order details upload to your Printful order dashboard. In your settings, you can choose to have orders automatically processed as they come in (this will automatically charge your credit card on file for the base price of the product) or manually process your orders (this is what I always do in case someone wants to change an address or something like that).

  • Within 2-7 days (depending on the time of year) Printful will print your design on the selected product using a dye sublimation process. You can read more about their printing process here.

  • During the processing time you can check your item to see which step it’s in – picking, printing, quality control, sorting, or shipped – and an estimated ship by date.

  • Once your design is printed and sent through quality control, Printful will pack it up for shipment using your customized branding logo on the receipt and shipping label. Nothing about Printful will show up with your items.

  • Printful will automatically mark your order as shipped in your selling platform once it ships, which sends the tracking information to your customer.

  • Make sure to take advantage of your monthly product samples if you’re curious about product and print quality. Some of my best-selling products are the Bella & Canvas 3001 t-shirts, 11oz coffee mugs, posters in every size, and the racerback women’s tank top (sooooo comfortable).  

  • With each order you can see how much you’re spending and making on the sale and make sure your profit margins are where you want them.

How Printed Mint Works

Printed Mint is the other POD company I use and recommend. They do everything the same as Printful, except you have to email them to request integration which is much simpler than placing manual orders. However, it’s a little less seamless than the Printful integration because you have to create SKU numbers for each of your Printed Mint products and the order approval process is a little more clunky than I’d like it to be. It’s these moments where I try to remind myself that all I have to do is click a few buttons (from my couch!) and someone else will print the shirt, pack it up, print the label, and send it off to my customer. Let it be a lesson in perspective.

Printed Mint has an awesome product selection and some of the best packaging you’ll get in this business. Some of my best sellers from Printed Mint are cosmetic bags and gold foil products, so I definitely recommend checking out their catalog to see if there’s anything relevant to your niche. I also use them as a backup in case there are problems with Printful or something is out of stock. It’s always good to have options. 

Print-on-Demand Selling Tips

Working with a POD company like Printful is a pretty intuitive process, but I still have some tips based on what I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully take out some of your guesswork.

Write your own unique SEO descriptions

When you’re selling common products like t-shirts and mugs, it’s important to know how to get the right customers to see you. The most important way to do that, aside from having really good designs that people can’t resist, is with search engine optimization (SEO). This is the whole reason my store makes consistent sales without ads or social media. Knowing which keywords to use in your titles, tags, and keywords is essential if you want to be seen and make money with print-on-demand.  

You can read my guide to Etsy SEO here – it’s geared specifically toward Etsy sellers, but the basic SEO principles can apply to any platform.

Choose a niche for your shop

I’ve talked about the importance of a niche before, and in this case, I think it’s important to at least have a general theme for your shop for the sake of SEO and to help retain customers. You don’t have to sweat over narrowing down your niche to one specific type of person or product, but starting with a general theme like “pet lovers” or “new moms” will make it easier if you decide to advertise. It will also help with brand recognition and keep people thinking of you when that topic comes to mind. That’s not to say you can’t have a successful store that appeals to multiple types of people, but even then you probably have a person in mind to who all of these products could possibly appeal to. Lean into this customer avatar when coming up with new products and designs. 

Avoid trademarked designs

Just don’t do it. Don’t sell the Disney, don’t sell the “dog mom” shirt, don’t rip off the anime artist. Check common phrases in the USPTO trademark database before using it in a design. 

Buy some samples to test the quality and take your own photos

The beautiful thing about print on demand is that it’s an entirely hands-off process, but you still have to know exactly what’s going to your customers. With Printful, you can order multiple samples a month at a 20% discount and free shipping. I highly recommend doing this whenever you want to add a product to your inventory – just because you CAN get away with doing this without ever touching a product doesn’t mean you SHOULD, especially in the beginning. You’ll feel much more confident in what you’re doing, you’ll be able to more efficiently answer customer questions, and writing product descriptions will be easier when you can look at and feel the thing you’re selling. You can even do your own photoshoots and create your own product images to develop a more unique brand style.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your printer if they mess up an order or it arrives damaged

Out of thousands of sales, I have had a couple of orders arrive damaged in the mail (one even arrived without a print in the tube!) and every time, Printful was happy to send out a replacement. On another occasion, Printful sent a t-shirt in a color I don’t even offer, but again they were happy to get a new item in the mail right away for me. Their customer service has always been helpful, which justifies the slightly higher cost than some other POD companies.

Use mockups to enhance your listing images

Mockups are the secret to a dynamic, Instagrammable brand. A lot of POD companies have stock images that are flat and bland, not ideal for an aesthetically pleasant storefront. 

All of the product images in this post were made using PlaceIt, a lifestyle mockup site that has thousands of mockups for apparel, tech gadgets, home decor, and more. When it comes to print-on-demand, this is the best investment as far as the physical appearance of your store and social media feeds. You can find a mockup for just about anything through PlaceIt, but you can also find plenty of cheap and unique options by searching Etsy as well. 

This post has a list of some of my favorite Etsy shops for mockups

I hope this helps you get started with your print-on-demand store. For more help, check out these related posts:

The Best Print-On-Demand Services to Sell Your Merch

Etsy vs. Shopify: Which One is Right for Your Store?

A Beginner’s Guide to Etsy SEO

How to Sell Your POD Designs as Digital Products in Your Etsy Store

20 Digital Products You Can Sell in Your Print-On-Demand Store

My Step-By-Step Process for Launching a Print-On-Demand Store in a Weekend

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