I receive this question occasionally at Websticker (sticker designers & printing) and I’m happy to try and help in any way I can to offer guidance. A better question might be “should I start a sticker business?” I’m sure a whole book could be written on this subject but for purposes of this blog article I’ll try to summarize some things to consider and questions to ask your self before jumping into the sticker business.
What type of sticker business are you considering?
There are several options. Are you looking to design and create some stock sticker designs that you can sell in stores, specialty shows or online? This is often what people envision when they ask about starting a “bumper sticker business”. They have a great idea for a sticker or a series of stickers and they want to sell them. An offshoot of this is people looking to start a “vinyl sticker business” – which usually implies vinyl cut decal designs cut on a plotter.
The second type of sticker business would be producing or selling custom stickers to other businesses and individuals, this is what we do at Websticker. The ideas and the distribution responsibility aren’t your own, you are just the manufacturer, middleman or perhaps the designer for the product. I’m not going to focus on this type of custom sticker business in this article (perhaps in another).
I have owned Freely Creative, Inc. for over 25 years and though we mainly fall into the custom sticker printing side of the sticker business we have also dabbled a bit in the selling of specific stock sticker products. We have also helped hundreds of companies and individuals create customized sticker sheets and products that that they then sell at a profit.
How much time can you devote to your sticker business?
How serious are you about starting this business? Is it a project you are thinking of doing on the side of other work, or are you looking to make a living and work it full time? Either way businesses are not easy to start, market or grow. And the sticker business, though it may sound fun, shares all the struggles other businesses face with marketing, distribution, competition and profitability.
As with any business passion is a necessity. The brand “Salt Life” was started by two entrepreneurs who loved everything about the ocean lifestyle and had “Salt Life” tattooed on their necks. This led to stickers, then clothing and on to more branded products that are now in over 600 retailers nationwide. So, yes, a sticker idea can take off but it needs a lot of passion, hard work and dedication to grow and succeed.
Should you buy equipment or outsource production?
You can buy special papers and print pre-die-cut labels right out of any basic printer, but, I don’t recommend it. Most people envision a sticker business as producing or selling quality stickers that are outdoor durable. While you could make stickers as a hobby and use special papers and protective sprays, to survive as a legitimate business, higher quality products are essential.
You could probably find used vinyl plotters for a couple hundred dollars and new and better printers and plotters on up into the thousands. For a good digital print-and-cut system you are looking at over $10,000. Commercial printing presses can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, I am not an equipment seller and unlike those dealers I would not recommend buying equipment at all.
It is easy to test the viability of your sticker idea and get started without investing in any equipment. So, why risk it? Why not produce your ideas with the best quality stickers possible made by experts on whatever equipment and method is most appropriate? There is still room for good profit margins. And, if things go well it is much easier to scale up to larger quantities with outsourced production. If you are thinking you need prototypes to test and show before ordering larger quantities, you could go to any local sign shop and get vinyl cut or digitally printed samples. But remember, the style and quality will not be the same as stickers created in bulk on proper commercial sticker printing equipment.
What is your market and how will you reach them?
Do you already have an inside line on a niche market that you can reach through an existing web site, special trade shows, or certain retail outlets? If so, great. If you are not tapped into an existing market or have only a vague idea of how and to whom your products should be sold, like any business you need to do some research and develop a plan. There are thousands of people selling millions of sticker designs – some quick Google searches will lead you to products and businesses that may relate to your niche. How are you going to compete with these existing businesses and websites? What do you have that they don’t? How are you better suited to connect with the desired customer/market?
Sticker products also can make a nice low cost addition for existing businesses with other retail products. If you already have the website or infrastructure set up to reach a market niche then by all means create a low cost sticker product you can sell to them as well. Back in the 90’s, as a side hobby, I was distributing a CD and tape of Vermont themed music. Because we also made custom stickers we created a “Vermont – Keep It Simple” sticker that we could include as part of the display rack with the CD’s. Well, in the end that simple sticker was more profitable and had a longer run in stores than the music. Stickers are such an easy, low cost impulse purchase that if you can create the right message or graphic and get it in front of the right people, they will sell.
What are the costs of starting in this sticky business
Once you take buying equipment off the table, the only start up costs are really an investment in product, a web site, and general office expenses. The Salt Life guys initially invested in about $50,000 worth of stickers and merchandise. As sales grew they reinvested in more items and reorders.
