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Blog / Beginner's handbook / What is Print-on-Demand

Beginner's handbook

What is Print-on-Demand? All Your Questions Answered

What is Print-on-Demand? All Your Questions Answered
Laura Mikelsone

By Laura Mikelsone

19 min read

Money-making opportunities are everywhere. The challenge is finding one that fits your capabilities and wants. If you’re looking for ways to express your creativity and profit from the process, print-on-demand might be the answer.

With print-on-demand, you don’t have to wait months to get products printed or hold heaps of inventory in your own warehouse (or garage). To start your business, you just need a couple of good business ideas.

So what is print-on-demand? In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to start an online business and make money with print-on-demand.

How print-on-demand works

Print-on-demand (POD for short) is an order fulfillment method where you design products and your POD partner company prints and ships the goods to your customers on your behalf. This is a white-label approach, meaning that there’s no mention of your partner on the product or packaging—all the credit goes to you. 

DTG printing on a t-shirt

Print-on-demand services fulfill a product only once an order has been made. This way, there’s no wasted stock that ends up in landfills. Plus, you pay your print provider after the customer has paid for their order. That’s why there’s no upfront cost to get started with print-on-demand. 

To start selling:

  1. Set up an online store on an ecommerce platform (Shopify, Wix, Squarespace, etc.) or an online marketplace (Etsy, Amazon, eBay, etc.)

  2. Connect your store to a POD platform like Printful

  3. Create custom designs, add them to products, and publish the product listings on your ecommerce store

Valuable read: How to Make Money with Print-on-Demand

Pros and cons of print-on-demand

Print-on-demand is a lucrative ecommerce business model for anyone looking to make some money on the side or even start a full-time business.

printful t-shirts

But before you dive into the POD business pond, you have to weigh all the challenges and benefits to understand whether this model is right for you or not.

Pros

  • No upfront investment. With print-on-demand, you don’t have to pour cash into your new business upfront. There’s no inventory or fancy printing equipment that you need to get started.

  • Quick setup. You can add designs to products and start selling the items in a matter of minutes.

  • Creative freedom. Print-on-demand lets you express your creativity and not worry about the logistics of fulfillment and shipping.

  • Experimentation made easy. A particular design didn’t sell as much as you expected? Thank you, next. Print-on-demand makes it easy to experiment with different design ideas so you can figure out what your customers prefer.

Cons

  • Higher cost per item. Your profit margins will be lower compared to other fulfillment methods (like buying in bulk or wholesale). That’s because when print-on-demand companies offer a certain product—printing, packaging, and production staff costs are included in the item price.

  • Turnaround times. The delivery time of print-on-demand products depends on fulfillment and shipping times combined. When you buy in bulk or wholesale, your products are made before they’re sold. So it takes less time to process the order and ship it out. With print-on-demand, products are made after an order is placed, meaning  extra time is required for processing and fulfilling the order. 

Read also: Is Print-on-Demand Worth It in 2024?

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Who can benefit from a print-on-demand business

Short answer: anyone with an idea. There are endless niches that unite communities of people who are passionate about the same thing. You can be the person who turns these passions into beautiful products.

Let’s get inspired by others who make money with high-quality print-on-demand products.

Artists and creators

For artists and creators, print-on-demand can help with expanding their personal brand and building a stronger relationship with their communities through customized products. POD lifts all the weight off the shoulders from a logistical viewpoint while artists and creators can focus on creating their art. This way, they don’t have to lose themselves in time-consuming processes like shipping and packaging products.

fans in a crowd
Source: Nicholas Green via Unsplash

For musicians, creating custom products for their audience is a no-brainer since print-on-demand opens up another income stream besides touring and earnings from royalties. Plus, imagine your fans wearing your merch on the street and posting it on social media channels. That’s a real-life advertisement. It’s a win-win situation.

