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I first encountered print-on-demand companies when I was looking for ways to expand my fashion company, Sci Chic. They enabled me to expand my science-inspired jewelry line into an apparel business as well. I was finally able to begin offering clothing adorned with the same designs that inspired my jewelry without having to fill my house with boxes and boxes of shirts. Not only did print on demand provide an easy way to offer my customers more options, but it was also a simple way to spread brand awareness without having to fill my apartment with inventory.

The world of print-on-demand fashion has revolutionized the side hustle and merchandising game for many entrepreneurs. There is no risk in launching a new T-shirt design in your store because there is no preprinting and inventory required. All you need is the design you want to put on your merchandise and virtually no website design skills. Your business is ready to go.

Screen-printing shirts on demand. Photo: Printful

While some companies are designed for sales to be contained within their websites — like Redbubble or CafePress—many make money by integrating with existing sales platforms. They then offer automatic fulfillment for orders placed on those websites. Printful is a major print-on-demand company that can sync with other website platforms to auto-fulfill orders placed on those sites. Recently, the company announced a new partnership with Etsy that allows artists to fulfill T-shirt orders automatically through the Printful platform. It can also integrate with website-building companies like Shopify and Weebly.

Once the store owner’s website is connected to an on-demand printing platform, all they have to do is choose the products they want to offer and which designs will go on each item. When a customer places an order on one of these platforms, it is sent directly to a company like Printful, which then screen-prints or embroiders the design onto the chosen item and even handles packing and shipping. This allows unique custom items to be created with little effort by the artist.

This is the method Hunter Mize uses to run his business, Prinstant Replay. Mize creates minimalistic depictions of sports plays on T-shirts and posters. A platform like Printful enables him to release the products soon after the defining plays to capitalize on the excitement over a big win or a SportsCenter-highlight-worthy event. “E-commerce is all about finding ways to do things faster, cheaper, and easier,” Mize said. “The fact that I can run a profitable business out of my home, with no office space, employees, or startup costs is pretty phenomenal.”

On-demand poster printing. Photo: Printful

Some store owners have taken advantage of these same tools to make hyper-personalized items. Have you ever those highly targeted Facebook ads for shirts that say things like, “Big sisters who were born in May and love Sherlock Holmes are the best!”? Facebook sees that you’re a big sister born in May who loves Sherlock Holmes and is selling that future on-demand piece of merchandise directly to you. Entrepreneurs can launch that one extremely specific shirt, 12 other shirts (one for each month), 24 more shirts (one for each month for big sisters and one for each month for big brothers), and so on and so forth — you get the idea. They can cycle through every permutation. They can then put money behind extremely targeted advertisements based on the parameters outlined on the shirt. When Facebook makes this information so easily accessible to advertisers and print on demand invokes no up-front risk, it’s a ready-to-go business. The result, however, might be some particularly annoying news feed content.

Despite these advantages, one of the largest downsides to print on demand remains the price. When no quantities are guaranteed up front, the prices for printing are not cheap, leaving a low profit margin for the seller. And while many platforms allow sellers to set the price—letting them make the judgement call of raising the price a bit higher to see what the buyer will be willing to pay—artists and entrepreneurs are not able to make as much money as they would if they printed items in advance and on their own. But this method can still serve as a great testing tool. Once a seller sees that their product will sell, they can print them on their own for a greater profit margin.

Additionally, it can be a challenge to ensure consistency in product quality. Print-on-demand platforms make it easy for artists to list their work on a multitude of shirts, posters, mugs, and so on without testing them in advance. Companies make this variety tempting to give customers a greater selection and increase the chances they’ll make a purchase. However, this can create awkward situations between artists and customers if the items received aren’t up to the customer’s standards, since the artists have no control over the quality.

But for small brands that are able to invest a bit more in testing and creating products in advance, it can be a simple answer to merchandise creation. In our fast-paced era of online content creation, social media stars with big fan bases are becoming much more common. For smaller stars with dedicated followings, these on-demand opportunities can also be fantastic for creating branded merchandise. YouTubers and podcasters can let their fans be brand ambassadors, spreading the word and growing the hype. Printful has actually recognized the value of bringing on some of these social media stars and offers a complete program for celebrities: If you have at least 2 million social media followers, Printful will build and manage your e-commerce store in exchange for revenue sharing.

Photo: Shapeways

Shapeways uses a different type of printing method for its print-on-demand jewelry service. Using 3D printing, the company produces accessories on demand for designers, using materials that range from plastic to 14K gold. (Want to learn more about 3D printing in fashion? Check out another story in this series, “Hot Off the Printer.”) Though fashion requires a different process, called 3D modeling, the final designs can be printed on demand in a similar way. The Shapeways website acts similar to Redbubble, serving as a sales platform where designers can make their own stores on the site. Although Shapeways is not yet integrated into other platforms in the way Printful is, it is a fantastic platform for hosting your jewelry store.

But on-demand printing is not limited to fashion. It’s also a wonderful way for writers to self-publish. In the past, the only real route to becoming a successful author was finding an agent, who would find you a publisher. This process is extremely difficult, as well as time consuming and rarely accepting of all different types of writing. Today, on-demand publishing tools like CreateSpace have narrowed the gap between traditionally published books and independent books, giving self-published books a chance to shine (and make money!). The boom of the independent author market can be largely credited to these platforms and their integration with Amazon.

Overall, on-demand printing and its integration with various platforms is empowering designers and creators alike to take charge over their creative ventures and not be limited by traditional business or industry barriers. It makes small fashion businesses more accessible and brings buyers a more custom experience.