By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
In the recent episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast, I talked about print-on-demand merchandise, which is a way to promote your brand and sell your product. This merchandise can also be given as a gift. And what’s great about it is that you no longer have to carry stock.
This is something that I’m working on for the show’s merchandise. Read on as I round up what I’ve learned so far from creating my own line and promoting it on Etsy.
How Big is the Merchandise Market
From 2018 to 2023, the value of merchandise is projected to grow from $26 billion to $33.99 billion according to a Statista report. It’s going to be about as big as the fashion industry. And this figure is just for the licensed sports merchandise market. Imagine how much it would be if it includes all other kinds of merchandise. I recently read that Elon Musk managed to sell $700,000 worth of The Boring Company t-shirts. It proves that there’s money to be made out of selling t-shirts with your own branding.
In the old days of EastWest PR as a small company in Singapore and China, the promotional items that I used to give away to journalists were notebooks. These notebooks have the same dot design that I’m using for The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
This was 20 years ago and back then, I was printing notebooks and giving these along with pens to journalists. The problem was that I had to keep stock somewhere in my store. I also had to pay for them in advance.
Now, with print on demand, you can make your merchandise as you need it. Technology has really revolutionised merchandise and it’s not about three-dimensional printing; it’s just about low-volume, high-value conversions of all manner of items — from clothing to household goods, from office products to even mobile phone cases.
What I’m Doing for The UnNoticed Entrepreneur
I’m currently building merchandise for my podcast. The research that I’ve done so far comprises two parts: One is about production and another is about selling.
I previously found a company called Vistaprint here in the UK. They do a very nice job of helping a company or an individual design and print on certain merchandise. For example, a mug, a t-shirt, or a mouse pad. The service that they offer is good especially when you’re stuck with the design. They’re online and they actually have some people from North Africa as part of their customer support (I got to talk to them when I needed some help with the design).
The problem, however, is that I have to buy the product first, take it with me, and ship it to somebody else. What I didn’t want to do is to buy stock and have it sit where I live, and have the need to buy some sort of minimum volume. The traditional model of printing, buying, and shipping is not ideal if you’re an entrepreneur.
This year, I was able to interview US-based Drew Stone for the podcast and he talked about Teespring. It’s a platform where you can design and promote t-shirts. I looked at that and they’re now called Teelaunch. Their service is great for designing and launching your products. You can embed Teelaunch as an extra player below your video on YouTube, for example. But while it can be integrated with social media channels, it still doesn’t integrate with my Etsy store.
I searched again online and found Redbubble, which is great for t-shirts. People are already using the platform to market the designs that they’re making into Amazon merchandise and the like. However, I want to do more than just t-shirts. Also, Redbubble as a marketplace has a slightly different demographic than the one I want.
I found two other websites, Printful and Printify. I chose to work with the former because they have fulfillment in North Carolina in America, Australia, and Europe (They’ve recently opened a facility in the north of England). They’re also one of the few companies that I found to be capable of serving my clients across the globe. The other that I found was called Gooten.com.
How Print on Demand Helps
With businesses that offer print on demand or POD, you can place an order and they’ll only make it only once a customer buys your order. Some are also offering drop shipping where you don’t even take ownership of the goods at all.
On Printful, I can design a product and promote it on my website. When someone buys it, Printful will make it and ship it directly to the customer on my behalf. This is great — as long as I have enough people who want to buy from me. However, I don’t want to simply use merchandise as a promotional item. If you tap someone like Vistaprint, you can simply make something for your company and give it away. But if you want to really sell and make some money from your merchandise, it needs to be on big players such as Amazon (But you have to be invited to get onto that).
Etsy is a marketplace for tens of millions of people who are looking for an Amazon alternative. My wife has an Etsy store selling oriental teapots from China and it’s doing well. The problem with Etsy though is that it’s a marketplace and it won’t hold your inventory. As I mentioned, I don’t want to hold inventory. I want to be able to design and sell in a marketplace and have customers purchase it from the marketplace, but the fulfillment has to be done by my POD partner. And very few companies do that.
Printful allows you to design a product and integrate that to any number of stores and other platforms, including Etsy, Storenvy, and Wix (the website development company). They also allow integration to smaller, niche merchandise and handmade stores.
Now, there’s this proliferation of new marketplaces that are not Amazon and can be considered anti-brand. They’re run for artisans and are more fitting to the direction that I’m going. For The UnNoticed merchandise, I want to sell my products to other entrepreneurs. I can’t compete with big t-shirt manufacturers or the big cup manufacturers — I’m going to be selling to my own tribe.
