I find internal corporate research fascinating.

It offers a rare perspective into the most inscrutinable of part of markets -- what happens inside a business. It also tends to be honest and self reflective in a refreshing way, compared to the world of fluff PR and smudged data.

Most importantly, it gives you a window into how the businesses that run our lives work and how people behave when they don't know that someone is looking. (1) It's the real-deal-stuff that academics studying markets and businesses can often only speculate about, or try to recreate in artificial conditions.

That being said, I was excited when a good friend shared some of his work as a design researcher at a leading print on demand company. Lots of juicy bits here that can make us all wiser merchants and makers, and I'm sad that it wasn't approved for larger distribution (which is why the names are all blanked out).

The following are insights that are applicable across multiple industries, and so without further ado:

What is Print on Demand?

Print on Demand is a tool for allowing merchants to create goods (often books or apparel) on demand for customers, without the need to hold or invest large inventory. POD services also tend to drop ship products from any location to anywhere else -- meaning the role of the merchant is exclusively on the business side: creating awareness, creating customers, and scaling the business. As more and more businesses or hustles focus on fulfilling timely needs, reacting to trends, or dealing with fickle or variable buying behaviors, POD makes more and more sense.

On the flip side, POD can often have variable quality and closes the interface between a merchant and a supplier. So what's gained in breadth and width of offering can sometimes be a loss in trusted relationships, consistency, quality control, and penultimate customization.

The Limitations of Research

High volume merchants are notoriously hard to get ahold of, so much of the data that was collected was not initially collected solely for the purpose of this study but as a part of other studies. The findings presented in this report should not be taken as absolute truths but as insights to be tested and hypotheses to be further explored and verified.

Of the 39 high volume merchants surveyed, over 60% stated that this was a side hustle for them.


Designing for Scale

[Some] general principles were discovered even if merchants differed from one another in their approach. One general finding was that these merchantsʼ experience differed significantly from the experience of regular merchants due to scale. The volume of products and orders that these merchants dealt with on a daily basis can make even the seemingly best user interfaces painful if these needs arenʼt taken into account.

While some merchants are lucky to receive an order a week, high volume merchants can have hundreds of orders per day. Simply finding the right order in your list is often a challenge, not to mention finding an order from a few weeks ago that a customer complained about. While some merchants have 10 pages of products, high volume merchants can have a 100 pages. 

Because these merchants are typically operating at completely different scales than most others, they have to set up their workflows to be able to deal with scale. This often means being hyper-focused on particular tasks and optimizing those tasks to be most efficient - in practice this often means modes or sessions where they only deal with similar kinds of problems - order mode, product creation mode, invoicing mode, SEO mode, advertising mode. [...] Some merchants even go as far as to optimize interactions with our support team so that we communicate with them in ways that allow for them to optimize their process and deal better with issues of scale.


Service Design and UX Design Go Hand in Hand

Sudden changes in UX can have disastrous trickle effects for a merchant:

What merchants most valued other than a good product and price offering were Service and Consistency. As long as [we] offer consistency, merchants can make suitable plans and predictions allowing for them to run their business with few surprises. And as long as [we] offer stellar service, any surprises that these merchants encounter can be mitigated and supported. Stellar service can also help these merchants find time and make the important decisions that they need to do in order to scale their businesses. 

Many merchants optimize their processes also for the purpose of working with and training virtual assistants. Some merchants create guides for their assistants to complete tasks for them. Another reason for this is because virtual assistants arenʼt very reliable. Typical places to find VAʼs are on freelancer platforms such as Upwork or Fiverr, or on sites such as  Craigslist. Quality assistants are hard to find, assistants are often all around the world, and many of them are in between jobs or looking for better opportunities. This makes turnover a particular challenge. Creating guides, helps to cope with sudden changes in staff and to shorten the onboarding process so that new assistants can quickly start being productive. 

React poorly to sudden UX changes - While not entirely satisfied with our UX, this doesnʼt stop merchants from adapting to it and molding their own processes to take our UX into account. This is why they react particularly negatively to any changes in our UX. Even if the changes are ultimately beneficial, without proper notice, these merchants arenʼt able to change their own processes or that of their assistants to be able to cope with the new requirements. These changes initially drastically slow them down as they need to get used to new requirements and can cause process delays that can end up being quite costly. Additionally, changes to our UX can also render interaction guides that these merchants created for the staff incorrect and useless, creating more work for anyone managing a team. 

This applies to communications as well. There should be a clear difference between marketing emails and important product emails:

Our own emails are not always applicable to these merchants as they arenʼt specific to their accounts and are often general. This leads to some merchants actively ignoring our communications, or only seeing parts of them. Important notices about price increases get lost amidst emails of new product releases or survey requests.