Singer-songwriter RAIGN (Rachel Rabin) is a great example of this. Her road to creating RAIGN merch began with a desire to offer her fans pieces that would visually represent her music but lacking knowledge of how to do it. RAIGN quickly came to understand that traditional fulfillment services weren’t the best solution due to design limitations and having to keep stock on hand.

musician RAIGN
Source: The RAIGN Boutique. Photo credit: Kelsey Fisher

During the pandemic, Rachel discovered Printful thanks to the advice of her friend. RAIGN realized that this business model was exactly what she needed—a print-on-demand company printing, packing, and shipping the products for her while she could focus on brainstorming design ideas and creating music. For her, Printful stood out with all the informational resources that helped her set up her ecommerce store.

Artists can also benefit from having a print-on-demand business. British illustrator Alice Potter can vouch for this. While creating art was no problem for her creative mind—printing, prepping, and sending out products were a different story, quite an overwhelming one, in fact.

alice potter illustrations
Source: Alice Potter Illustrations

Before using on-demand services, Alice stopped selling online for a time. She was pregnant and making constant runs to the post office was too much of a pain. This was until she discovered the print-on-demand possibilities with Printful.

The “secret sauce,” as Alice puts it, was having the whole process automated. Printful takes care of everything from receiving the orders to shipping them out to the illustrator’s customers.

Now Alice has more time to create and experiment with new designs without having to worry about how to get all the orders out. This is especially important because her family now lives between two countries—the UK and France. She said:

“[Without print-on-demand], I wouldn’t be able to have a shop. I’d have to have stuff here and stuff there and find someone who manages things in the country I wasn’t in.”

Partnering with a print-on-demand provider streamlined the process for her.

Ecommerce entrepreneurs

Print-on-demand and ecommerce entrepreneurs are like having ice cream on a hot day—they just make sense together. Selling custom products online is great for both beginners in the ecommerce world and someone looking to expand their existing business.

person working at a laptop
Source: Avel Chuklanov via Unsplash

Just look at Carlos Ugalde’s store House of Chingasos. Before starting a clothing brand, Carlos worked in graphic design and marketing. After drawing inspiration from his father, he decided to start his own business venture.

After some time, he took a course on ecommerce and selling online to get the ball rolling. After trial and error with his first cat-themed online store, Carlos decided to focus on a niche closer to his heart and create a Latino t-shirt brand.

That’s how House of Chingasos was born. He chose Printful to print custom products for the brand as he was impressed with the service and quality Printful offers.

After hitting some roadblocks during the pandemic (like delays in production and shipping times due to restrictions in Printful facilities), Carlos still managed to make more than $200,000 in April 2020. 

This was possible because he stayed true to his brand identity while also addressing what was going on. In an effort to lighten the mood, Carlos combined his trademark Latino humor and the current situation in the world—and his audience loved it.

Now Carlos runs House of Chingasos as his full-time job. He believes that anyone can start a print-on-demand business with enough passion and work, even without having a one-of-a-kind idea:

“I’m not the only Latino brand out there. All you need is a piece of the pie. I’m even friends with some of my competitors. So you don’t need to be the only person at the party, you just need to carve out a niche in the space. Anyone can do it.”

The power of community is also what made Kim Guerra of Badass x Bonita start building her own ecommerce store and brand.

It all started with changes in Kim’s personal life when she moved to Seattle after growing up in LA and Mexico. In the new city, Kim felt out of her element, missing her community of Latine people of color, and even just having someone she could speak Spanish with. She was isolated and lacked connection with her environment.

Then, she started thinking of words to celebrate and uplift herself. The terms brown, badass, and bonita came to mind, and Kim immediately knew she had to put that on a t-shirt.

badass x bonita tank tops
Source: Badass x Bonita

She posted the shirt on her social media channels and the design blew up—women from all over the world were asking where they could get one. From there, Kim ordered 100 t-shirts in bulk and spent a whole weekend prepping, packaging, and shipping all the orders with the help of her friends.