Additionally, I want to have the ability to give merchandise as a gift to people who, for instance, have rated my podcast or bought or reviewed the book that I recently published, which is also named The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. In the past, I didn’t have anything to give them but my gratitude. Now, I can give them a number of different items.
What I like about this model — where I have Printful for the design, production, and fulfillment, and Etsy as my marketplace — is that the whole value chain is being done online. I don’t have to take any goods at all or buy any inventory.
The Idea of Merchandise
The questions now are: What sort of products am I going to make? What sort of margins will I get? Can I make it profitable or is it just a marketing activity?
Primarily, it starts off as a brand-building exercise. For many companies and entrepreneurs, this is what merchandise is. When I recently spoke to Oscar Trimboli, he talked about active listening and touched upon making merchandise (In his case, he makes puzzles and playing cards to show the four villains of listening).
While merchandise can also be a great promotional gift idea, it can also be monetised. For The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, I’ve created a number of products in my portfolio to start with. It includes a stainless steel bottle, a mug, a laptop sleeve, a face mask, a spiral notebook, an eco tote bag, a phone case, a t-shirt, a polo shirt, and an apron.
My plan is to go for a small number of products first and then make them available in different colours. I don’t want to have too many product types that I have to manage, so I did similar product types with different design variants. For example, my water bottle has four variants. The water bottles themselves cost me £14.51. The shipping is £4.99 and the value-added tax (VAT) is £3.90. All in all, they cost me about £24.
I also looked online to see at what price water bottles sell for. I’ve learned that I can conceivably give a gift to people for £29 of a branded water bottle. If I want to do something cheaper like a plain white mug, it will only cost me £5.95, plus a shipping fee worth £4.29 and a VAT worth £2. The total cost will be £12, which is about what it would cost in a regular mug store.
The benefit of this is that I don’t have to buy any mugs and go to the post office to ship them. I don’t have to buy a box or stand in line or do anything but simply sell them. In reality, It only costs me around £12 to give it away for free. If I sell it for £17, I can make about £5 but it won’t be an unreasonable amount for a mug.
In the past, the idea of merchandise as a way to build your brand has been impossible for entrepreneurs because of the cost (including design among other things). Now, with platforms like Printful, you can either upload your design or take some of their stock designs and put them on t-shirts, cups, aprons, bags, and homeware products.
You can also let the system synchronise with a platform like Etsy or Storenvy. When people buy your product on Etsy, they will let you know about it but it will be Printful who will do all the fulfillment and deliveries. It’s a hands-off e-commerce transaction.
Also, it can give you the opportunity to create social media posts about the merchandise that you’re creating.
Merchandise for The UnNoticed Entrepreneur
I recently launched The UnNoticed Entrepreneur book, which is doing well. The podcast, on the other hand, has reached the top four in the UK for entrepreneur podcasts. I’m very happy that we’ve made some progress in the last 12 months. And now, after the book and the podcast, we’ve got the merchandise.
It’s a complete branding opportunity and it doesn’t cost me anything other than my time to do the design. The Etsy store costs me 20 cents per product that I list. I can be in online retail very quickly with no fixed costs and I can make money if I sell something.
I wanted to share the idea of merchandise today because, in the past, giveaways were a large component of public relations. Whether it’s post-it notes that can be put on a desk or pens and notebooks, giving away merchandise is something that people appreciate. They carry it around. Now, it’s no longer necessary to print a large stock of these and hold them in your office or in your home. You can design a whole store layout. In the worst case, you can order samples (Printful gives three per month at a discounted price). You can also buy them from your own Etsy store. Then you can start to build a reputation as a merchant as well.
It’s an opportunity for small companies to get involved in something that’s historically regarded as the preserve of big companies and retailers who can buy merchandise and stock them.
You can check out my Etsy store, the Entrepreneur Merchant Company. We’re in the process of synchronising the new products and finalising their prices, but I’d love to get feedback from you about which products and designs you’d like to buy.
The idea is that there are many entrepreneurs like you all over the world. And if you are to wear a piece of merchandise that lets other people know that you’re an entrepreneur, it could start conversations. Because entrepreneurs love to talk to other entrepreneurs. And this is really the mission that I have for the UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast, the book, the newsletter, and now, the merchandise. The merchandise is my way to help spark conversations among entrepreneurs.
If you were to create your own merchandise, you should also keep in mind your objective for it. For queries, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.