Despite all the technological advancements and the ubiquity of screens in every household, classroom and office nowadays, there is still a lot of demand for printed material. One could say that technology is probably one of the major driving forces behind the increase in this demand. While smartphones and personal computers have reduced our reliance on traditional printing and publishing for our reading material, the ease of availability of this material online combined with the low cost and ease of use of modern digital printing equipment have led to a mini-boom in the printing industry. Starting a printing business is easier than ever before; in fact, a sizeable number of these businesses operate out of people’s homes. Unfortunately, like every line of business with a low barrier of entry, there is a lot of competition and the potential for scaling is very limited. Fortunately, you can sidestep this last challenge by taking your printing operations online.

What is Print on demand?

Print on demand (POD) is a business process in which book copies are not printed until the company receives an order, allowing prints of small quantities or even single ones to be produced. This is in contrast to traditional processes where books or any other kinds of works meant to be published are printed in large batches.

For this article, we are going to be a little more liberal with our definition of POD and extend it to include other types of printed materials which while never having enjoyed mass production in the past per se, digital printing has allowed more flexibility in their production by allowing lower quantities (at a time) to be economically produced.

Producing books

You can offer your POD services to anyone who wishes to produce actual books. This will involve you printing the pages, the covers and then collating and binding them into an actual book. Special equipment will be required if you are to deliver your services efficiently. Customers can include independent authors who want to self-publish; organisations which wish to produce materials in book form (e.g. training manuals); individuals and institutions which want to print e-books which have permissive or no copyright for personal use or even actual book publishers

What else you can print

Your business doesn’t have to be strictly POD. You can also embrace the online aspect to make it more of an online version of a physical printing shop. For instance, rather than relying on customers to come in through the front door like a shop, you can allow them to submit the prepared electronic copies of their material through your website, choose the paper sizes, quantities etc. and then pay for the order plus the delivery charges if necessary. After printing, you can deliver the order or notify the client to collect. Your service will most likely come as a boon to those graphic designers who would prefer to focus on their design work and subcontract their printing. A delivery service will also come in handy to those busy people who can barely spare the time for a dash to a printer whenever they need to produce a flyer or two for their business.

Examples of other materials you can print besides books are posters, calendars, catalogues, flyers, business cards and photo books.

Starting up

Find and equip premises

The online aspect can be added to a pre-existing printing business which already has premises and equipment. If you are however just starting out and only wish to offer your services through an online platform, just remember that location is less important for online businesses. An online platform, if done correctly, allows you to cut down on (or even eliminate) your rental costs while also giving you greater geographic reach.

Build a website

When choosing a name for your printing service you have to keep in mind that all, or most of it, will also have to be used in your website’s domain name (its address). That is why some people prefer to start by choosing a domain name and then only use this as the business name if it is available. There are a few simple rules that you must try to follow when choosing a domain name: use something short, simple, easy to spell and remember. Avoid numbers and hyphens as these are difficult to remember.

You can either hire a developer to build your website or use any of the various tools and services that are available online nowadays. The latter has the advantage of giving you full control over your site whereas using a developer has some disadvantages such as the need to fork out additional fees if you want any modifications made. A developer can however build a website which is closer to your specifications than any online tool can.

Receiving payments

In Zimbabwe, you can integrate an online payments platform like Paynow to your website to receive payments. Pay now allows your customers to pay you using Ecocash, One Money, Telecash, VISA, Mastercard and Vpayments (a Zimswitch product for holders of local debit cards). To receive Visa and Mastercard payments your business must be registered. A riskier alternative is allowing your clients to pay upon delivery which can go wrong in very obvious ways— for instance, you can’t recover your printing costs if a client refuses to pay for their print job.

Delivering

After printing you can deliver the copies using your vehicles, contracting a third party or just using the services of conventional delivery companies.

Advertising

One of the best ways in which you can advertise this kind of online business is through platforms like Google and Facebook. You can also improve your website’s search ranking through search engine optimization.