Our friend Chris Bucci over at HeartSticker.com started his sticker business with about 10,000 (heart in) Oregon stickers. He simply wanted to show and share his love for where he lived. Over the years he has slowly reinvested, tested designs, added state designs, added other products, traveled the country and built retail relationships. Chris’s passion for his state and stickers has resulted in a very successful national sticker business.
We probably made our first batch of “Keep It Simple” stickers for around $200 for 1000 stickers. Probably sold them to stores for 50 cents which they then sold for $1 or $1.50. We then made more stickers as demand grew and they sold in stores. And on it went for several years.
Heck, you can set up a free store at Cafe Press or Zazzle and start selling stickers, totebags, t-shirts, ties, buttons, etc. with your design on it today. Got a great sticker idea? Upload the art, set up a few products and start telling people right away where they can buy it. Cost of entry into this mini bumper sticker, t-shirt and other custom printed item business, just a little of your time. Is the quality of stickers the best, can you do many sizes and shapes, or can you scale up in quantity to increase profitability or distribute elsewhere? No. “Free” always has it’s disadvantages for setting up a legitimate business.
Is it worth it? Is there an easier way?
Of course, “success” in a “sticker business” is relative. Someone (and people often do) could order 500 stickers for a small fundraising effort, sell them, double their money and be done. Other individuals have ordered euro sticker designs and sold them successfully in just one, or a few local stores. Only reordering when necessary. Creating and selling stickers can be done part time on a small scale without visions of world, national or even town domination.
Back in 2007, a guy named Elliott Nachwalter created a sticker that simply stated “1.20.09” representing then President Bush’s last day in office. He ended up selling more than $1 million worth of merchandise in 2007. But, alas there was an expiration date on that sticker. At around the same time we sold similarly subtle No W stickers (an oval sticker with a “W” on it with a red line through it). We had a web site and sold to a few distributors and other web sites. We made a few bucks and had some fun with it, but, there was absolutely no way it could be a full time profitable business on it’s own.
It wasn’t always so, but these days with the internet, almost any angle you can think of for stickers and sticker businesses has been covered by someone in some way. New digital printing and vinyl cutting options as well as the ease of setting up websites and selling on-line have lowered the cost of entry and many businesses have jumped on-board. In most scenarios of success in the sticker selling business it has been best; to not quit your day job, test the concept, and bootstrap your way up as you go. Is there an easier way? Like selling your idea to another business and just collecting royalties? I don’t think so. Having a great idea is the easy part – everyone has one. It’s the passion, the dedication, the distribution and the evolution and expansion of the idea and products that perhaps can lead to a successful full-time business.
At the digital one-off sites like Zazzle and Cafe Press you can not only create products you can buy other peoples designs. Search in any niche on these sites and get hundreds of printed product options. Just as a test I searched “ticks” on Zazzle (because I thought it was a random and obscure niche) and got back over 1400 product results. How would you plan to compete (on-line) with a corporation with this degree of selection and advertising dollars? Well, better quality and availability in off line locations for one.
Summary: Should You Start A Sticker Business?
Yes, stickers are fun and a great way to make some money. But, don’t expect too much… or dream of getting rich off a sticker idea or two. Like any business it takes creativity, vision, planning, a good work ethic and help from strategic partners. If anyone has gotten rich from a sticker idea they have usually had to diversify into other products and marketed a “brand” (like Salt Life or Life is Good) instead of just stickers that connect with like minded people.
But, the good news is that there are not many up front costs and help is available to help develop and design your sticker products. So, if you have a great sticker idea – why not test it out? Sure, it might just be a little business on the side or only make a few bucks, but it might also catch on. And if you put in the work and keep the passion burning you might just find yourself quitting your job, hiring staff and working on your national distribution and licensing agreements.
Update – 2/1/16
If you have read this far and have some questions, I highly recommend you peruse the comment and answer section below. There has been a lot covered there over the life of this post. If you’d like more information and feel the urge at all to pick my brain further, I highly recommend you invest in a copy of my book, Stick This! Using Promotional Stickers To Build Identity, Create Word Of Mouth and Grow Sales. Though not specifically about starting a sticker business, this is an excellent next step to review what is necessary in designing effective stickers that tap into focused markets, and read some interviews/case studies with people that are effectively using stickers as promotional tools and products. Check it out at Amazon here.