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1. What is print on demand (POD), and how does it work?

How to start a print on demand (POD) business [2024]

Updated Jan 15 2024

There's a reason why the search volume for 'print on demand business' has nearly tripled in the past five years — POD businesses aren't just profitable; they're also flexible and surprisingly scalable. This can explain why the global print on demand market size is anticipated to skyrocket from $6.17 billion in 2022 to a whopping $39.4 billion by 2030, with no slowdown in sight.

With some print on demand business owners earning up to $10,000 per month just in passive income, the POD business model has become a lucrative opportunity for independent creators and ecommerce entrepreneurs alike. If you're searching for a cost-effective means to transform your ideas into tangible products, here's what you need to know to start a print on demand business.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Discover the advantages of a print on demand business for simplicity and scalability.

  • Learn how to establish a print on demand business and online storefront.

  • Gather actionable tips to market and expand a print on demand business.

  • Establish methods to evaluate and fine-tune business performance.

What is print on demand (POD), and how does it work?

what is print on demand

A print on demand (POD) business model refers to a process in which a creator or ecommerce operator works with a supplier to customize products with unique designs and sell them on a per-order basis. In a POD business model, a customer browses a creator's ecommerce store and places an order, and a supplier handles the entire fulfillment process from printing to shipping.

There are several reasons why creators and entrepreneurs seek a print on demand business model, the primary being the minimal investment. A POD business requires no inventory on hand and boasts slim start-up costs. Not to mention, every facet of order fulfillment is executed by a third party (the supplier), which saves POD business owners significant time and money.

With a print on demand business model, a business owner can forfeit costly expenses, like a direct-to-garment (DTG) printer for t-shirts and hoodies or wooden frames and canvas for wall art. And being that a supplier handles end-to-end fulfillment for print on demand business owners, even processes like packaging orders, printing shipping labels, and overseeing delivery are a breeze.

The simplicity and scalability of the POD business model have increasingly enticed digital creators, ecommerce operators, and graphic designers to launch online storefronts. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, the global print on demand market size leaped from $4.9 billion to $6.17 billion. The market is forecasted to continue to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26.1% until 2030.

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Print on demand vs. wholesale: What's the difference?

If you're interested in selling custom products, you've likely researched both print on demand and wholesale business models to get your creations into your customers' hands. But what's the difference between the two? (Hint: It's all in the 'on demand' aspect of a POD business model.)

Print on demand means that the seller does not pre-purchase any products, and the business has no upfront costs. Instead, products are only paid for once a customer places an order. The POD business pays for just the product and shipping cost of the customer order. The POD supplier then customizes the product with the customer's desired print and packages it for delivery.

Wholesale means that a business chooses from a supplier's product catalog, provides direction for any product customization, and places an order in bulk. Products are purchased upfront, often at a discounted price for a specific volume, and then held in a holding facility like a warehouse. Once a customer places an order, the product is retrieved from the holding facility for delivery.

How do these models differ?

The primary difference between a print on demand and wholesale business model is that a POD business will only incur costs for made-to-order items, whereas a wholesale business requires an initial investment for stocked items. A wholesale business necessitates that you hold inventory.

However, holding inventory in a wholesale business means you must account for exact product demand or risk losing money on your investment. For example, imagine if you were a wholesale t-shirt business that purchased equal quantities of black, white, and gray t-shirts.

If there is no demand for gray t-shirts, your wholesale business will have already paid to purchase and store the inventory but will not be able to turn a profit because the product won't sell. If your customers do not purchase wholesale inventory, you risk losing out on your investment altogether.

In comparison, a print on demand business does not incur up-front costs that can potentially impact profit. Because print on demand customer orders are only paid for once a customer completes a purchase order, there is significantly less risk (and more reward!) in a print on demand model.

Pros and cons of the print on demand business model

pros and cons print on demand

Is a print on demand business model right for you? Let's weigh the pros and cons.

Pros:

Low start-up costs

One of the biggest advantages of a print on demand business model is the minimal start-up costs. Unlike a wholesale or alternative ecommerce business, a POD business does not need to place a minimum order with a supplier or hold inventory in a warehouse. You only pay for what you sell!

Easy to scale to a global audience

A print on demand service leverages a global production and logistics network to fulfill orders for a POD business, which makes it a breeze to expand your ecommerce store to new countries. Take advantage of a POD provider to enter new markets and get your product in front of new audiences.

Create custom products and list them quickly

A print on demand business model enables creators and designers to dream up unlimited product designs that are not constrained to on-hand stock. Even better? The timeline from design ideation and creation to product listing and production can be expedited from days to minutes.

Hassle-free shipping and order fulfillment

Once a print on demand business receives a purchase order from a customer, the print on demand service does the rest. Every aspect of order fulfillment — including printing, packaging, and shipping — is handled directly by the POD supplier without the POD business ever lifting a finger.

