Start a custom prints business by following these 10 steps:
You have found the perfect business idea, and now you are ready to take the next step. There is more to starting a business than just registering it with the state. We have put together this simple guide to starting your custom prints business. These steps will ensure that your new business is well planned out, registered properly and legally compliant.
Check out our How to Start a Business page.
STEP 1: Plan your business
A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. It will help you map out the specifics of your business and discover some unknowns. A few important topics to consider are:
- What are the startup and ongoing costs?
- Who is your target market?
- How much can you charge customers?
- What will you name your business?
Luckily we have done a lot of this research for you.
What are the costs involved in opening a custom prints business?
The costs involved in opening this business varies by how many things you want to specialize in. For instance, one entrepreneur started a business focusing only on custom-printed t-shirts. He used existing apps and web services to help print and ship (such as Printful) his t-shirts. This allowed him to build the cost of new orders into the t-shirts themselves and functionally launch a small business for under $500, with $16 going towards paying for a font on the site, $8 paying for a t-shirt mockup, and the rest going towards the actual printing of shirts.
In the long run, though, you'll probably want to own your equipment. It is possible to purchase small business screen printing packages, for instance, for less than $7,000. This includes necessary equipment such as the printer, flash cure unit, dryer, vacuum exposure unit, and assorted supplies such as ink, screens, coater, adhesive, temperature gun, and so on. For printing business cards, you can start out for under $2,000, as this primarily requires a high-quality color printer, good card stock, and programs such as Microsoft Publisher. As everything can be done from home, there is no overhead involving buying or leasing separate business space.
What are the ongoing expenses for a custom prints business?
The ongoing expenses of this business are effectively non-existent in the sense that they are built into your prices. For instance, you will periodically need to buy more ink, adhesive, screens, paper, and so on. However, you should price your wares so that when you do buy more supplies (and only when you run out or are close to running out), you will always have adequate funding to do so based on the previous sales.
Who is the target market?
Your preferred clients may vary depending on whether you want to specialize in a particular printing service or not. Generally, though, business people will be your preferred clients because they are likeliest to become steady clients, needing to periodically get more of their original business card designs, to change cards as their employers and information change, etc. Thus, while you would make more per t-shirt than per business card, those buying things like t-shirts are less likely to become repeat customers over the years.
How does a custom prints business make money?
A custom print business takes customer requests and charges money to print customized words and graphics onto different kinds of items.
How much can you charge customers?
How much you charge is typically rooted in how much a customer orders and how complex an order is. For instance, you might charge nearly $8 per shirt for 20-60 one-color t-shirts, but that price might go down to just under $6 a shirt if they order a $1,000. You may consider charging something like an extra twenty-five cents per shirt per extra color that is added. You should also consider charging approximately $2 extra per shirt if they want a double-sided design. You may also consider adding a one-time (per design) setup fee for every color added that ranges between $10 to $15.
For business cards, you may consider charging $3 to $5 for 25 single-sided cards with a basic matte coating and premium material. That price may jump to $35-$50 for ordering over 2,000 cards. If the cards are printed on color filled premium paper, you can charge between $7 to $9 for 25 of them, and a similar price range if the customer wants the cards printed on thicker, card stock material.
How much profit can a custom prints business make?
Obviously, the exact amount of profit that you earn is based on how many sales you make. One screenprinting expert estimates it is possible for this job to net above $100,000 in profits, but this is contingent on having numerous bulk orders (typically for companies and organizations). Realistically, you may need to diversify your printing services and create some dedicated sideline businesses online in order to reach six figures.
How can you make your business more profitable?
One way to be more profitable is to find a niche. To be honest, the market is flooded with t-shirts, so if you can find an area of fandom or pop culture that is underrepresented (or not represented at all), you can effectively corner that market. Also, try to meet people in person whenever possible. It can be easy for a work at home business to feel very isolated, but having face-to-face meetings with prospective clients can help you via traditional networking that leads to long-term business. Finally, don't underestimate the power of contests. Having online drawings or contests for small orders of t-shirts or business cards helps to build public excitement for your product at a low cost to you, which is great for advertising and public relations.
