Building a $15K/Month Print on Demand Business on Etsy

Shaun H. Ruff


With her hours cut due to the pandemic and a new house to pay for, this week’s guest set out an action plan to make 6-figures in 2021.

To achieve that, Heather Johnson of decided to start an Etsy store selling print-on-demand goods like t-shirts, mugs, and other apparel and items.

Fast forward two years and the former MRI tech has taken her print-on-demand side hustle full-time and is averaging $15k a month in revenue and $4-5k in monthly profit.

How’d she do it?

By following the trends with her own unique spin, putting 100s of products up for sale, and implementing some savvy marketing strategies you can apply in your own business.

Tune in to The Side Hustle Show interview to hear:

  • why and how Heather created a “high-volume listing store”
  • how she evaluates competition and finds new creative ideas
  • Heather’s best practices for maximum organic exposure on Etsy

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The Inspiration to Start an Etsy Store

Heather actually started her print-on-demand business early in the pandemic when her work hours got cut back.

She ended up putting her shop on pause, then in late 2020 got serious about growing her side hustle and picked it back up.

“It was halfway through December I started recreating designs, and then in January, I started posting designs. I remember, I actually wrote down on a piece of paper:

‘Action plan to make 6-figures in 2021.’” Heather told me.

Getting Started On Etsy

Heather’s action plan included the goal of creating 3-5 new listings every day throughout January and February.

The Etsy “gurus” Heather was learning from were saying that creating a “high-volume listing store” was the best way to get noticed on Etsy.

Heather explained there are a few advantages to posting a lot of listings on Etsy:

  • You can never be 100% what’s going to do well, so the more listings you have the better chance you have of seeing what works
  • Etsy’s algorithm rewards stores that publish new listings often
  • It’s a great way to get better at creating products and listings
  • The print-on-demand market on Etsy is competitive, you have to be very active to compete and capitalize on trends

To prove these points, Heather said she uploaded about 100 designs in January. She admits that she hardly saw any sales and started getting frustrated.

But it takes time to get some momentum going. By April, sales were picking up and Heather had her first best seller.

And the surprising thing was that her best-selling design was one of the designs Heather almost didn’t upload as she didn’t think it was good enough.

Choosing a Niche

Heather started out with seasonal niches, like Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Halloween, etc., before moving into the teaching niche.

After seeing success with teaching, Heather said she decided to branch out and try other careers.

“Any occupation you can think of, I started designing for,” Heather told me.

Heather then went into the dog niche, before branching out further into more niches.

Heather said she continued to branch out and target new niches as she had more ideas.

Joining Facebook Groups

In January, Heather had just one sale through the Etsy platform.

So, to actively promote her designs in February, Heather started joining Facebook groups relevant to some of her career niches.

Heather would check with the admins of the groups that it would be OK to share her designs, and she’d offer a discount code in the groups to sweeten the deal.

“People started buying them, they started requesting different designs, so in February I had about $1,000 in revenue,” Heather told me.

Heather kept posting in different groups and in March she turned over $5,000 in revenue.

In April this grew to $19,000 in revenue, and this was when Heather decided to stop posting in Facebook Groups.

Getting Organic Exposure on Etsy

Heather decided to stop posting in Facebook Groups in April because she noticed “the magical moment happened;” Etsy was starting to give her designs more exposure organically.

Heather’s designs were starting to be featured on Etsy’s homepage, in related listings, and higher up in the search results for her keywords.

This organic exposure drove a lot of sales. In May, without posting in any Facebook Groups or doing any other marketing, Heather did $22,700 in revenue.

This momentum has stayed with her. Since May 2021, Heather hasn’t turned over less than $15,000 in revenue.

Heather explained that she thinks driving traffic from Facebook to her listings helped give her a boost in Etsy’s algorithm.

She’s seen this happen with other sellers, too. It’s almost like Etsy rewards store owners who drive external traffic and sales to the platform.

Pricing Print-On-Demand Merch

“I try to generally price my items with a 30-40% profit margin,” Heather told me.

With t-shirts, this usually means about $10 profit. However, Heather is often running a 15-20% off sale on her store so that eats into the profit margin and there are also fees to take into account.

For example, Heather said she usually sells the Bella Canvas 3001 t-shirts. This shirt sells for around $8 on Printify, and Heather lists her shirts for $18 on Etsy.

However, because Etsy’s new boosted transaction fee is 6.5% and factoring in shipping if her customers qualify for Heather to cover it, profit is generally $8-9 per shirt.

One Store vs Multiple Stores

Heather was in the process of opening up multiple niche-specific Etsy stores but opted to sell everything under one store.

