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Is Merch Dead?
There’s a lot to unpack in this LONG post, so here’s the TL;DR:
I reached tons of milestones in 2019 & 2020. I tried to focus and work hard but the truth is I didn’t do much work on Merch except for reap what I sowed in 2017 & 2018. My account got to T100K, I sold over 22K products, crossed off several items from my Merch Bucket List, and made more money than I thought I could make on a “side hustle”. I actually thought I might be able to quit my job at one point. But, it’s slowly dying – I introduce my plan to resurrect it.
The Journey Continues… Part 4.
It’s already the end of May 2021 but I thought I’d give you an update on how last year went for me. My official anniversary on MBA is March 1st, 2017. I’ve been working on my account for over 4 years now – while my anniversary doesn’t exactly line up with the calendar year, it’s easier to report 2020 as “Year 4” – so that’s what I’ll do.
Year 4 of my Merch Journey was amaze-balls (some lady used that term with me once… I walked out of the store where she was trying to sell me on a service). Anyway, 2020 was a year of extremes. As Charles Dickens would say, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It felt like the world was burning down around me but from a business perspective, things were better than ever. I made more money in 2020 from POD than I made for my entire first 3 years out of college, combined (no joke)! It really was amazing. Then it started to fade.
You can only ride the wave of “passive income” for so long. At some point, you must put in some work and do the grinding tasks that grow the business. That’s what I have to do in 2021.
I’ll fill you in on a few of the things that went well for my POD business last year, some things that didn’t work out very well, what scares me and what I plan on doing to fix my dying business. I hope it can be saved – I’m going to do my best to resurrect it.
If you’ve read any of my prior posts (listed below) then you’ll see I focus on what I can control. I understand the power of goals and I’m not afraid of doing the hard work required to get the results I want… while I’m not afraid of the work, I
sometimes usually don’t want to do it and most of the time my “real job” gets in the way of what I know I need to do. Maybe my New And Improved Approach will help me get where I want to be.
Before we keep going, here are my prior updates (these are all on Reddit, I’ll link them here once I format the posts):
- first few months
- milestone update 1
- milestone update 2
- Year One
- Q1 2018 Update Note, the spreadsheet here is old, not updated and there are tools that give you the same info so I don’t plan on updating it
- Q2 & Q3 2018
- Year 2 Update
Here are my MBA Stats (US Only – As of Dec 31, 2020):
Total Live Designs/Products: 2514/6413
Total Sales 2020: 8,254 (362 returns)
Total Sales All Time: 22,251 (through Dec. 2020)
Selling Designs: 747
What Worked for My POD Biz: (in no particular order)
Tiered up to “Golden Unicorn” level… that’s according to the image that displayed on the celebration image on PrettyMerch. This isn’t a huge deal to me, I’m grateful for it, but it’s not big since I measure my success in $$$, not potential slots. Before the recent tier level change, I never thought I’d fill a hundred thousand product slots – now I’m almost certain I’ll never fill 100K DESIGN slots. Seriously, I did the math.
Earned over $100,000 in royalties on Merch:
This one makes me happy. I really don’t have much to add since the achievement pretty much says it all. Reaching this milestone is the *result* of hard work early on. I need to keep doing the same things that got me here in the first place.
Listen to your Audience (Ride the Wave)
In April of last year I noticed that I had a few designs with the potential to go viral. They were political in nature (so I knew it was a trend I’d have to jump on before it went away). I noticed that people were posting photos of themselves on social media with designs similar to mine but they were on products I didn’t offer. So, I created simplified versions of my designs on several products. I found that Stickers & Hats work for my audience. It all paid off in July – with my highest MBA month ever as well as my highest overall month for POD. I netted over $14,000!!
To expand on this a little, I used Printful’s POD fulfillment of those products to test the market. They fulfilled everything quickly and provided great support – and margins on most products made me competitive for on-demand merch. However, the margins suck on the stickers. But I only wanted to test them to see if they would resonate with the audience. Once I found they were selling 1-2 a week I ordered them in bulk from Sticker Mule (affiliate link – you get $10 credit if you use them & I get $10 credit). I think I did a run of 200 initially. By the middle of the summer, I did multiple orders of 2,000 and one 5,000 unit run. At one point I was selling 40 a day with margins of around $3 each (priced at $5.99).