Cons:

Lower profit margins

While print on demand business owners save on expenses upon start-up, they trade higher up-front costs for higher costs per item. Wholesale suppliers often offer discounts when purchasing in bulk; however, these discounts do not trickle down to POD businesses that buy on a per-order basis.

Limited control of shipping and delivery timelines

Though many independent creators and ecommerce entrepreneurs prefer the simplicity of print on demand services, some miss the control over shipping and delivery timelines that comes with handling your fulfillment in-house. Your supplier determines all shipping costs and timelines.

(Tip: Want more control over shipping costs for your print on demand business? Unlock up to 50% discounts on shipping rates with Gelato+ and Gelato+ Gold subscriptions.)

Less control over packaging and branding

When you outsource fulfillment to a third-party supplier, like a print on demand service, you forfeit complete control over your product's packaging and branding. (Tip: A white-label global print on demand platform like Gelato can eliminate this problem with branded packaging for your business!)

Limited products to choose from

Where a wholesale business has a personal inventory of products to choose from, print on demand companies must select from a supplier's available inventory. This can pose an issue when trying to keep items in stock, attempting to diversify products, or when purchase orders suddenly spike.

Start a print on demand business in eight simple steps:

From unlimited flexibility to untapped scalability, it's no secret why a print on demand business has become a rewarding opportunity to turn ideas into products and products into profit. For those considering starting a POD business for the first time (or perhaps expanding your current offering), we've put together a guide to expertly navigate one of the fastest-growing sectors of ecommerce.

1. Find a niche market

find a niche

All print on demand sites share one thing in common: they target a niche market. Before brainstorming POD products, take a look at how to decide on the direction for your own brand.

Determine your niche

Ecommerce, as with traditional retail, is littered with stores that faltered and failed. Ideas that either seemed like a good idea at the time (and simply never were) or for which no market existed (and never would). Don't be blinded by the belief that you must create something entirely unique!

If you can devise something never before seen (and is a new category or product sure to spark consumer demand), that's fantastic. However, the best ecommerce store concepts powered by POD supply exceptional and exciting products within an established market known as a niche.

According to Shopify, some of the most popular POD niches are car accessories, sustainability, kitchen and dining, home and bedroom, and phone accessories, to name a few.

To determine a profitable niche, begin with the stuff you're passionate about — like landscape photography or watercolor art — and dig into the related data. Then, use Google and Google Trends to gauge the consumer demand for top-selling products in that niche and the potential profitability.

Research your target market and competition

With a niche in mind, research your target market to feel confident that potential customers will want your products. The niche itself (like mug collectors or art enthusiasts) will inform the interests of your target market. To learn more about the demographic and understand their needs and preferences, assess niche-focused online forums, social media groups, and search trends.

Once you understand more of your target market's pain points and potential budget, analyze the potential competitors. Browse rival ecommerce stores and competitor websites to determine how your offerings could better serve your niche, such as a better price point. Also, assess your competitors' marketing efforts, like paid ads, to better understand your niche's demographics.

2. Decide what to sell

Now that you've determined a niche market for your print on demand business, you can decide what your company will sell. This step focuses primarily on profitability and planning.

Identify profitable products

Of course, if you want your POD business to earn money, you have to identify profitable products to sell. Statistically speaking, the apparel segment dominates the global print on demand market, with a share of 39.6% in 2021. Profitable products to sell in 2024 include custom apparel like tank tops, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and zip-up and pull-over hoodies.

If you'd prefer to enter an up-and-coming market, the home décor segment is expected to register the highest compound annual growth rate of 27.7% through 2030. A vast assortment of custom products fall under the home décor segment and thrive in a POD business model, including but not limited to wall art, wallpaper, and photo books.

Develop a business plan

Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Though he certainly wasn't referring to setting up and growing an ecommerce store, he might as well have been! It would help if you had a good idea of what makes it a viable business to start, but the hard work comes in realizing and preparing a detailed business plan.

A business plan should describe what you sell and how it benefits your customers. It should explain how you plan to attract and retain customers and the sales channels you will use in your marketing strategy. A business plan should also include financial projections, such as forecasted income statements and balance sheets. It should be clear how you will profit from the value you provide.

Enjoy the flexibility of print on demand

The very nature of POD means that ecommerce entrepreneurs and creators are not absolutely committed to one business model without the option to pivot in response to circumstances. If your idea doesn't quite work with a POD business, you won't panic about a warehouse full of pre-ordered stock you cannot sell.

Without the commitment of pre-ordering and maintaining an inventory, POD allows businesses to be agile (with the option to change models and products quickly and painlessly!) and easily branch out into time-sensitive, limited edition ranges. POD can be a quick path to monetization for individuals who have worked hard to establish fan bases and grow followers.

