where to start your online shop

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

So as you all know, I have recently opened my own shop! I've gotten asked a LOT of questions about what platform I use, how/why I picked it, the pros and cons of it vs other platforms, etc....so I decided I would answer them all here!


Before I start, let me just say that I am NOT AN EXPERT. What I know was learned from countless Youtube videos, blog posts, and trial and error. The only goal of this post is for YOU to not have to pour as much blood, sweat, and tears into the research.


Okay, let's get into it!


I'll start by going over the general categories of ecommerce platforms creators use, and then I'll do an in depth breakdown and comparison of the most common platforms.


 

general categories

 

There are two main types of platforms: marketplace, and personal website. (At least that's what I'll be calling them; I made those terms up.)


Marketplace platforms refer to platforms that host a wide variety of shops under their domain, within a large "marketplace". Etsy and Storenvy are examples of marketplace platforms.


Within marketplace platforms, there are print-on-demand platforms. These only require you to submit a design, and produce the product for you. Society6, Inprnt, Zazzle, and Redbubble are examples of those.


Quick note: flash vocab lesson!

  • royalty rate: aka a profit margin; the royalty rate determines how much you earn for each product you sell on a print-on-demand website. For example, if your royalty rate is 10%, for an item that costs $100, excluding shipping, you only earn $10.

  • commission: in the context of online stores, the commission is what the store takes from your sale. Basically the opposite of the royalty rate with print-on-demand platforms, but you'll see where the commission comes into play when I discuss Storenvy.


Pros of marketplace platforms:

  • prexisting, large customer base

  • *theoretically* easy to use

  • *usually* not a huge upfront cost (sometimes there are listing fees though)

  • built in shipping, payment, etc. structures (I.e. Etsy payments)

Pros of print-on-demand platforms:

  • virtually no upfront cost for you. no risk really.

  • easy. not super time-consuming

  • don't need to worry about customer service, shipments gone wrong, etc.

Cons of marketplace platforms:

  • 99% of the time, you pay a % of your profit.

  • usually there are also other fees on TOP of that

  • you are limited in your storefront design

Cons of print-on-demand platforms:

  • no control over packaging, quality or customer service

  • your profit margin is usually EXTREMELY small (aka limited royalty rates)

  • usually have limited control over pricing


Who is best suited to use a marketplace platform? People who haven't yet built up a huge customer base. People who don't have the room in their budget to splurge on a personal domain. People who are looking to network. People who don't have a registered business. Who should use a print-on-demand platform? People who don't want to worry about producing/shipping the product themselves. Busier people. People who want to see if their art even sells. People who don't need the money. Etc.


Obviously, even if none of these criteria sound like you, you can still totally use a marketplace platform! These are (by far) the most popular option for small business owners who are just starting out.


Another thing I should note: most big artists you see actually START with a marketplace-platform-shop, and later move to their own website or other personal platform once they start making a steady income. So don't feel confined to any one choice!

 

Personal platforms essentially refer to platforms(usually website builders) that allow you to create your own shop website, under your own custom domain(or you connect an owned domain). There is no shared marketplace. Your customers are all driven by your own marketing. Examples of these or website builders that have online store widgets: Shopify, BigCartel, Wix, Squarespace


Pros of personal platforms:

  • much more freedom with design + structure

  • option of connecting your own domain*! (i.e. your store url has no '.etsy' or '.storenvy')

  • less individual purchase fees / transaction fees

Cons of personal platforms:

  • usually a pretty hefty monthly (or other) fee

  • nearly impossible to get sales without a different marketing platform/social media (like Instagram)

* let's talk domains. A domain itself is hard to explain, but you can consider it as the url of your website, minus the 'http' part of it as well as the TLD('.com'). For example, for the website "storenvy.com" , 'storenvy' is the domain. For the website "wavylinesem.storenvy.com", the 'wavylinesem' is called the sub-domain.

Custom domains have to be bought(usually a per year fee). There are plenty of websites that let you do this (such as godaddy.com ), and often, personal platforms will have an option to buy a domain directly from their site. To check your domain availability (i.e. has someone already taken it?), go ahead and check domain.com . You can also read up on how to buy a domain and what you need to think about here! https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/how-to-choose-the-best-domain-registrar/

Keep this information in mind when I go in depth about the options!


Alright! That's all for the categories. Thinking that you know which type of platform you want to go with? Great! Scroll to whichever section you're thinking of. Let's dive into the different options!