If you see a trend, you need to catch it early and “ride it” while it’s popular. You do that by listening to your audience. Hang out where they hang out and see if you get any ideas from them. I guess this technically works for non-trends as well. Some of my best-selling non-shirt designs came from this method – as well as literally listening to them, when they requested a custom ordered item on Etsy.
Selling on other POD platforms:
It’s worth mentioning again that selling on other platforms should be part of your business strategy. If you were around last year, you’ll know that they shut Merch down in April. If you look at my charts, you’ll also see that I still netted $3K for that month. That’s because I was on other platforms and they were still producing – I still made money. Plus, I get great ideas from having the ability to list other products and target different sections of the audience. I’ve found that each platform caters to a different type of consumer. If you can figure it out, you can tailor your designs for each platform (which also gives you more you can put on MBA – I treat Merch like my catch-all platform).
Not Merch Related
I reached moderate success with my websites:
Some may remember that the whole reason I focused less on Merch in 2019 and 2020 was that I wanted to spend some time on my niche websites. Not much happened in 2019, but in 2020 I decided to focus on them as much as I could – and it seemed to work. I got one site to over $2,500/month during Q4. It has since slowed to about $1,000/month but I’ll keep working it (from $80/month). I also started another 5 sites which I’ll load with some content (50-100 articles) then let them sit and see which one deserves more focus. I’ll probably write some case studies on those in the coming months.
What Didn’t Work for My POD Biz:
Not everything went well in 2020. In fact, the things that went poorly near the end of the year were DISASTROUS to my POD business in 2021. If I’m being honest, the things listed below were extremely demotivating, frustrating, and discouraging. I considered selling the whole business in January because of it. But that seemed too much like quitting… just thinking about them again, in order to write this case study, made me all “hot & bothered”.
Ignoring a “Canary in the Coal Mine”:
Some may know the story of canaries and coal mines… the idea being that old-time miners would often take a caged canary into the mine with them to help preempt and prevent disaster. Gasses would often build up and be released while mining. If the concentration built up enough it would kill the miners. They found that a canary, which was equally sensitive to the gasses, would often go unconscious or die once the gasses reached lethal levels. If they saw the canary die, it would warn them that they needed to get out (or do something else) to save themselves. Basically, a canary in a coal mine is an early warning of impending danger.
I’ll try and give as much detail here as I can without giving too much away regarding my niches and designs… but basically, I tripped on my own feet last year. Two things happened. First, I didn’t heed my own advice and listen to my audience (and the “public”). Second, I ignored something that happened with trademarks that would have saved me tons of heartache, stress and money.
- Failure to listen to the audience: I had a handful of political designs for both “teams”. Looking back, a few of them were in poor taste as they hit the other side pretty hard – but they were selling, and that was what mattered to me. I personally wouldn’t have worn any of them because I don’t care about politics that much and I would be embarrassed to wear something like that on a shirt – but many others liked them, I guess.
Anyway, I started hearing rumblings that they were getting some attention on the interwebs – people didn’t like them. Anytime people don’t like something, you know Amazon will become a target instantly. I should have taken them down, but I liked the money. I left them up until Amazon took them down. I had around 2200 products removed because of this – and black marks on my account. I had time to do it myself but I was too busy shipping out stickers to care (more on that below). Eventually every platform removed the designs (with Printful being the last one, as of a couple of months ago). I guess they were worse than I thought.
- Ignoring NEW Trademarks: This one goes without saying, but I really screwed up. I still think the company in question did a VERY broad over-reach with their trademark enforcement and shouldn’t have been issued the TM for 025 in the first place. But I don’t make the rules.
Anyway, in late August they got their trademark and they went after Redbubble first. I had 10ish designs taken down on Redbubble. It came out of nowhere because I didn’t think this particular company would get a trademark for clothing (because their business isn’t even related to clothing – it’s a service). This was my dead canary. I didn’t pay attention.
Before anyone thinks I create infringing designs, you have to understand the context. The TM was for a common word that is used to describe something in the niche. People use it all the time – because it’s what describes the “thing”. It’s a single word. For example, it would be like the word “uber”. People use this word all the time. Something is “uber-expensive”, “uber-cool” or “uber-lame” – not to mention it’s used all the time in Germany. Then this car-share company comes along and decides they’ll name their company Uber. They get a TM and then go and enforce that TM on all these POD sites for clothing. It’s an over-reach and shouldn’t have been enforced.
