In case you’ve arrived at this article not knowing anything about me or not having read my About Me page, it would probably help to let you know who I am and why I’m writing this! My name is Haley Hylia and I’m a digital artist who has been selling art online in one form or another since 2013. In that time, I’ve tried numerous different websites, promotional techniques, and other methods to get my works out there as best as I can. A lot has changed for me since 2013, though, and my business as an artist has evolved into something very different from where I started. It was a scary step at first to put my art out there but I’m so glad I did it!
I initially began in 2013 selling designs via print-on-demand websites before taking the plunge into in-person media conventions selling my own prints/merchandise in 2019. Since then, I’ve been exclusively handling my own products and doing all shipping/customer service, promotion, and inventory management by myself as a registered business. It’s been a lot of work but incredibly worthwhile, both for my art, confidence, and finances. While I could certainly be doing plenty more to advertise myself and my products, I’m happy with a more casual/part-time approach to selling my art right now and am very satisfied with what my level of effort gives me!
So you wanna start selling your art, too?
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of fellow artists/crafters/creatives pondering whether to make the leap into online sales. It can be overwhelming and the logistics of “How the heck am I going to do this?” frequently pushes people away from ever trying at all. I’m a big believer in giving things a go, even if it doesn’t work out for you in the end. It’s a great learning experience and will definitely help you grow as a creator as well as a budding businessperson!
For that very reason, I’ve made this beginners guide to give the advice I wish I’d been given to anyone looking to start selling their art online. I was so busy thinking about profitability, how much money I could make, and how best to formulate my brand that I didn’t stop to really ask the right questions. I hope that passing on what I’ve learned over the last decade (whoaaa) can assist someone else and help them begin their journey on the right foot! I’m happy to answer additional questions so please don’t hesitate to ask! Keep in mind that this document is based on my own experience and what I’ve done may not work exactly the same for someone else. This guide isn’t about telling you the rules: it’s just an outline that can hopefully help you out!
The very first question you need to ask yourself…
…might be different than what you initially think. Regardless of who you are and what you make, the #1 question you need to pose to yourself is this:
How much time and effort am I willing to put into selling online right now?
However you answer this one basic question is going to outline how you begin your online sales journey. Sure, you might hope to make your creative endeavour and selling your wares a full-time gig one day (don’t we all!), but you’ve gotta start somewhere and that somewhere? Is right now. So how much time and effort are you able to give? A lot of time, every single day? A few hours every so often? Maybe only a couple of hours over the weekend? Don’t worry if you can’t come up with an exact figure. What matters is looking at your current schedule/commitments (work, family, friends, hobbies, etc) as well as your life in general and determining how you want selling your wares to fit into it all.
You might have a lot of time on your hands at the moment but just aren’t that into spending full-time hours setting up a storefront, making products, and promoting yourself. That’s OK! Similarly, you might be very motivated but work full-time and have three kids, so you don’t have a lot of physical time to dedicate elsewhere. You can work with that, too! All of this is important to know and weigh up before taking any step forward.
This is also a time to be very honest. If you over-commit, you might make things harder for yourself than they should be. Start small: you can always put more effort in later and scale up as required! Don’t set huge expectations for yourself right away. For right now? You’re just starting out and putting your big toe in the water, so to speak.
Passive sales vs active sales – which is better for you?
After you’ve got a rough idea in your head of how much time and effort you’d like to put into selling your stuff online, you can look at which method(s) are going to suit your needs and wants best. Thanks to the internet and a myriad of online sales platform websites, there are quite a few options out there to choose from. One of the most basic traits these sales websites have, though, is whether they require you to be more passive or active in the sales process.
A passive sales website is one that typically manufactures the product for you, handles all stock, shipping, returns, and customer service. They are usually print-on-demand and will give you a small flat rate or percentage of the sales price, per item. Examples of passive sales websites include: Printful, RedBubble, Society6, TeePublic, etc.
An active sales website is one that typically requires you to organise manufacturing of your product, keep inventory, handle shipping/returns, and handle customer service. It may cost you a small fee per sale or per month but you keep the majority of the money. Examples of active websites include: Etsy, Shopify, or your own independent website.
Example pros and cons of passive sales websites include:
- PRO: You don’t have to deal with keeping stock/inventory
- PRO: You can upload one design and turn it into a whole bunch of different products with ease
- PRO: You never have to deal with manufacturers, shipping, returns, or customers
- PRO: You need 0 website know-how and don’t need to buy a domain/hosting
- PRO: Frequently no upfront costs so you can start selling right away & zero financial risk to you
- CON: You have zero control over the end product that is manufactured – you’ll never see it!