After years of doing it alone, Kim realized she was not happy with inconsistent product quality from suppliers and handling so much inventory on her own. So in 2021, she and her team switched to print-on-demand services and haven’t looked back.

badass x bonita shirt
Source: Badass x Bonita

Here are the main benefits Kim found from using print-on-demand:

  • You get everything you need, all under one print-on-demand provider

  • You can manage your business from anywhere in the world

  • You can focus on designs and not logistics

  • You can add as many collections as you like with no limits

If you’re a creative, you definitely understand the struggle between the creative and managing side of a business. Don’t be discouraged by how time-consuming it might seem because print-on-demand can solve that problem for you. We hope that the learnings of the creators above gave you a nudge in the right direction—you can do it!

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Global brands and enterprises

Have an established brand but don’t want to waste resources on old-school fulfillment methods anymore? No problem. Print-on-demand is the quickest way how to make merch without losing your precious money and time.

Match Kicks is an online store where customers can find apparel and accessories that match their sneakers. When they first launched their business, the Match Kicks team thought it would be cheaper and better to print everything in-house. But keeping up with inventory, managing employees, and dealing with operational problems like broken printers was challenging. 

a white t-shirt with a wolf face and a pair of shoes

Source: Match Kicks

Eventually, they realized it would be more effective in the long run to find a partner who could handle the manufacturing for them. The main criteria were fast shipping times, product quality, and inventory. The Match Kicks team did a lot of research and ordered samples from 3–4 different print-on-demand suppliers. Ultimately, they found that Printful fulfilled their wishlist.  

Whether you already create your own art or have a global brand, print-on-demand is your choice if you want to offer merch online. It saves you time, and money, and lets you focus on things you’re passionate about, be it creating art or leading communities.

What print-on-demand customization techniques to choose

So, we’ve figured out all the benefits print-on-demand companies can offer you. Now, let’s choose the technique for your product fulfillment. What’s the difference between direct-to-garment, direct-to-film, and screen printing, and what do they even mean?

Let’s have a peek at what’s best for your online business needs.

Screen printing

Screen printing involves ink being pushed onto fabric through a woven screen. Unlike with DTG, the ink doesn’t soak into the fabric but rather lays on top of it.

screen printing process

An ink-blocking stencil is put under the mesh screen to create different designs with screen printing. Since each design requires its own stencil, this process can take quite a long time to complete. The long setup time is why screen printing is primarily used to print items in bulk. It’s not cost-effective to print only a t-shirt or two if it’s taken hours to create the stencils for your design. 

You’re also limited to minimalistic designs since you can use approx. 9 colors (the more colors you use, the more you’ll have to add to the product price).

Screen printing uses a lot of water and often employs non-biodegradable inks in the printing process, making it a less sustainable choice than DTG printing.

Learn More: DTG vs. Screen Printing: Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Method for You

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing

Direct-to-garment, or DTG, is a printing method where ink is printed onto a garment and then left to soak into the fabric. With this technique, you can print highly detailed and vibrant custom clothing designs.

dtg print on a sweatshirt
DTG print on the Unisex Crew Neck Sweatshirt. Source: Printful

To achieve the best DTG print results in terms of colors, use the sRGB profile. This color model is based on three colors—red, green, and blue, hence the sRGB in the name (s stands for standard). When these colors mix together, they create an array of different colors. The sRGB color profile holds data on all of these colors, so they’re streamlined across different screens, printers, and other devices.

One thing to steer clear of when creating DTG designs is gradients. If you want to customize white-label products like t-shirts with the help of DTG, these kinds of graphics don’t print well with this method. Printers will attempt to make up the missing color by spreading the ink, causing the design to have gaps.

Other than that, you can pretty much use any kind of design you like, be it photorealistic images or colorful patterns.

Learn more: DTG vs. DTF Printing: Which Method Is Better for Your Designs?

DTG is also a more sustainable business model than, for example, screen printing. These printers are developed with advanced tech that creates almost zero wastewater and uses less energy, all of which lowers the carbon footprint.

With DTG, you can create as many one-off designs as you like and you’re also not limited in terms of color count. Want to print the whole rainbow on a hoodie? Go ahead!

Direct-to-film (DTF) printing

Direct-to-film (DTF) printing is one of the most versatile techniques available in the print industry. Most print methods are limited to a range of similar fabrics, like cotton and cotton-blended materials. With a DTF print, you can work with tougher fabric varieties like polyester, fleece, nylon, and of course, classic cotton.

