How to Start Making Merch and Create a Best Selling Product

Wed, Dec 12, 18

So, you want to start your own brand. If you are serious and ready for the commitment, congratulations! This is the best decision I have ever made for myself. Whether you want it to be a part time side hustle or a full time career, you will experience a deep sense of satisfaction when your creativity has a visible impact. There is no feeling quite like bringing people joy with something you made. 

If this sounds exciting, keep reading. Today I want to share with you my no-nonsense guide to creating a best selling single piece of  merchandise. You will see a theme here and it is focus. Don't worry about filling up an entire website with various trinkets, quantity does not equal sales. In this article I will show you how to make one brilliant idea to get started as a successful indie maker. 

This is exactly my thought process when I started Studio Cult Co. My goal with this business is to delight artists and designers with affordable gifts that speak about our experiences as creatives. After very careful planning and research I launched my first product, sold out of inventory and accumulated a fan base within 24 hours. I began with no following other than a few supportive friends + mom.

Here is the outline I used to create my first best selling product, the MS Paint Pin:

  1. Become an expert in your audience.
  2. Deeply analyze other successful brands in the niche.
  3. Become and expert in the item you plan to sell.
  4. Make an educated judgment for a design.
  5. Get the word out!
Lets get into the details!

1. Become the expert of your audience: Leave the ego at the door and be of service.

If you want to make pretty things and create art for arts sake that's perfectly fine. However unless you have already established an engaged fan base for your art, it's not likely to result in profitable merch. It's a hard pill to swallow but the foundation of your business has nothing to do with you. In order to have someone exchange money for your cool stuff you need to solve some kind of problem for someone. Your artistic flair comes only after this question is answered.

Sure, no one needs an enamel pin or another screen printed sweatshirt. However people do need to feel understood, loved and accepted. Merchandise is a vehicle for how you answer these needs. So here's the thing: it's not really the product your customers are buying but rather the ideas, emotions, interests and humor that this object contains, usually at an affordable price. 

In order to have a successful product you need to be extremely empathetic to your audience. Understand them as if they are your best friend. I can not stress enough how important this point is. Creating a brand people love is a selfless act. Constantly be asking what can you make that will make this specific group of people happy, loved and understood. Then use your talents to create a world of lovely things for them. Again,people buy into lifestyles, stories and ideas. That's why they pay 50 dollars for your shirt instead of the same blank shirt they can get for a quarter of the price at a budget store.

Next steps:
a. Find out who your audience is. If you are having trouble selecting an audience, read my article on why and how you need to find the perfect niche for your business.

b. Get crystal clear on what they care about.  Where do they hang out online? What do they like about the brands they currently shop with? What are their hobbies? What are their frustrations? What do they find funny? This is a great place to begin.

c. Who are the big players on social media in this niche? You will need to leverage them to help you spread the word about your cool new product. Make a list of all the influencers you think can help you when you launch. These are great accounts to study as well to gauge what people like.

If you do not look like squidward in this .gif during the research process, you're doing it wrong.


2. Deeply analyze other successful brands in the niche: who is killing it in the game and why?

Now that you have a clear idea of what people you want to serve, lets take a look at some designers who have built a name for themselves with some similar products or themes. Study their social media accounts, take a look at which images have more likes than others and try to reverse engineer why. Take a look at their fans and what they are interested in. Figure out why people connect with these brands so much. Take a look at platforms like Pinterest and see what people put on their boards centered around your area of interest.

Once you get a clear idea what these people are looking for, find your unique angle and model their success. If there is already a person selling spooky spiritual themed items and that's your kind of flavor, there is still room for your unique voice. Find your in. See how you can serve the demographic in a way others are not.

*On a side note, there has been a lot of talk about saturation, especially in the enamel pin market. I think this is a really lame way of saying, "hey I'm too lazy to come out with original ideas and everyone has picked the low hanging fruit already."

Don't get discouraged by this nonsense. People have been wearing jewelry and apparel for thousands of years and they will continue to do the same. I will be writing my next blog post about this topic. There is room for everyone with good ideas, but you do need to bring some talent and hard work to the table.

Next Steps:
a. Study established brands you admire and break down what makes them successful. Take good notes!

b. Study your intended demographic and see what they like on social media platforms. (Pinterest is great for this).

c. Using the information gathered from A and B, begin to develop your unique angle. Think about how can you relate to people in a way your competitors aren't.

3. Become an expert of the item you plan to sell: pick one item and get obsessed with it.

Many talented friends of mine come and pitch me ideas of the well stocked stores they envision. I always end up saying something along the lines of, "slow your roll Picasso, not yet!" Making a product that sells is not about the quantity, it is about quality. One brilliant idea will always outsell five half baked ones, period. To start off strong we need to figure out what is the best thing to make for your demographic and how to make the best quality item possible.

You should have a clear idea of what this item is from the research in the previous step. Get obsessed with your item of choice. If you are making T-shirts learn every single thing about them down to the last thread. Don't just settle settle for a quick print-to-order service because it's easy. There is nothing worse than a poorly executed, brilliant idea. Get samples from factories. Try different printing processes. Create an interesting label and tag for the item. Think about the experience you want someone to have when they open the package. Do your homework and don't get lazy. Become an expert of that product. 

Next Steps:
a. Choose the perfect item and get ready to nerd out. Do not stop until you know every last detail about it.

b. Get exploring! Not all manufacturers are the same. You always want to order samples of work before you commit to a large order with a supplier.

4. Make an educated judgment on a design: Create the thing!

If you have gotten this far, pat yourself on the back. Focus is a rarity these days, so even if you haven't launched your amazing thing yet, this research process in itself is an accomplishment and you are bound to succeed moving forward.

Now it's time to bring it all together and craft the one excellent item! This process will vary for each of us. Considering all the accumulated research, you can now make a proper judgment of what to make and how to make it better than anyone has before. Don't think about competing with others and instead think of how you can make your unique addition to the world of makers.

Next Steps:
a.  Listen to your inclinations, make a decision and begin with the production process of this great new thing. 

b.  Get your website up. Make sure the link to your website is easy to find on your social media platform of choice. Don't worry about being on all social media platforms in the beginning, just choose one where most of your fans hang out and make a few posts about your new product.

5. Get the word out: tell everyone you can possibly reach about this great new thing!

Amazing. You've completed the design and now its time to let people know about it! Don't assume that people will come just because you made it. We have to get them to find your cool new product. Take the list of influencers you have found in step one and start reaching out to them. Some may or may not ask for a fee. If it is affordable it can be well worth it. If you are worried about scammers, there are a ton of articles a simple Google search will retrieve that can help you spot a good influencer, versus one who bought their likes and follows.

Next Steps:
a. Make sure your pictures and website look great.

b. Get your list ready, create a short and sweet pitch and DM everyone on your list!

c. Keep consistently posting content to engage your new found audience.

d. Celebrate your first sale! It should come in no time.

I hope this will serve as a useful map to the beginning of your journey! Don't get overwhelmed at the thought of starting your dream creative business. As you see, it's actually quite simple. Focus on making great things, one thing at a time. Once you have completed these steps once, revisit them to create your next big idea! I still go through these cycles of research for each of the products I make.
Feel free to reach me at if you have questions.

Yuliya Veligurskaya is a designer based in New York City. Formally trained as an architect, she left the field to start Studio Cult Co, a brand specializing in visually stimulating gifts.