Service Design for the 1%

Having worked with valuable B2B clients in a variety of industries myself, I'm very familiar with the leverage that an important client can have. This often means concierge, specialized services that can break [or at least deoptimize] a system that's been designed for a middling client.

Merchants who fall into our top 1% are not strangers to their success and generally know that they are considered to be quite successful. The POD industry has a habit of sharing earnings and any participation in various online groups clearly shows these merchants that they are vastly more successful than the majority of individuals who attempt to run a POD or dropshipping business. Knowing this, and that they are important to [us], these merchants all expect some B2B relationships and concessions. They regularly request custom invoices, create their own spreadsheets for support teams to use, request for process rules to be put in place for their accounts, reach out directly to success team members to get information or deals, etc. 

Merchants who are successful in POD are typically intelligent individuals. They are often high performing, logical and systematic in their approach. They also have very high demands of their time and typically have a preventative mindset instead of a reactionary one. This often leads to poor reactions when they encounter poor customer support. They can be rude, insulting, or show little tolerance to perceived stupidity. Very often they will go above the heads of a support agent and email individuals from the success team or any other contacts they have when they need a problem solved. Many merchants also understand that customer support jobs are not high skilled jobs and they in turn have lower expectations to begin with, not trusting that support agents will be able to accurately understand their challenges. When they are attempting to solve a problem they believe is critical or urgent, any perceived incompetence will often be met with anger and rudeness. 

Good Service, Bad Service

Moreover, I think that poor (or frustrating) service can often deter a customer or merchant from succeeding in the first place.

Many merchants expressed repeated dissatisfaction with different aspects of [our] service and repeatedly highlighted that a major reason that they choose to continue is because of the customer service. A proper handling of a situation is enough to help merchants maintain their confidence in the platform and continue working with us. Similarly, a few poorly handled interactions are often enough to cement a negative perception of [us] in merchantsʼ minds and cause them to leave the platform looking for better options.


The Competition

Most merchants who achieve the levels of success that were seen in our sample group were no strangers to Print on Demand (POD). They sometimes had significant experience in the printing industry, often they had multiple years of experience with different POD vendors, and they typically extensively researched us and our competitors before making a decision. The vast majority of these merchants are not exclusively using a single POD company for their needs but are often using [us] and multiple competitors simultaneously. 

Additionally, many merchants run other businesses in addition to their [us] store. With this knowledge, it becomes clear that retaining these merchants is a challenging activity. There is virtually no lock in, as the barriers to shifting products to another competitor are low. This is also true in reverse as it is much easier for merchants to come to [us].

Additionally, merchants are always aware of what our competitors are doing and what they are releasing. This means [we] are never being viewed in isolation, but that the customer experience baseline is created across the entire customer journey.

[We] doesnʼt exist in a vacuum and very often we are only a small part of the full customer journey. This means that on a regular basis, merchants are working across platforms and encountering interfaces and experiences from different sources. When they arrive back on [our site], these service and experience expectations carry over. You can often see this in conversations with these merchants where they say things like: Printful has it, just like in Etsy, or Just make it like Shopify. Over time, these are no longer feature requests but standard experience requirements. 

The "competition" also includes the broader third party market. Given ever-evolving features, partners can become competitors and previously seamless integrations can turn into nightmares when they don't work:

Very often merchants successes can be attributed to a heavy reliance on 3rd party platforms and environments. When these platforms suddenly change their rules or algorithms, merchants may suddenly find themselves without a stream of customers. This can be seen with merchants who rely too heavily on Facebook advertising, or with merchants whose business models are based off of Etsyʼs native organic search. As platforms change, if merchants donʼt have resilient acquisition strategies, they may often find their business quite suddenly shutting down.

Merchants may leave from being actively poached by other POD suppliers with significantly better offers, more products, or more catered services.


On Running a Side Hustle

Small (tiny) businesses/side hustles are not the main focus of an entrepreneur. So time is a limiting factor:

Another finding was that many of these merchants are well aware of what they need to do in order to scale their businesses, but they are just limited by time. Very often they are the sole decision maker in their companies and too many critical decisions rest on their shoulders. When they get distracted, as they very often do, their businesses can suddenly drop or stagnate. Afterwards, there are long periods of catching up and getting back into a working rhythm. 

The major bottleneck in most of these merchants businesses are the merchants themselves. Most of these businesses are not typically structured in a standard business model where a company is created and full time employees are hired to build and develop the business over time. Instead, these businesses are typically highly dependent on a single individual. One reason is that profits are often not significantly high enough to warrant an investment into more human capital. Additionally this is often only one of several major focuses in these merchants lives, thus it is safe to say that they rarely have enough time to achieve everything that they want to do. 

