From prints and phone cases to t-shirts and mugs, there's a huge online market for design-led wares, and a growing choice of virtual marketplaces in which to set up shop. If you want to make money working from home by creating and selling your own products like vintage posters or doodle art, it's important to make an informed decision about where to list them.
Start with your target audience in mind. "Think about who your customer is," says Susannah Bradley, community programmes manager at Etsy. "Knowing what they like can guide a lot of decisions when creating your online business."
So how do you ensure you're selling where potential customers are looking? Many market places claim impressive traffic statistics (although some, such as print-on- demand sites, tend to keep these under wraps), but visitor hits won't tell you what's actually making money.
Look for products similar to the ones you want to sell to find out what's on offer already and for how much. Don't just look on the websites themselves – search on social media to see what people are buying and from where. Hashtags like #bought can be handy for this.
It would make life easy if there was one stand-out site for each type of merchandise, such as a single top marketplace for phone cases. In reality, you'd be hard-pushed to find a piece of merchandise that isn't available almost everywhere, so your decision needs to be based on more subtle factors.
Take a look at other sellers with similar products on offer. Does their aesthetic sit well with yours? How easy is it to see and search for those products? Does the marketplace have established keywords or categories that will help customers find your listings? Are there any free features – such as Etsy's Treasury lists – that can help you promote your wares?
It's also important to understand that different marketplace sites work in different ways, giving you more or less of a hand in the overall process.
Do you want to make and ship your own products, using a virtual shop front simply for greater exposure, meaning you take care of production, presentation and shipping? Or do you just want to create designs and have someone else do the rest, giving you less responsibility but also less control over the entire process?
If you're making your own products, look to sites like Etsy and Folksy. These act as virtual retail spaces, so you can move in, open a shop and sell your own wares. In contrast, print-on-demand sites like Zazzle, Redbubble and Society6 will apply your designs to a wide range of products (though it's worth noting that you keep your copyright), which means you can potentially sell a much greater variety of merchandise.
Then there's the question of fees, which is likely to be one of the biggest deciding factors. How much will it cost to open a shop and sell your wares? Working this out isn't always straightforward, as different sites charge different types of fees, but the first thing to consider is whether there's a charge for joining. Can you open a shop for free or do you have to pay a fee – probably non-refundable – up front?
Joining fees can be a one-off payment, or they can be monthly or yearly. For example, Folksy Plus costs £45 a year, BOUF membership starts from £9.99 a month, and Not On The High Street.com charges sellers a one-off joining fee of £199.
Don't be discouraged automatically if there's an initial charge for membership – it's important to weigh this against any other charges you may incur (such as listing fees and sales commission), and to consider how many items you'll need to sell before you start to make a profit.
Listing fees tend to be low. Etsy is free to join with a charge of 14p per listing. If you're a Basic (free) member of Folksy, listings cost 15p plus VAT, so you'd need to sell around 20 items a month to justify upgrading to the £45-a-year Plus option.
Not On The High Street.com allows unlimited free listings once you've paid the joining fee. It also takes a comparatively large cut (25 per cent of sales, compared to Etsy's 3.5 per cent), but items often sell at prices that are closer to high-street retail.
Print-on-demand sites don't charge for listings, but will deduct a standard charge (set for each individual product such as T-shirts or stickers) to cover things like manufacturing and shipping.
Read any terms and conditions carefully because there may be other charges involved too, such as payment processing fees, which are applicable if you sell using Etsy's Direct Checkout feature, and currency conversion charges. Watch out for refund charges too – for example, if a customer returns a product to notonthehighstreet.com, the site keeps 2.5 per cent of the amount refunded.
Then there's the question of when you'll receive your money. Will you be paid instantly when an item sells, or as part of a monthly pay run? If there's a set pay day, is there a minimum earning threshold or will you get whatever you've earned, no matter how much?
Sellers on Etsy or Folksy are paid directly by buyers, whereas Society6 and Redbubble pay once a month – and while Society6 has no minimum, you'll need to earn £13 from Redbubble to be eligible for payment via PayPal.
It's also worth exploring what promotional options each site offers, and whether they might be a good way to boost your exposure. Most marketplaces highlight a selection of products on blogs and social media each day, but what other opportunities are there?
For example, Society6 members can submit designs to zines and calendars, while Etsy and notonthehighstreet.com both offer wedding registry services, providing extra opportunities if you have something relevant to promote.
Look at the community support offered to sellers, too, through online forums or real-life events. Susannah Bradley notes that Etsy has a very active and supportive seller community. "We've got many groups of local sellers all over the UK that host their own meetings and workshops," she says. Her advice to prospective sellers? "Just give it a go!"
This article was originally published in Computer Arts magazine issue 272.