Josh Waldron is usually skeptical when he hears stories about people making colossal amounts of money working side hustles.
While killing time at an airport in February 2017, he read an article about how a man made $10,000 per month selling T-shirts online using print-on-demand services, which allow people to sell without owning a print shop. Waldron’s doubts washed away as the article laid out the business model.
The process seemed carefully documented and could be replicated on a smaller scale. “So that’s why I was willing to jump in,” he says.
Later that day, the 34-year-old founder of web-design company Studio JWAL and operator of a miniature golf course in Waynesboro, Virginia, signed up for Amazon’s print-on-demand service, Merch by Amazon. Once he was approved a few months later, he started creating designs.
Waldron says that last year he earned a couple of hundred dollars each month selling his products without dedicating much time to it. Here’s how he and others sell T-shirts online using print-on-demand services.
How Print on Demand Works
Waldron, who has a web design background, shows his Merch by Amazon page. He decided to try the print-on-demand service after reading a story that carefully outlined the business model. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
Print on demand is the process of printing custom designs on products such as T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts that are made to order instead of printed in bulk.
These services are appealing to side hustlers because most of the work is done by a third-party company. After setting up a profile, designers can start uploading their designs for review. This is when the designer can preview the shirt to see how it will look and also when the company examines the shirt for any possible trademark violations. After the shirt is approved, the designer creates a product description, sets the retail price and makes it available for purchase.
That’s it for the designer. No need to worry about managing inventory, shipping, returns or customer service. The third-party company handles it all.
This hands-off model is ideal for people like Terri Broussard Williams, 40, of Austin, Texas, founder of Movement Maker Tribe, a political and philanthropy blog. She uses print-on-demand services to create merch associated with her blog and public-speaking work. She always wanted to sell merch but had no idea how to go about it until learning of Spreadshirt. She opened her shop in August 2018 and now makes $100 per month from her designs.
One of the trade-offs with these services is that your profit margin will be slimmer because the company is doing a majority of the work.
Waldon says if he lists a T-shirt for $16.99 on Merch by Amazon, he earns $3.11 per shirt. The higher the retail listing price, the higher the cut for the designer. (Each print-on-demand service is different; to help you decide which service is best for you, we’ve highlighted below some of the pros and cons of different companies.)
Do I Need a Graphic-Design Background?
Terri Broussard Williams shows off one of her Movement Maker Tribe T-shirts. Photo by Angelica Rodriguez.
Even though it helps to have a background in graphic design, it is possible for people with no Adobe Photoshop experience to sell shirts. “I’ve tried, but I failed miserably,” Broussard Williams says of her attempt to learn Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
Instead, she outsources the design work to a graphic designer she’s worked with in the past, and they collaborate on shirts. Overall, she’s spent about $200 outsourcing her design work. If you don’t know any graphic designers, Waldron says, you can find freelancers on services such as Fiverr or Upwork.
But if you don’t want to outsource your designing, there are options. You can read articles and watch YouTube tutorials from experienced online T-shirt sellers to learn how to use creative suites such as Photoshop and Canva, a program that allows you to use royalty-free fonts to create images.
“So I think it’s doable for anyone,” Waldron says. “I feel like for me it’s definitely easier because I can just hop into Photoshop and kind of put an idea together. But there are other alternatives if you don’t have Photoshop experience.”
Tips for Success
Below are some tips for starting off in the print-on-demand T-shirt industry from people who have been successful.
Put Your Stuff Out There
Newbies trying print-on-demand for the first time need to be bold and brave, Broussard Williams says.
“You’re selling [a] product, and you’re putting it out for the whole world to see, so for some people that might be intimidating,” she says. “It might be easy to assume that no one wants to buy your message, but I’ve learned people do.”
If your designs are not selling right away, don’t fret. Stacy Caprio, 27, who lives in Chicago and runs the website her.ceo, started selling T-shirts on services such as Merch by Amazon, Redbubble, Printful and Printify in early 2017. She says it took over a month to earn her first sale.
“Test it for a month. Put some [designs] up and see if you get any sales because I think that’s the best way to see if that’s something you want to continue with,” she says.
Caprio has experience using multiple print-on-demand services to sell her designs. Although she no longer actively uploads new designs on these services, she still earns between $200 and $300 per month in residual income.