- CON: Your product might not be as unique as many others are making the same products
- CON: Your competition is always right there next to you, possibly offering a similar product for less on the same website
- CON: You only make a small percentage or flat rate per sale, potentially cents at a time
- CON: You may not have much control over your shop’s appearance, branding, graphics, etc
Example pros and cons of active sales websites include:
- PRO: You have 100% control over your product, how it’s made, and if you like the end result before you sell it
- PRO: You will be able to personalise what you offer, control your branding/packaging, and tailor your product to your customers
- PRO: You determine your prices, profit models, special offers, and shipping charges
- PRO: Typically you can customise your shop much more, especially if you have your own website – the sky’s the limit!
- PRO: You generally make much more profit per sale as there is no middle man to pay!
- CON: You are responsible for pretty much everything and this might be too much for a lot of people
- CON: Driving traffic to your shop could be more difficult, especially if you have you own website
- CON: You will have to invest money upfront to make products to sell
- CON: Making your own products, managing stock, balancing expenses, etc takes a lot of time and effort
- CON: If you don’t know much about accounting & budgeting, you might end up losing money
Both passive and active shop platforms have pros and cons that work for some people and not others. You might like the idea of having more control of your products and making more money from them, but you just don’t have the time or resource to put into that right now. Similarly, you might really hate the idea of only making a small commission off of your designs via a huge publisher website. Explore what you really like or dislike about the idea of selling your goods. Check out other shops and see what appeals to you about them!
Set realistic expectations for yourself
Contrary to what click bait posts on the internet say, you can’t just earn a four-figure salary at home by sitting around doing nothing. Whether you use a passive or active sales platform won’t change the fact that a fair bit of effort will be required from you to have it be successful. Some people make quite a lot off of print-on-demand websites because they have driven traffic to their shops on their own. But that still takes a lot of time and effort from you as the artist. The same can be said for active sales sites where you have to supply the stock. Of course, you could do the bare minimum in either situation: it’s really about what you want to put in.
If you don’t want to put in much, you probably won’t get much in return.
I started out on passive print-on-demand websites like RedBubble and Society6 uploading my designs and receiving anywhere from 10%-20% commission from each sale. At the time, this was a great method for me as a beginner. I didn’t have much money to invest in making product nor did I have the space/know-how to manage keeping track of physical stock stored somewhere. I also wasn’t looking to make a huge amount of money, but I had a lot of spare time to help promote myself and my shops. This was a really good combo and a solid starting place that I would recommend for pretty much anyone looking to get into selling their art for the first time.
Though I dedicated a lot of hours every week to networking online and promoting my art/shops, I didn’t have to do this – and neither do you. When my life got busier, I stopped being so active with promotion and that was OK! I still got sales through customers searching the website platforms (I used RedBubble and Society6) and people seeing old things I’d posted elsewhere online. Spending the time promoting my shop was worth it, though, and my sales were way higher when I did vs when I didn’t. I always kept a realistic expectation of it, so when my sales were low because I wasn’t actively putting my art out there, I wasn’t upset.
Dream big, but start small
I encourage you wholeheartedly to dream big, brainstorm ideas, and set long-term goals! When just starting out, though, it’s definitely better to start small and grow from there – especially if you decide to go the active sales path.
Depending on what you sell, maybe it’s better to only offer one kind of product to begin with. See how it goes, what customers think, and build up some data on what works vs what doesn’t. It might be a goal to have your own .com website one day wholly dedicated to you and your brand. Before you jump in and buy that .com, the web hosting, and paid promotions, maybe start on a shopping platform site that takes care of a lot of it for you to see what happens.
You can always revamp graphics/branding, add more product, and generally expand as you grow and succeed! It’s also a lot more cost effective if you’re having to invest in startup expenses. It’s totally OK to start out small. You don’t need a domain to get started. You don’t need the coolest graphics/packaging in the whole world, either. Your customers care about your product much more than any of that other stuff! Put your focus into making sure your product(s) are quality and that will carry you a long way.