3. Set up your business and storefront

set up your business

This will be the longest step to establish a print on demand business, but it's also the most important.

Register your business

It's time to make your business official! First, select your business name. Your business name should reflect your niche and the products you sell but not be so generic that customers need help finding you on Google. Be sure to research variations of your business name and check against the official trademark database to avoid conflict with (or get sued by) an existing business entity.

Next, it's time to register your business in your operating state. Even ecommerce businesses must seek a proper Business Operation License to help the local government keep track of active businesses and proper tax filing. Depending on the uniqueness of your niche and business name, consider filing a trademark to establish ownership of your identity.

Additional necessary licenses and permits for an online business may include:

  • Employer Identification Number (EIN)

  • Doing Business As (DBA) License

  • Sales Tax License

  • Seller's Permit

Choose a platform or marketplace

A great store with compelling products should not act like some beautiful yet undiscovered island: holding out for the right customers to miraculously wash up on its shores.

So, selecting the right ecommerce platform or marketplace for your target audience is crucial. Exposing your brand and designs to your niche market where they shop (and when they are looking for the products you sell) increases the entry points to your store and, thereby, your volume of potential shoppers.

But what's the difference between ecommerce platforms versus marketplaces?

  • An ecommerce platform is a website or app that allows sellers to create their own online store to directly sell products to customers. Top ecommerce platforms include Shopify, Squarespace, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce.

  • An ecommerce marketplace is a centralized website or app that's shared by multiple sellers, in which each seller can create a personalized storefront. Top ecommerce marketplaces include Amazon, Etsy, and eBay.

Visibility is everything, and the good news is that online platforms and marketplaces — from Shopify to Etsy, Squarespace to Amazon — allow you to place your store simultaneously across several prime locations that your target customer groups frequent. Unsure which to choose? This blog post might provide some inspiration about what each channel offers.

Set up your store

After you've decided on an ecommerce platform or marketplace, you can begin to set up your own store. While a bit time-consuming, set-up brings you one step closer to selling products. First, you'll need to create an account with your desired provider. From here, you'll input details like your store name and logo and update your language, country, and currency preferences.

Want step-by-step directions to set up your store? Check out the resources below:

4. Select a POD provider and connect your store

select pod provider

Now that your store is ready to take customer orders, you must research to find a reputable POD provider that best suits your needs. Some aspects to consider include the following:

  • Average production and delivery time. How long until your orders are processed, and your customers receive their shipments?

  • Product selection and pricing. What kind of items do you want to sell, and what profit margins are you looking to make?

  • Available ecommerce integrations. Can the supplier automatically integrate with your ecommerce operations to streamline customer orders?

  • Production locations. Can they produce on-demand products where your customers are located for faster, cost-effective shipping?

  • Sustainability and ethics. How will your order production and fulfillment impact the local environment and supply chain?

Few print on demand companies can deliver on the above criteria like Gelato. With over 10 million print orders fulfilled over the past 12 years, Gelato offers POD businesses a vast product catalog of family apparel, home décor, mugs, stationary, and more with unbeatable profit margins.

When you choose Gelato, you can integrate seamlessly with your Shopify, Etsy, WooCommerce, Wix, Squarespace, or BigCommerce store to enable customer orders to be fulfilled automatically. As soon as your customer places an order, our team receives the information, and we start production!

Gelato eliminates the need to enter order information manually and expedites the timeline from check-out to production to ultimate delivery like no other print on demand service. And with a global production and logistics network, we make POD orders borderless and programmable.

Our network spans 200+ countries and territories and 33 markets to produce nearly 90% of orders locally. Gelato's local supply chain and reduced transportation distances empower creators and ecommerce entrepreneurs to reduce carbon emissions on each and every order!

Ready to connect your store with Gelato? Visit our Help Center or use one of the links below:

5. Design and list your products

design and list products

Once your store is connected to Gelato, it's time for you to add products such as wall art, apparel, cards, and mugs. Think about what products best fit your niche; perhaps it makes sense to focus on one product category initially or launch a few different products to determine your bestsellers.

Create your product designs

Print on demand business owners can create endless product designs. As you whip up new creations for your online store, make sure your designs are original and will appeal to your target audience. One way to confirm your ideas are new but still relevant to your niche is to return to your original market research and compare your designs to what's currently selling.

Remember, the most high-quality products begin with high print quality. Work with a vetted designer to create new designs for your products, or use design software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop or an online tool like Canva to create high-quality graphics and designs.