What will you name your business?
Choosing the right name is important and challenging. If you don’t already have a name in mind, visit our How to Name a Business guide or get help brainstorming a name with our Custom Prints Business Name Generator
When registering a business name, we recommend researching your business name by checking:
- Your state's business records
- Federal and state trademark records
- Social media platforms
- Web domain availability.
It's very important to secure your domain name before someone else does.
STEP 2: Form a legal entity
Establishing a legal business entity such as an LLC or corporation protects you from being held personally liable if your custom prints business is sued.
Form Your LLC
Read our Guide to Form Your Own LLC
Recommended: You will need to elect a registered agent for your LLC. LLC formation packages usually include a free year of registered agent services. You can choose to hire a registered agent or act as your own.
STEP 3: Register for taxes
You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
In order to register for taxes you will need to apply for an EIN. It's really easy and free!
You can acquire your EIN for free through the IRS website, via fax, or by mail. If you would like to learn more about EINs and how they can benefit your LLC, read our article, What is an EIN?.
Small Business Taxes
Depending on which business structure you choose, you might have different options for how your business will be taxed. For example, some LLCs could benefit from being taxed as an S corporation (S corp).
You can learn more about small business taxes in these guides:
There are specific state taxes that might apply to your business. Learn more about state sales tax and franchise taxes in our state sales tax guides.
STEP 4: Open a business bank account & credit card
Using dedicated business banking and credit accounts is essential for personal asset protection.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your business is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Additionally, learning how to build business credit can help you get credit cards and other financing in your business's name (instead of yours), better interest rates, higher lines of credit, and more.
Open a business bank account
- This separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- It also makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Recommended: Read our Best Banks for Small Business review to find the best national bank, credit union, business-loan friendly banks, one with many brick-and-mortar locations, and more.
Open net-30 accounts
When it comes to establishing your business credit, net-30 vendors are considered the way to go. The term "net-30," which is popular among vendors, refers to a business credit arrangement where the company pays the vendor within 30 days of receiving goods or services.
Net-30 credit terms are often used for businesses that need to obtain inventory quickly but do not have the cash on hand.
Besides establishing business relationships with vendors, net-30 credit accounts get reported to the major business credit bureaus (Dun & Bradstreet, Experian Business, and Equifax Business Credit). This is how businesses build business credit so they can qualify for credit cards and other lines of credit.
Recommended: Read our guide on the best net-30 vendors so you can start building business credit now, so you never have to worry about cash flow in the future. Keep in mind that poor cash flow is the #1 reason businesses fail!
Get a business credit card
- This helps you separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- It also builds your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money and investment later on.
STEP 5: Set up business accounting
Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
STEP 6: Obtain necessary permits and licenses
Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a Custom Print business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, read our article, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply. For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office.
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Certificate of Occupancy
A custom prints business is generally run out of a storefront. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a custom prints business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your custom prints business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
STEP 7: Get business insurance
Just as with licenses and permits, your business needs insurance in order to operate safely and lawfully. Business Insurance protects your company’s financial wellbeing in the event of a covered loss.
There are several types of insurance policies created for different types of businesses with different risks. If you’re unsure of the types of risks that your business may face, begin with General Liability Insurance. This is the most common coverage that small businesses need, so it’s a great place to start for your business.
Learn more about General Liability Insurance.
Another notable insurance policy that many businesses need is Workers’ Compensation Insurance. If your business will have employees, it’s a good chance that your state will require you to carry Workers' Compensation Coverage.
STEP 8: Define your brand
Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
If you aren't feeling confident about designing your small business logo, then check out our Design Guides for Beginners, we'll give you helpful tips and advice for creating the best unique logo for your business.
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How to promote & market a custom prints business
The best ways to promote your business will be online. If you have the budget, it may not hurt to advertise via traditional local means such as newspapers or radio. However, your business will be online, and that's where most customers will find you. Make sure you have a professional-looking website and a social media presence, which will allow customers to reach out to you and allow you to show off how good your finished work looks.