Anyway, I didn’t pay attention when my stuff was removed on Redbubble. Actually, I did. My internal conversation went like this: “dang, that’s an over-reach. If they went after RB, they’ll probably go after Merch & Etsy too. I better take my stuff down there too. Whoa, that was a cool video suggestion on YouTube, I think I’m going to watch it…” I didn’t do anything. Had I done something I would have made THOUSANDS of dollars more than I did at the end of the year (and in 2021).
See, the problem with a single word that’s used in the niche is that you use that word to describe stuff in the niche. I had around 10 designs with the word on it. But, I had around 250 DESIGNS in the niche where the word was used in the brand name & in the bullets. It would have been like having a bunch of Germany-related designs in a brand called “Uber Cool Germany Designs”. The brand complained and I had over 5,000 products removed! I would sell 3-5 of them each day (and not even the ones with the word on them). They were some of my best sellers… and I ignored the warnings. I’ve reloaded most of the designs but they sell maybe once a month now. As I type this, I’m still pissed. And because of that I hate the brand and I always bash it on one of my websites that’s in the same niche. Petty, I know.
- This is a strong argument for not using the same brand name for all designs in the same niche.
Merch is VERY Saturated (Chasing Copycats Sucks):
I don’t need to go into this too much, but many of the designs that were removed and selling well had several copycats. Because mine were so old (early 2018) they sold well notwithstanding the copycats. Now they’ve all been replaced by the copycats as the top sellers in the niche. These lazy leeches don’t help the platform and there’s no way it “helps” the consumer to have hundreds of look-a-like designs. I can’t solve the issue, however, so I’ll keep innovating so I can stay ahead of them.
Also, when you find someone who is ripping off your IP, it’s best to go after them. I’ve taken down at least 200 copycat designs of my best seller. If I see them, I report them. But it’s a drag to have to look and takes time that should be focused on creating/uploading.
Dealing with Customers SUCKS & Trends Die:
The trend I chased in 2020 died just before the election. Dealing directly with customers is a headache even in slow times. If you catch a wave you’ll sell a lot of stuff. BUT, if you’re doing direct-to-consumer sales you’ll have to ship the items, deal with customer support (late, lost, damaged shipments) and worry about inventory management. It goes from being a “headache” to being full-time stress. I took multiple vacations last summer (yes, even during the pandemic) and I always had to remember to pack my shipping supplies & tons of inventory. I hate dealing with people… but I LOVE money, so it was a pill I swallowed.
Things that worry me about the Future of POD:
Everyone always worries about a commission change on the affiliate side. But we’ve already experienced 3 (maybe 4) royalty changes on Merch since inception. This is something that worries me a bit – I don’t have control over it, but thinking about it possibly happening reinforces my desire to do something with my account today. (this could come in the form of cost increases due to supply chain impacts or Merch just wanting a bigger cut of the pie).
Changes in Consumer Spending/Recession
Having studied some economics and listening to the talking head pontificate lately, one would assume we’re over-due for a “correction”. If said event occurs, I think novelty shirts will be hit pretty hard. Things went the opposite direction last year but I really think that was mainly due to the stimmies. I noticed an uptick for a few weeks following every disbursement… A broader recession with true inflation would hit everyone – and there probably wouldn’t be a “life preserver” like there was last year.
2021 + Long-Term Goal(s):
For the most part, my plan for 2021 is “more of the same”. I know what got me good results, I just have to do it again. ”Grind” is the word for the year. With that, my goal is pretty simple:
20,000 live designs on Merch by Q4 2022:
To do this I need to average around 400 uploads each month. Yes, it’s that simple… but there’s more:
Project Resurrection Case Study
I’ll be introducing a case study going forward called “Project Resurrection” to document more detail around what I’m doing and to help keep myself motivated & accountable. It’ll be shorter than this update and I’ll try and do it monthly or quarterly going forward. The first of which should be coming next week… maybe. 😊
Unit Sales Through December 2020
Since you can see my monthly numbers for each month through February 2019 in my other updates, I’ve decided to consolidate 2017, 2018 & 2019 on the table below. I’ll show monthly numbers individually for 2020.
|Period||Units Sold||Royalties||Avg. Royalty/Product|
|All of 2017*||1798||$9,058||$5.04|
|All of 2018||7066||$31,421||$4.45|
|All of 2019||8287||$39,381||$4.75|
*Not a full year. March 1st through December 31st, 2017.
** April 2020 MBA was shut down. Sales were all from other platforms.
Lots of pretty images (Sales Data)
That’s it… I tried to condense two full years into one post. It’s too long. But, if you made it this far and you have any questions, just ask.