- Rachel Rofé started selling things on eBay in 1997.
- She eventually came across print-on-demand in 2016 and became a successful seller.
- It's a low-cost way to sell products online because you don't need inventory.
If you've seen an online ad for it, it's possible Rachel Rofé has tried to sell it.
Since 1997, Rofé has dabbled with ways to make money online. Her early days consisted of scouring thrift shops for luxury brands she could sell on eBay.
In 1999, she joined the workforce as a cashier at Walmart where she eventually became an assistant manager before moving to Target. In the meantime, she was also taking business administration classes from Bucks County Community College and online courses at Drexel University.
“It was just lots of hours,” Rofé said of the experience that made her realize she couldn't do this for the rest of her life.
By 2006, she came across affiliate marketing, a process through which you can earn commission by promoting products or services that are sold through your links. She had purchased an ebook about how to make money online and then realized it had an affiliate link she could promote. She began pushing its affiliate link on Craigslist across numerous cities. At one point, making $500 to $800 a day over a few months. She was reposting the affiliate link every hour across the different cities Craigslist had pages for.
But eventually, the platform placed spam filters restricting her from posting the same ad multiple times. Her ability to promote the link ran thin.
She then began to think of things she could sell online. She created ebooks about things like baby shower favors and even started an online weight loss membership program after she had lost 100 pounds herself.
To attract traffic, Rofé would post her offerings on ClickBank, an affiliate link marketplace where others could promote her products. At one point, she even purchased misspellings of well-known domain names for similar products that would send those who clicked to her products. The process, known as typosquatting, was short-lived because her affiliate links would be deactivated or she would receive emails from the brands to desist.
In 2014, she tried another method: hiring ghostwriters who were knowledgeable about certain topics to write ebooks on things like meditation techniques, Candida recipes, or even how to be a psychic. She posted these on Kindle. But by 2016, that income stream was also beginning to run thin as the platform became more populated with books.
Finding something that stuck
It was around this time that she began dabbling with print-on-demand products.
“I had an ex-boyfriend at the time who had a pit bull fan page, like for dogs. He had a mug that he sold on his fan page and it did really well,” Rofé said. “And because I was already experienced with Amazon, I was like, let me throw this mug up on Amazon and see what happens. And it started making a few hundred dollars a month really fast.”
As orders continued to come in, Rofé put more things on mugs like other dog breeds or quotes. She was manually fulfilling orders by copying and pasting customers' information to a print-on-demand provider and then sharing the shipping information on Amazon. Her sister had a small mug press and would also fill some of the orders.
Overall, Rofé refers to the years between 2006 and 2016 as a period of feast and famine, some months she made a lot of money, and other months she made next to nothing.
“I remember one month I went to Paris and I didn't work at all and I made $88,000 that month from just sales and other things like courses that I already had out. And then there were months where just nothing, it was just completely inconsistent,” Rofé said.
Rofé attributes this mainly to a lack of consistency on her part. Oftentimes, she would wait until the last minute, when she needed more money to put her efforts back into advertising her products. To make up for it, she would occasionally work as a freelance copywriter.
Among all her endeavors, print-on-demand was the one that stuck for Rofé because she could continue to add products without restocking anything.
By 2016, her print-on-demand business took off and her profits continued to grow into a sustainable income. Out of a small rented store, Rofé began her print-on-demand company called CustomHappy. She stocked it with about 20 hobbyist mug press machines that cost about $260 each, similar to that of her sister. Within a few months, orders began to take off. The demand was strong from others who were also offering print-on-demand products. Rofé also had a head start because she'd spent the prior few years growing an online following.
“When I was selling Kindle books, I also taught people how to do Kindle books too. And so I had an audience. And then I stopped teaching it because I wasn't making money from it anymore,” Rofé said. “So it didn't feel in integrity anymore to sell it. But I did start making money with the mugs, so I started teaching people how to do it.”
She recalled having an email list of about 20,000 people. Her boyfriend at the time also had a print-on-demand business and began diverting customers to her company, she added. A few months in and Rofé had to move her small business into a 25,000-square-foot warehouse and upgraded to industrial-grade press machines.
Rofé continues to sell her print-on-demand products on Amazon, Etsy, and eBay. She still runs her print-on-demand fulfillment center, CustomHappy. And, she has an online course that teaches the business model.
Between 2020 to 2022, Rofé had gross profits of $5.9 million and a net profit of $1.7 million, according to profit and loss statements viewed by Insider. She estimates that about 30% of the revenue came from selling her print-on-demand products. Her largest expense for this category was the cost of products and shipping, which accounted for about 45%. Rofé gets a 17% discount from her fulfillment company for product costs but not shipping.
Income from affiliate marketing made up about 20% of her revenue, while her online courses, coaching, and software support tools for print-on-demand made up the rest of her revenues. Her largest expense for this category was labor costs.
Top 5 tips
Print-on-demand isn't a breezy process. Rofé went into it with the mindset that 98% of the products she lists won't sell, and they didn't. The upside was that she doesn't need to spend money on inventory.
On the other end, the profit margins aren't as wide because the cost to print each product is higher than holding bulk inventory. For example, the cost to fulfill an order for an 11 oz custom mug through CustomHappy is about $5.75. Shipping could be about $5.95 for addresses within the US. Altogether, the cost of producing a custom mug is about $11.70 before adding on a profit margin.
The healthiest approach is to look at it like a numbers game without expecting to make it big on the products you're listing. Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, she said. Experiment with new designs and products often. Some won't sell, while some could hit big. It doesn't cost to add a new listing on Amazon. However, on Etsy, it's $0.20 a listing, she noted.
For example, Rofé created a mug with a funny quote,
“Dear mom, thanks for being my mom. If I had a different mom, I would punch her in the face and go find you.”
As it grew in popularity and began to sell, she wrote different variations of it for papa, brother, and sister. To date, this category has earned her $414,841 in revenue, according to a screenshot of her InventoryLab sales page.
Customers won't pay $20 for a general mug when there are mugs as low as $6 selling on Amazon. Therefore, to compete at that price, you need to hit a winning niche by targeting people that are passionate about something. They will be happier to pay more to get exactly what they want, she said. Examples of that are dog breeds or basketball moms, she added.
“My sister, she loves penguins and I went into her room. I was like, how many things of penguins do you think you have here? We counted, she had 24 different pieces of penguin merchandise,” Rofé said.
While you want your designs to hit niches, you also don't want to be overly specific when doing it. Simple sketches and even black text on a white mug do really well, she noted. Many people make the mistake of over designing a product, which could cause you to lose sales.
“They might make a pit bull dog with blue eyes and then a customer will look and say, well, my pit bull doesn't have blue eyes, and then they won't purchase it,” Rofé said.
Once you get good at understanding what sells and what doesn't, you can take shortcuts to reduce some of your costs. A big one is shipping, which you could pass on to the customer, Rofé noted. But it could hurt your sales.
Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) is an option that can reduce shipping costs. But you don't want to stock up on inventory that won't sell. This is why Rofé doesn't recommend using FBA in the beginning. However, once you have a product that has been consistently selling, it's a great option.
If a design does well, get it on different types of products such as hoodies or pillows. You just never know what would do even better.
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