Although these merchants understand that hiring assistants can help with this, they often donʼt have the time to properly train staff and set them up for success, and some merchants feel limited by [our] lack of staff accounts as they arenʼt comfortable handing over their account credentials to strangers. 

As far as outsourcing goes, too many merchants lack the necessary time, capital and experience to properly work with agencies and have often found little to no return on investment. Many found that agencies were not able to substitute for their own proximity and understanding of their customer base.

An Unfair Advantage

Many merchants had significantly stronger skills and experience in particular domains than typical merchants on our platform. These could be skills in design, management, marketing, or audience discovery. All of these certainly give these merchants a much easier time as the full customer journey requires all of these in some form or other to achieve success. But skills aside, because as is evidenced by the stories of many of these merchants, skills can be gained or learned, what really sets them apart is self discipline and the ability to consistently show up to work.

Merchants studied tended to have at least one other particularly strong domain. This domain was different from merchant to merchant but generally fell into 4 categories - significant skills in design, marketing, business, or customer discovery. Those who have vastly more direct Print on Demand industry experience also tend to perform better over time because they have a much more intimate understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the industry.

Merchants demonstrated different strategies for focusing on their audiences but in almost all cases merchants had a clear understanding that any products they were designing were based off of their audience interests and needs. Some merchants used techniques like role-playing to get into the heads of their customers, other merchants actively answered some or all support tickets to keep up to date on customer needs, others were active participants in the communities they were designing for, and still others spent months researching a particular audience in order to create products that resonated.

Self Perception

A common characteristic that was noticed was strong self discipline. These merchants displayed the ability to plan their work, to stick to their plan and to put in consistent time every day to achieve their goals regardless of perceived successes or failures.

One of the important characteristics these merchants had was a very clear understanding that any failures they encountered in their business were not a reflection of their own person and had no effect on their confidence or self esteem. They looked at these negative events from a distance as simple feedback. They reflected and made any necessary changes and then continued business as usual. When things donʼt go according to plan, they donʼt panic or fall into self doubt and look at events calmly. Their focus isnʼt on single events but on patterns and process improvement. This is not to say that these merchants react nonchalantly to order errors or poor service, but that these events do not influence their opinions of themselves or the value of their business efforts. 

Many successful merchants have clear visions for where their business is going and what they need to do in order to get there. Future thinking can be preventative, wherein merchants are anticipating certain challenges and they are preemptively making changes to their business, or future thinking can be generative where they are actively planning for business expansions, future holidays, and growth targets.

Rules & Methods

High-performing merchants tend to think about both themselves and their businesses differently from casual merchants. Given that "time" (or the lack thereof) is the major challenge for a small business, much of the internal work lays in creating efficient rules and processes:

Rule-Based Thinking: Because these merchants are dealing with a lot of responsibilities across all of their focuses, they often aim to reduce any unnecessary decision making. This is because making decisions is mentally taxing and for them to spread their energy effectively across their workload, they need to be as efficient and quick as possible. One of the techniques merchants use to do this is rule-based thinking. By creating rules for themselves, they are able to make decisions without needing to consider extenuating circumstances. One of the most common forms of this was a hard and fast rule that merchants made to not use a particular print provider at all after a few negative experiences. Another common strategy was to always offer refunds to their unhappy customers, regardless of the situation. 

Emphasis on process: These merchants understand that issues happen and they typically set up their businesses to reduce future issues as much as possible. They try to limit issues to those that are predictable and within their expectations. They use feedback to make any adjustments to their process over time so that it continues to run within their expectations. By emphasizing process and reducing variability, they are able to operate more efficiently because there are typically no surprises that occur in their business. Without surprises, they are able to plan their time effectively and execute with a proper strategy, growing their business over time. 

Task Oriented: These high performing merchants are not typically sitting down at a computer and asking themselves what they should do now. Because they are also typically high performing in other areas of their life, their time is often spent on a multitude of activities and thus they tend to plan it out and prioritize their efforts to be most effective given their various responsibilities. They act with clear goals and avoid distractions that will derail them from their current task. 

Significant work is put in early to make better decisions: Most successful merchants generally donʼt make random decisions. They often have a clear goal in mind which is often to make the best decisions that they can make given the information that they have. In the early stages, these merchants typically spend a significant amount of time understanding as much as possible about a situation and then they plan accordingly. They aim to predict possible negative events and proactively adjust their process as much as possible. After initial research, merchants switch to execution mode and do not actively seek more information until  their feedback loops require it by bringing new critical information to light. 


Footnotes

1 - OkCupid's "DataClasym" book makes for really interesting reading in that regard.