This week, I’m working on my own line of dolphin beach towels. Last week, I designed some yoga mats. Next week, I’ll be working on unicorn beach towels. While bouncing from Hong Kong to Spain, I’ve been able to create, market, and sell my products all over the world using just my laptop and a Wi-Fi connection.
My background isn’t in product design or manufacturing, and I don’t own an apparel startup. But over the last few months I’ve found a few tools that let anyone create and sell a line of physical products.
Why would I—or anyone—want to do this? Because you might have a dream job you want to work on full-time, and just need a financial runway. Perhaps, like me, you’re a “solopreneur” or digital nomad looking for a painless way to pad your income while traveling the world and/or building your own business. Or maybe your paycheck just sucks and you need extra spending cash (or rent money).
Whatever the case, developing you own product line might be a smart move. Here’s how to get started on that before dinnertime tonight.
Step 1: Pick A Print-On-Demand Service
I actually first looked into creating my own products five years ago, long before I quit my job in New York and moved to Barcelona, kicking off what turned into over a year spent in digital nomadism. Back then, many of the services I tracked down required minimum purchases of 100–1,000 units. So I put those plans on hold until this November, when I came across a newer set of print-on-demand platforms: Printful, Teelaunch, and Cimpress Open. With these services, I’ve been able to print and sell hundreds of mugs and yoga mats from Mexico to Oman.
Some see print-on-demand technology as more than a means to just earning a so-called “passive income.” Frank Denbow, founder of an apparel company called Startup Threads, argues that “brands of the future will be built by creative individuals who are empowered by technology. With these new services, creatives won’t have to deal with printing and fulfillment and can concentrate on the creative aspect of building their brand.”
That’s the case, anyhow, for Allison Otterbein, who’s used print-on-demand platforms to build her travel and lifestyle brand, Numinous, from the road. “Since I don’t have to carry any inventory,” she says, echoing Denbow, “I’ve been able to build my business while traveling around the world! It allows me to focus more on design and marketing since the production and shipping is executed by the printer.”
To get started yourself, these are some of the services whose pricing models and product catalogs I’d suggest checking out first:
Choose a few products you’d like to create for whatever target audience you have in mind. Next comes design —brainstorm a few of the ideas you’d like to bring to life.
Step 2: Find A Talented Designer
Since you aren’t physically sewing the tote bags or throwing and glazing the mugs that your designs will appear on, your main differentiator in the market really is the design. So don’t skimp on this! But don’t worry if you aren’t a talented graphic designer—you can always partner with somebody who is. I found a number of them using Upwork, Dribbble, and Behance. Without these expert freelancers, my store would still be just an idea in my head, like it was five years ago.
Finding good design talent is the most difficult part of the process and takes a bit of upfront capital—and patience. After reviewing design portfolios, I’d recommend contracting four or five designers to create products for you as a test. From there, you’ll be able to quickly see which designer has an aesthetic similar to your vision. When giving direction to designers, I’ve found it’s often helpful to have samples of the type of aesthetic you can point to.
Once you’ve enlisted a great designer, you’ll be able to work together to bring your ideas to life. After you finalize a design, most print-on-demand platforms let your choose from hundreds of products to put it on, from tank tops to cutting boards.
This, says Warren Sukernek, marketing lead at Cimpress Open, isn’t just in order to give users a large product offering to choose from—it’s also meant to help them start succeeding quickly. “Since no inventory investment is required, entrepreneurs can create multiple designs on different types of media, without risk and cost. This makes fast failing ideal, allowing you to double down on the winning products.”
Step 3: Create A Storefront
Ten years ago, building an e-commerce business was tedious and time-consuming. Today, there are many out-of-the-box solutions that can have you ready to sell in a matter of hours.
When I was starting out, I had a limited budget and not enough funds to build a full-fledged website. To create a storefront at a low cost, I initially listed my products on Etsy before committing to building out a full website. So I spent a few months testing different ideas on Etsy, which let me prove market traction. Once I saw sales increase and hold steady, I used the profits from my first sales to invest in a Shopify site.
One benefit of listing on Etsy to begin with is that you can easily download all listings into a CSV file to upload to Shopify or even Amazon. After looking into many options like Squarespace and BigCartel, I personally chose Shopify for its competitive pricing and customer support, though you might go with another platform depending on your needs.
Step 4: Stick With It
Launching a product line and turning it into a sustainable e-commerce business—even as a side project—takes time and continuous effort. Some expect to see instant results and get discouraged if sales don’t surge in their first few weeks.
When I started my store, I had only a handful of sales (thanks, Mom!), but through trial and error on the marketing front, testing new products, and optimizing them for SEO, I slowly started to grow. One sale became two. Two became four. And now I’m seeing a steady influx of sales each day. Don’t get me wrong: This took seven months of sticking with it and growing incrementally.
But unlike past business ideas I’ve tested out before, this wasn’t one where quitting in the early days felt like the smartest move to cut my losses. If you start small, there’s little risk. An unsold shower curtain isn’t the end of the world, but if you do sell one—and then another, and another—a world of opportunities might start opening up to you.