 

marketplace platforms: options

 

Print-On-Demand Options:


REDBUBBLE: redbubble.com

What they offer: Merch, T-shirts, Stickers, Notebooks

Fees: Redbubble predetermines base prices, and you can set a royalty rate that adds to it.

(https://help.redbubble.com/hc/en-us/articles/202270799)

How You Get Paid: Monthly deposits to your PayPal. Minimum of $20 earning to get paid in the next 'monthly cycle'.


SOCIETY6: society6.com (My *discontinued stores: society6.com/wavylinesem )

What they offer: Merch, T-shirts, Stickers, Notebooks, Prints, Tapestries, etc.

Fees: $1.00 to open a store, default profit

You can set base price markups on select (expensive) products if you want to profit more, but it does increase the price of the product.

How You Get Paid: Monthly deposits to your PayPal. NO MINIMUM! (Why I chose it lol)


ZAZZLE DESIGNER: zazzle.com

(Zazzle.com actually gives you two options: you can join it as a Designer, or as a Maker. The designer option is the print-on-demand option. I'll talk about the Maker one later.)

What they offer: So. Much. Stuff.

Fees: Zazzle predetermines base prices, and you can set a royalty rate in between %5-99

How You Get Paid: Monthly deposits via Paypal. Minimum of $50 earnings for regular payments. help.zazzle.com/hc/en-us/articles/219577928-Earnings-Payments-to-Zazzle-Designers


INPRNT: inprnt.com (My store: inprnt.com/gallery/wavylinesem)

Note: Inprnt is specifically for artists who sell prints! I still have an Inprnt ALONG WITH my other store (back when I used a print-on-demand store, I had a Society6, and now I use it w/ Storenvy)

What they offer: Art prints, Canvas prints, Acrylic prints, Phone Cases

Notable Features: Can create promo codes (I.e. 10% off from June 5-10th)

Fees: They take 50% of each transaction.

How You Get Paid: Paypal transfer. You can only get paid once you've earned $100. If your earnings are less that $100 you must contact support. help.inprnt.com/article/80-how-do-i-view-my-sales-and-withdraw-earnings


think: if I can earn such a big profit by setting my royalty rates, how come you said you don't actually earn a lot? Even though print-on-demand websites will usually offer pretty a reasonable royalty rate/profit margin range, you have to consider what that does to the price of the item. If you're comfortable selling a sticker for nearly $5, go ahead! But keep in mind, that's going to be REALLY hard to sell. These websites aren't dumb. They set their base prices high, because that's how they earn money. Anything you add onto that becomes competition with the thousands of other sellers on the market.


note from a cynic: take this advice with a grain of salt, but I tend to think of the companies that I use for online stores as... a greedy boss. It's easy to get caught up in the marketing tactic of these platforms, as they're always telling you how 'their goal is to bring your dream to life' or 'they're here to support small businesses'. But honestly, it's far more likely that they know how enticing it is to start a small business and produce your own products, and they're capitalizing off of our desire to do just that. They're making a profit. Nothing more, nothing less. (Let me reiterate: this is how I like to think so I can expect the next unnecessary fee or base price increase.) Perhaps the biggest example of what I'm talking about is Ebay and Etsy. My dad likes to call Ebay an 'evil company'. And upon further thought, I've realized Etsy is pretty much the same.


(You can watch this video by Creative Hive to see what I mean, and why I decided against Etsy EVEN though it's customer base is unrivaled. https://youtu.be/g9X0fsya7wY )


 

Self-Run Marketplace Store Options:

I will be talking about these with a little more detail! They're much harder to understand.

 

ETSY: etsy.com

Etsy is THE most popular platform small creative businesses will use!


Fees: they all boil down to: 8% of your product+shipping price + $0.45

breakdown: $0.20 listing fee(PER item sold!), 5% product fee, 5% shipping fee, 2.9%+$0.25 payment transaction fee (CRAZY, right?)

here's the official link for the fee breakdown: help.etsy.com/hc/en-us/articles/115014483627-What-are-the-Fees-and-Taxes-for-Selling-on-Etsy-?segment=selling


Selling Points:

Etsy has a HUGE customer base. If you're a small creative business (i.e. an artist or scrapbooker, etc.), Etsy is where your customers live. The platform is FULL of people who are looking for exactly what you probably offer. It is the ONLY platform I have heard of that gets you sales, even WITHOUT social media marketing. (*cough* that's why it can afford to get away with all it's fees)

Etsy has a ton of powerful tools and customization options. It has the best product interface I've seen by far, giving you options specifically for digital media, product variations, customization boxes, auto-calculated shipping, etc.