Find Your Niche
Waldron stands outside his home office in one of his shirts. He cautions new T-shirt sellers to be aware of copyright hurdles. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
When coming up with designs, remember that the riches are in the niches. If you’re into a particular activity or hobby, then focus on that topic, Waldron says. In the beginning, he had a difficult time getting his golf-themed T-shirts noticed because that category was saturated with competition. One topic he noticed early on that didn’t have much competition was bowling. Waldron says his wife is a great bowler, so they brainstormed designs and phrases that appealed to bowling fans.
He says the more specific the niche, the less likely you’ll face competition from other designers. So find a topic and put your efforts into creating the best designs possible.
Have Great — Original — Designs
Waldron warns people to be careful when it comes to trying to create designs based on trending topics. You might have an excellent idea for a shirt that involves a celebrity or current event, but you might not be able to use it.
“It gets tricky because something’s probably been copyrighted, so the easiest ideas are just the ones that you come up with on your own, like purely out of the dark, and then you can go online and you can check the trademark database,” he says.
You can look up trademarks by going to the the United States Patent and Trademark Office Website and using the Trademark Electronic Search System. There you can search for certain terms and phrases to see if someone owns an active, or live, trademark or copyright.
Also, a simple Google search will help to see if someone has already beat you to the punch and created a T-shirt with a similar idea.
Waldron says he learned early on that Merch by Amazon doesn’t play around when it comes to trademarks and copyrights. One of his designs was a vector image of a character that had some slight similarities to the superhero Iron Man holding a golf club iron. He says he tried to make him look not too “Iron Man-ish,” but the design didn’t pass. “They squashed that one pretty quick,” he says.
Don’t Neglect Your Product Descriptions
After your design has been created and approved, you don’t want to ignore your product descriptions and titles. “If you put all the energy into making a cool shirt and then you do one sentence for your description, you’re kind of wasting the little real estate that Amazon gives you,” Waldron says.
For example, let’s say Waldron is uploading a funny bowling T-shirt about the 10 pin, a pin that right-handed bowlers have trouble hitting. He’s not going to title it “10 Pin T-shirt.” He’s going to call it “Funny Bowling T-Shirt -10 Pin Design,” or something similar.
The goal is to think like a shopper and anticipate how they would search for your item if they didn’t know it existed, he says.
When writing the description, make sure to include part of your product title, such as the saying on the T-shirt, if there is one. He says, for example, “Are you looking for a great bowling gift for your family or friends? This ‘Living on a Spare’ T-shirt is the perfect gift, and sure to generate laughs at the bowling alley.”
Print-On-Demand Services to Consider
Stacy Caprio wears one of her T-shirts. Photo by Stacy Caprio
A couple of quick Google searches will reveal several companies offering print-on-demand services.
Each of these services has its own pros and cons regarding product quality, profit margins, audience size and speed of shipping.
Below is a list of some print-on-demand services, with details from people who have used them.
Merch by Amazon
Amazon’s print-on-demand service is the biggest player on the block, according to Caprio and Waldron. Caprio says she preferred using Merch by Amazon over other services because of Amazon’s massive built-in audience and its reliable product-delivery service.
One of the most significant hurdles is that you must go through an application process to sell on the platform. Caprio waited six months for approval. Waldron says he was approved in about two months and credits his web-design experience for giving him an edge.
Here’s where you can find out more about Merch by Amazon.
Printful features many high-quality T-shirts and items to put your designs on. The service has a profit calculator available so designers can see how to price products to obtain their desired profit margin.
Printify allows designers to save 20% on their costs with an optional premium membership for $29 per month. Caprio says it’s great if your demand is strong and people are buying your items often. Here is a breakdown of the pricing structure for Printify.
Spreadshirt has a wide variety of high-quality items and many customization options. Designers can put their images on short- and long-sleeve shirts, hoodies, mugs, phone cases and more. Buyers have the freedom to select their shirt and font colors. Broussard Williams says she typically earns between $2 and $3 per shirt.
Redbubble sells baby clothes, greeting cards, wall art and bags in addition to shirts. Caprio liked using Redbubble because it gave her the opportunity to put her designs on unique items such as onesies. Here is a breakdown of the base prices of the items available on Redbubble.
Matt Reinstetle is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He covers side hustles and the gig economy. Follow him on Twitter @MattReinstetle.