DTF printing involves printing a design onto a piece of PET film (a special film with a coating that helps transfer designs) using water-based inks and a special powder adhesive. Then, the design on the PET film is heat transferred to fabric using a heat press machine. This printing method is durable and the designs come out very detailed and vibrant.

Learn more: DTF vs. Screen Printing? Which Method Fits Your Brand?

Direct-to-film prints are versatile and can handle even the most complex designs. Whether your design includes photos, intricate graphics, fine art, or small text, DTF printing can bring it to life with sharp, clear, and striking results.

With this technique, you can:

  • Keep designs looking fresh even with heavy wash and wear

  • Make color or text come alive on designs using transparent space

  • Create designs for more fabrics (compared to the direct-to-garment print technique)

Sublimation printing

The sublimation printing process starts with your design being printed on a sheet of paper. Then, the paper is soaked with sublimation ink and transferred to the product via a heat press. It’s like those old-school heat-transfer designs you could iron onto your t-shirts—but much better.

Learn More: What is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work

Heat is a must to achieve the best design results with this method since it activates the sublimation ink and bonds it to the surface. For ink to completely soak into the fabric, it’s put under pressure and exposed to high temperatures of 350–400ºF (176–205ºC).

Sublimation works great on both hard and soft materials so you can use this method to print custom t-shirts, socks, mugs, and much more.

sublimated socks
Source: @beatrizlina

Whichever technique you choose, be sure to think about what works best with your designs and the products you select. More on that next. 

What products to choose for your print-on-demand business

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the abundance of product choices, especially with all the different collections that print-on-demand companies offer. In this section, we’ll look at some of the trending products to sell online, as well as timeless classics you should have on your online store.

T-shirts

As a must-have in every wardrobe, t-shirts are an appealing product to sell online. According to the latest print-on-demand statistics, t-shirts consistently rank among the top-selling items, reflecting their unwavering demand across diverse demographics.

a man smiling with his hands in his pockets

Men’s Champion T-Shirt
Source: Printful

Custom t-shirts serve as a canvas for expression, allowing you to tailor designs that resonate with your target audience—be it bold graphics, minimalist statements, or niche-specific themes that cater to particular interests.

Hoodies

You can’t go wrong with a durable, cozy hoodie—it’s a wardrobe staple. Since they’re in high demand all year round, custom hoodies are perfect to sell for all online stores.

Plus, hoodies are super versatile: you can adapt the style and design to fit your print-on-demand business niche and market different pieces for any occasion.

Eco-friendly products

Sustainability is important for today’s consumers (especially among Gen Z) and ecommerce store owners have to keep up with the demand. A good way to show your print-on-demand store cares about sustainable production is to offer eco-friendly products.

eco-friendly t-shirts
Source: Printful

Check Printful’s eco-friendly product collection for inspiration—there’s everything from t-shirts to hats and bags.

Stationery

Another print-on-demand product category that’s in high demand is stationary. It includes items that everyone needs, from students and office workers to doodling enthusiasts. We can all use some creative, original stationery in our lives.

custom notebook
Spiral Notebook
Source: Printful

Drinkware

Drinkware, especially mugs, has always been a best-selling category for print-on-demand businesses. Printful has drinkware for all occasions:

  • Enamel mugs for outdoor adventures

  • Mugs for a morning brew

  • Water bottles for hydration on the go

  • Tumblers for drinks with a little pizzazz

Look at these popular products and think about the niche you want to enter. For example, if you’re opening a store for book lovers, understand what products and, most importantly, designs this audience will appreciate. Maybe a book-inspired fan art on a mug? How about a painfully relatable bookworm pun for a notebook? 

How to choose your print-on-demand provider

Another decision to make before you start to sell online is picking a print-on-demand company to be your partner through thick and thin. Maybe you’ll even go with multiple? Let’s have a look at what you should pay attention to when working with print-on-demand services.