Add products to your storefront

With product designs ready for your customers to browse, you're now prepared to add products to your storefront. Adding products is easy with Gelato. Our flow can guide you through all the steps:

  • Selecting the product

  • Uploading the design

  • Defining a name and a description

  • Selecting beautiful mockups

  • Defining the retail price

  • Publishing to your store

We even have step-by-step directions to add products to each ecommerce store in our Help Center. If you already have products in your store, here's how to connect them to Gelato with a few clicks.

Optimize your product listings

Once you're ready to start selling custom products, optimizing your product listings is essential. This is your time to win over customers! Be sure to include high-quality product images and detailed product descriptions to capture the benefits or differentiators of each custom product.

If you need help crafting winning product listings, check out our beginner's guide to writing product descriptions. Help each customer imagine how your products can work in their daily lives, and use clear language and concise calls-to-action (CTAs), like add to cart or buy now, to encourage a sale.

6. Launch and sell your products

With the preparatory and back-office work done, it's time to focus on the greatest reward an ecommerce store owner can have: sales! To gear up for new orders, you must set a launch date to promote your product launch in advance. Most POD businesses ramp up marketing at least a month in advance via social media, paid search ads, and email marketing to reach their target audience.

One surefire way to capture the attention of your target audience before launch is to offer exclusive discounts or promotions, like a general 15% launch-exclusive sale or 20% discount for new customers. An average of 83% of US consumers turn to digital coupons when shopping online.

Bear in mind, success might be gradual. It might come overnight. New challenges will emerge, but one of the many joys of POD is that the barriers to entry — much like the risks — are lower, and the opportunity to change and adapt is always there.

7. Market and scale your store

market and grow your store

Now that your products are live, it's time to show off your store! Friends and family can be your biggest fans — make sure to spread the word to your biggest supporters. Ask them about their experience using the site and use their feedback to make improvements for future customers.

Aside from your immediate network, marketing can also have a massive impact on the success of your store. Although there is no perfect recipe for success, here's how to get the ball rolling.

Social media marketing

Social media accounts are a free way to connect with current and future customers easily. Typical accounts for new businesses include Facebook and Instagram, but do some research to find what competitors in your niche are using. Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, and YouTube are great tools to spread the word about your business and generate awareness.

Paid media marketing

Although the world of paid marketing can be overwhelming (and maybe a little scary), there are tons of great resources online for guidance. Do your research to determine a strategy that best fits your business. We recommend building your organic social media presence before diving into paid advertising. This ensures that when potential customers end up on your social channels, there will be plenty of posts to explore and hook them into a purchase.

Email marketing

Email marketing is another channel to connect with current and future customers quickly; even better, it can remain a no-cost or low-cost promotion tactic. A regular email newsletter offering free shipping, informing customers of a new product collection, or letting them know that an item in their cart is now on sale encourages customers to take the leap and press buy now. Email marketing also helps your business remain top of mind to help encourage repeat purchases.

Collaborations and influencers

If you want to scale your business and reach new target audiences, collaborations with digital creators and influencer marketing are the way to go. Through your print on demand business, you can offer digital creators and social media influencers a method to create limited-time merchandise that can open your online store to that individual's fan base. Just one collaboration can expose your brand to thousands of potential customers.

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8. Evaluate your sales performance

We're almost at the finish line now! To ensure ongoing success for your print on demand business, monitoring sales performance regularly to inform your product, pricing, and marketing strategy is essential. Data-driven decisions are integral to maintaining a long-term profit margin.

Key performance indicators (KPIs) and business analytics to track over time may include:

  • Top-selling products

  • Average order value

  • Trends over time

  • Sales by region

  • Gross revenue

  • Net profit

  • Total cost to POD

Fortunately, with a print on demand provider like Gelato, you can monitor these metrics and more on a convenient mobile app. Even better, the Gelato POD model enables you to A/B test various aspects of your storefront, like product inventory and pricing, to keep your offerings fresh.

Speaking of a fresh inventory, create variations of your most popular products to keep customers engaged and encourage repeat purchases. As is so often suggested in our blog posts, whether it's fine-tuning the design of your store or zeroing in on the products to sell, seek the opinions of others — be they existing customers or friends and family — to elevate your business.

Start a successful POD business with Gelato

Starting a print on demand business can be challenging, but with careful planning and execution, it can be a fulfilling and profitable venture. It's important to remain adaptable and open to changes as the market and consumer preferences shift. One way to stay nimble as you navigate opening a POD storefront is with a reliable print on demand service provider like Gelato.

Gelato is proud to be at the forefront of making print on demand accessible to ecommerce entrepreneurs and creators everywhere.

We've spent more than a decade opening up new ways to apply creativity and access previously unexplored markets, all without the headaches of investment, pre-ordering of stock, and managing inventory associated with traditional production and shipping (and a far lighter environmental impact). Now, we want you to experience all the benefits print on demand has to offer!

Drive profit for personalized products and only pay for what you sell when you sign up for Gelato.

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