Heather said there are pros and cons to each option, and she’s seen some stores do really well by focusing on one niche.

However, although Heather covers multiple niches and items under one storefront, she does focus on one style of design across all of her listings.

This makes the design process quicker for Heather and enables her to quickly replicate her designs across different niches.

It’s also given her a consistent design theme across all the niches she’s covered and makes sense to sell them all under one store.

Running Etsy Promotions and Sales

Heather runs a 15-20% sale across all of her listings every day or every other day.

This isn’t just to offer customers a discount. When you run a sale, Etsy puts a little countdown timer next to each of your listings and this encourages people to make a purchase.

In addition to this, Heather said sales also act as a form of “email marketing”. Etsy will email any of your customers who favorited one of your items and are on their mailing list to let them know it’s been discounted.

Collecting Emails Through Etsy

Etsy allows you to collect emails from your customers. Heather promotes her list through a pop-up, her store banner, and some other locations on her storefront.

To encourage people to sign up, Heather offers a discount. Typically offering 20% off their order if she’s currently running a 15% during a sale.

One of the drawbacks Heather highlighted is that links you add to your emails are not clickable, but it’s a great way to retain customers and push more sales.

Etsy Listing Best Practices

Some of the listing best practices Heather shared are:

  • Use high-quality mock-up images; you can purchase these off Etsy
  • Edit and create high-quality images using Canva
  • Upload 3-5 mock-up images per listing
  • Include size and color charts for t-shirts
  • Include multiple longtail phrases in your listing titles
  • Write a keyword-rich description and metadata

Heather said a lot of shoppers on Etsy are looking for a certain aesthetic and are drawn in by high-quality images, so images should be your main focus.

She also added that using longtail variations of a keyword is crucial for ranking well in Etsy’s algorithm.

For example, if you were selling a t-shirt for English teachers, Heather said you should title your listing something like:

“English teacher t-shirt gift for teacher.”

This doesn’t read all that well, but it essentially captures three long tail keywords within one title.

Dealing With Copycats

There is always the risk of copycats stealing or copying your designs on POD platforms, and it certainly happens on Etsy.

Heather has had to issue 20+ DMCA takedown notices to have copycats take down their designs when they had clearly copied her work.

Issuing a notice is easy to do, and it gets the listing taken down pretty quickly. Etsy’s team will then take a look and make a determination themselves.

The copycat can of course file a counterclaim against you. This usually results in either their listing being reinstated or both listings being taken down and looked at.

You could go one step further and pursue legal action against a seller who is blatantly copying your designs and listings, but Heather said it’s rarely worth it for POD businesses.

What Does Your Creative Process Look Like?

“I generally start with doing my research before I start designing,” Heather told me.

Heather has spent a lot of time working on designs she thought would do well before, only to see them flop.

So, now she does market research first. Heather explained she looks at what’s selling well right now or trending and finds ways to put her own spin on things.

For example, retro stuff with funky or groovy fonts are trending right now, Heather explained, so she’s been producing designs around that theme.

Heather pulls inspiration from what’s trending and creates templates she can use across all of her niches when she has a design she’s happy with.

Heather said sometimes will see sales shortly after launching her designs, and other times it’ll be crickets.

If her designs aren’t selling well, Heather makes some tweaks to the colors, fonts, or anything else, and then reuploads them to see if they do better.

Tools and Tech

The tools and tech Heather is using to run her business are:

  • Mailchimp – This is the email software provider Heather uses to mail her list.
  • Canva – This is the software Heather uses to create her designs and other graphics.
  • Everbee – This is a product research tool for Etsy.
  • Sales Samurai – Another software designed for Etsy that provides insights and analytics data, helps with optimizing listings, and more.
  • Creative Fabrica and Creative Market – Heather has used both of these platforms to find graphics to use on her t-shirts.

Mistakes or Surprises Along the Way

“I would have kept going in 2020…it’s never too late to start,” Heather told me.

Back when Heather started doing POD back in 2020 she felt like she was too late and that the space was too saturated.

Yet, looking back at 2021, Heather said she turned over $250,000 in revenue.

The takeaway is that a space may be crowded or competitive, but it’s only going to get more competitive – get started today.

What’s Next?

“Course creation and working with new students who are looking to start their own print-on-demand businesses with Etsy, that’s what I’ve been focusing on,” Heather told me.

About a month before our interview Heather had released her first master course, the Print On Demand Academy.

Heather said that’s been a lot of fun, and she’s already seeing students go from zero sales to almost the 5-figure mark.

Heather’s #1 Tip for Side Hustle Nation

“Take the small steps on a daily basis.”

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