Fulfillment methods

As we’ve discussed, there are a bunch of different product customization techniques to choose from. When you research print-on-demand companies, see what methods they offer and decide whether or not they align with your business needs.

graphic tee
Source: David Wimmer via Unsplash

Not sure if you prefer DTG or screen printing? Totally fine. That’s exactly why you should always order product samples. Only by testing different companies and seeing the products in real life will you be able to understand if it’s what you’re looking for.

Some print-on-demand businesses offer samples with a discount, but with others, you’ll have to pay the full price—so keep an eye out for that too.

Facility locations

See where the fulfillment facilities of POD companies are located. Ideally, they should be in multiple locations all over the globe because that minimizes shipping costs for your global customers. Sure, you might be okay with a print shop just around the corner of your house right now but don’t forget about the future.

globe on a table
Source: Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

What happens if your business grows? Will your print-on-demand partner be able to provide the best service for your global customer base? 

Fulfillment times

Fulfillment time is the time spent creating your products, like physically printing and packing a t-shirt for shipment. At Printful, we promise to fulfill your products in 2–5 business days, but not everyone will promise such a quick turnaround.

Smaller printing partners might be able to offer short fulfillment times, but then shipping to a customer far away could take a hot minute. With bigger print-on-demand companies, the fulfillment times will be longer, but if the print providers are available in many locations, shipping times are often shorter. 

Product quality

This is the most important thing to be on the lookout for in your print-on-demand partner. Without quality products, your business can’t thrive.

heart gesture
Source: Printful

Fast fulfillment times and never-before-seen customization techniques won’t save your brand’s reputation if the quality of the product itself is just . . . bad. The golden rule, as we’ve said before, is to always order samples. Make sure the products you’re selling are high-quality items you can be proud of.

At Printful, we take pride in our reshipment rate of 0.26%. Many other companies don’t even disclaim this number. 

What makes Printful print-on-demand services stand out

With so much noise around, it might be difficult to settle on a print-on-demand partner you truly want to work with. We want to make it easier for you.

man smiling and sitting on a chair
Source: Printful

Here’s how Printful is different from other POD providers:

  • Product quality. Before introducing a new product, our team does thorough tests to make sure the item aligns with our quality standards. What’s more, all orders we produce go through a 3-step quality check before we ship them out.

  • Design Maker. You can create your designs for free directly on Printful Design Maker. It has 20K+ clipart graphics, 726+ fonts, 2K+ available mockups, and much more to make your perfect design hassle-free.

  • Sustainability. We try to make the fulfillment process as environmentally friendly as possible. For example, we repurpose our fabric scraps into new products like scrunchies and headbands to reduce fabric waste. We’re also continuously introducing more eco-friendly products to our catalog

  • Fulfillment methods. Printful has a wide choice of production techniques you can choose from (DTG, embroidery, sublimation, cut & sew, and more).

  • Customer support. Our customers often praise our reliable customer support team who’s available 24/7 to support your brand on any issues that arise.

Valuable read: How Much Does it Cost to Start a Print-on-Demand business

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What is Print-on-demand: FAQs

Is print-on-demand profitable?

Yes! Print-on-demand requires no upfront investment in stock or equipment. You can upload your designs and start selling in minutes.

How to start a print-on-demand business

  1. Find your niche

  2. Create an account on Printful

  3. Connect your ecommerce platform to Printful

  4. Create designs and upload them to products

  5. Add products to your store with our free mockups

  6. Start selling on your online store

Can you make money with print-on-demand?

Absolutely! Some successful print-on-demand stores started small and have grown into 6-figure companies. Make sure you pick a niche you’re interested in and do research on different print-on-demand companies to partner with. Anything’s possible with print-on-demand. Even quitting your 9–5 job and becoming a business owner. You just have to start!

author

By Laura Mikelsone on Feb 21, 2024

Laura Mikelsone

Blog author

Laura speaks 5 languages and her professional passion lies in translating, copywriting, and the overall art of marketing.

Laura speaks 5 languages and her professional passion lies in translating, copywriting, and the overall art of marketing.