How to keep customers coming back
In addition to the marketing ideas above, don't be afraid to approach various businesses, schools, and organizations in your area. You can market yourself as an affordable way for them to have custom t-shirts that build team spirit and promote synergy and unity. To sell business card services, make sure you approach new businesses as they open; with luck, their success will be your success, and they will become lifelong customers.
STEP 9: Create your business website
After defining your brand and creating your logo the next step is to create a website for your business.
While creating a website is an essential step, some may fear that it’s out of their reach because they don’t have any website-building experience. While this may have been a reasonable fear back in 2015, web technology has seen huge advancements in the past few years that makes the lives of small business owners much simpler.
Here are the main reasons why you shouldn’t delay building your website:
- All legitimate businesses have websites - full stop. The size or industry of your business does not matter when it comes to getting your business online.
- Social media accounts like Facebook pages or LinkedIn business profiles are not a replacement for a business website that you own.
- Website builder tools like the GoDaddy Website Builder have made creating a basic website extremely simple. You don’t need to hire a web developer or designer to create a website that you can be proud of.
Using our website building guides, the process will be simple and painless and shouldn’t take you any longer than 2-3 hours to complete.
STEP 10: Set up your business phone system
Getting a phone set up for your business is one of the best ways to help keep your personal life and business life separate and private. That’s not the only benefit; it also helps you make your business more automated, gives your business legitimacy, and makes it easier for potential customers to find and contact you.
There are many services available to entrepreneurs who want to set up a business phone system. We’ve reviewed the top companies and rated them based on price, features, and ease of use.
Recommended: Find the best phone system for your business; check out our review of the Best Business Phone Systems 2021.
Start A Custom Prints Business In Your State
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Is this Business Right For You?
This job is ideal for someone who is good with both technology and people. It is necessary to be good with technology because you must know your way around the hardware and software necessary to print onto a variety of different surfaces. You must be good with people because your clientele is potentially very diverse—the professional who needs new business cards may be very different from the college student who wants to order an ironic t-shirt.
Want to know if you are cut out to be an entrepreneur?
Take our Entrepreneurship Quiz to find out!
What happens during a typical day at a custom prints business?
In no particular order, your daily activities may include corresponding with existing customers, reaching out to potential customers, and managing your advertising (including a web page and social media presence). You may periodically clean and perform maintenance on your equipment and, in rare cases, order new equipment and new parts. Most of any given day will include creating your custom printed items and then shipping them to your customers.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful custom prints business?
Prior training and experience with things like art and design can be a major help, as it may give you familiarity with the hardware and software you'll be using as well as prepare you to help clients with their various requests. Any direct experience you have in designing and printing things like shirts, prints, and cards is helpful for the same reasons.
What is the growth potential for a custom prints business?
There is good growth potential for this business because you can start small and build your way up. For instance, you may start out only printing on certain items, and once you have become successful in that, you can branch out to other printing services. Since you will already have the equipment, you can also sell your own custom-designed shirts and prints through venues such as Etsy, offering you a different revenue stream.
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Take the Next Step
Find a business mentor
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Resources to Help Women in Business
There are many resources out there specifically for women entrepreneurs. We’ve gathered necessary and useful information to help you succeed both professionally and personally:
If you’re a woman looking for some guidance in entrepreneurship, check out this great new series Women in Business created by the women of our partner Startup Savant.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a custom prints business?
While it is possible for your business to grow and supply different printing needs, it is good to start out by focusing on a single, specific need. Also, consider your market: this is one business where you may find more success marketing yourself as an affordable local business rather than a major national business. For selling t-shirts, don't forget to use your website and social media to showcase how the shirts actually look (as opposed to just showing template designs online).
How and when to build a team
In all honesty, this business will probably never require a team. It is typically run out of your own home, which is where you will be keeping your equipment in order to keep costs down. If business gets to the point where you cannot handle all of the orders on your own, you may consider taking on a family member or close associate as a partner; this can be particularly useful in shipping or delivering everything to its recipients.