Always remember that money isn’t the most important thing
I talk to a lot of creatives who want to sell online because they have $$$ in their eyes. They’ve seen other people who supposedly make huge sums and they actively compare themselves to other already successful artists/shops. I can say without hesitation that this is definitely not the right attitude or goal to have when starting to sell your art. If money is your biggest or only goal? You’re setting yourself up for disappointment from your very first step.
Selling online takes time and effort (I’ve said that before, right?). Even artists who have had a design go viral haven’t necessarily made huge profits from the popularity; translating views of your work into genuine sales of a product is a whole other monster. If you’re focused intensely on making $$$, the slow crawl at the start will probably be quite frustrating. You might find yourself wanting to spend money on excessive amounts of paid ads or other promotions, but this will only push your profits further out of reach. Paid ads and promos have their place in a well-rounded business plan, but buying them out of impatience or frustration never pays off how you want it to.
Sometimes people start out with good intentions, selling their art simply as a side thing to see what happens but end up obsessed with the money making side – only to get severely burned out later on. This is very much what happened to me. I never intended or dreamed of it becoming more of a full time thing, but eventually my sales and popularity grew to the point that it was. I became fixated on thoughts like, “What art can I make that will sell well?” or “How can I make this design into other products?” or “Is my art relevant enough to be profitable?” and so on. Art and the creation of it became entirely based on how profitable the final design might be. Needless to say, this path almost totally killed my love for art and grew a disdain for selling online that literally took me years to get over.
My creative side was scarred […] and I needed to do some serious “soul searching” to get back into art once again. That took me about four years.
After only two years of selling through print-on-demand websites, I walked away and stopped making art. I made several thousand dollars in that time (a fair amount considering I got around 18% commission for each sale) and was able to buy myself a brand new laptop and airplane tickets to move to another country! It changed my life, in good ways and bad. My creative side was scarred from the obsession with money that evolved along the way and I needed to do some serious “soul searching” to get back into art once again. That took me about four years.
Once I rediscovered my creative passion, I went in an entirely different direction both with my art and selling online. It took me a lot of work to resist falling into the downward spiral of money making obsession (and still does sometimes), but I’ve managed to stay above it. It was an intensely powerful learning experience but one that really set me back and was generally soul crushing! If I can help anyone else avoid it by sharing what happened to me, I always try to do so.
Don’t let profit be the measure of your art’s worth
It can be a struggle to balance profitability with enjoyment when you’re an artist selling your work. Art and creation make us who we are, so selling our pieces can be a very vulnerable thing. If it’s not successful, we can take it very personally. It’s too easy to become obsessed with monetary success as a way of validating that our art is good.
This is a trap all too many artists fall into, whether they sell things strictly online or in-person. Similarly, a lot of artists say: “My art isn’t good enough for someone to buy, so I won’t try to sell it!” Before they’ve even tried to sell a piece, they’ve already deemed their work not good enough strictly by a monetary measurement. But that isn’t true!
You can’t let economics dictate how you feel about your own art, talent, and creativity.
Your art is worth making! Creating art wholly for personal enjoyment and growth is worth doing. Making art that you’re never going to sell is worth doing. Money and how much a stranger might be willing to pay for your art isn’t what makes your art good or worthwhile. Lots of terrible products gets made and purchased every day – that doesn’t make them innately good. Sometimes what it means is that consumers can be really stupid!
You can’t let economics dictate how you feel about your own art, talent, and creativity. They are truly incompatible and should be kept separate at all times, even when selling your art somehow. It might sound paradoxical to do that, but it’s necessary to ensure you protect your creative side. Don’t blame your art for low sales. Don’t blame your artistic skill for not making millions. There are so many facets and so many things that go into making a successful business model or product that have nothing to do with what it even looks like. You have to keep all that in mind and above all else? Give value to your art entirely by yourself. Enjoy making it. Enjoy looking at it. Enjoying sharing it with others somehow completely free of charge. Keep your artistic love alive no matter what, even if it means walking away from sales altogether.
Share your experiences, tips, and tricks with others
If you’ve already taken the plunge into online sales, I’d encourage you to share your knowledge and experiences with others! It’s incredibly helpful, even if you think yours is a rather niche scenario. You might be surprised to find someone else out there is in a very similar situation and could use some guidance in the form of your story! Whether it’s through social media, your shop itself, commenting on this post, or somewhere else, please share what you’ve learned – both good and bad – with others to help them make informed choices about their own sales journey. Someone might thank you one day! I hope my own info could be of some help to someone – if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to post a comment and ask!
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