Yes, if you know your way around a 3D modeling program, you can go into business right now selling 3D prints of your creations, in a multitude of materials and colors, without setting up your own website, without taking orders, without shipping orders, without ever having to speak with a customer. Oh, and without owning a 3D printer.
You can do this by setting up your very own virtual store on the Shapeways website. Loads of people are picking up some extra cash, and quite a few are actually making a steady income. And since we are at only the beginning of the 3D printing revolution, sales through the Shapeways stores will only increase.
What is Shapeways?
It’s the world’s most popular service for uploading 3D files and having them printed into physical models and shipped to your address. I like to use the analogy of Cafepress and Zazzle to describe Shapeways to those unfamiliar with it.
These two sites, which just about everybody already knows about, allow you to upload a 2D image, have it positioned and printed on a number of products such as t-shirts, mugs and stickers, and then shipped to you. Shapeways is built upon the same general model, but for 3D designs rather than 2D designs.
But here’s where it gets more interesting: on Zazzle and Cafepress, anyone can set up their own “shop” where their designs are available for order by others. The shop owner then gets a commission on each sale based upon the markup price over the base cost set by the sites.
Following this 2D business model, Shapeways also lets you set up a store on their site, and from it you sell your designs to others. Instead of 2D images, designers upload their 3D designs in the form of a CAD file. The shop owner then decides what materials the design is available to be printed in. As for the price, you decide what the markup over the Shapeways base price will be.
And then you are in business. The markup (less a minor fee) of any sale is yours to keep, and will be paid out to you periodically. It’s that easy.
Will you make any money? That’s depends on you. How creative are you? How good are you at thinking up things that others want to buy? How good of a designer are you? If you are going to just make a Yoda or Empire State building model, you’re not going to set the world on fire, if even make one sale. But, for example, if you had thought up this Bic lighter Personal Branding Iron that a buyer can personalize with their own text, considering it has had almost 27,000 views, you would have made some decent money. Speaking of big numbers, Shapeways recently announced that they have shipped over one million prints, so people are going to the site and things are selling.
Now, let’s get into some of the details.
Get to know Shapeways as a user
The first thing to do is to become a Shapeways member, if you are not already. There’s no separate shop owner type of account–you just need to set up a regular free membership.
Readers are most likely already familiar with Shapeways, but if you are not, take a good look around and see what people are sharing and selling. Read and subscribe to the Shapeways blog. Get to know what materials are available, what types of designs will print properly and which won’t, how to upload files, and importantly, get involved in the community.
Telling you about Shapeways and how to upload files is not the purpose of this article, so we’re going to jump right back into telling you about opening and running your store.
Open your Shapeways shop
There is no membership upgrade necessary to become a Shapeways shop owner. You use log in with the your regular Shapeways account, and then go to the proper areas in your account to set up the store and the models within your store.
To begin, in your account settings pages you’ll see a tab for “My Shops.” Here you will enter an email for the PayPal account with which you want to be paid, a name for your shop, and the URL you want for your shop. The URL will begin with shapeways.com/shops/ and you will indicate what you want after the last slash. Really think about what you want the URL to be, as you won’t be able to change it.
At this point you can you can upload a square logo and a 960px x 125px banner, and fill out more information about you and your store. Make a serious effort to use a professional looking banner and write a store description that instills confidence in the buyer. While other Shapeways users understand that shop owners are other makers just like them, you may (hopefully) get non-Shapeways visitors coming to you via search engines and links from other sites. You want to look professional so they feel comfortable buying from you.
As for the description, you’ll have a description field and an optional extended description field. Look at some existing stores to see how these are placed on a page, so you can best visual what you are creating.
You are also able to add one or more sections to your store, which are what you use to categorize your models if you have many of them. Think of them as departments in a store. The models you sell can be assigned to one or more of these sections, which will make your store neater and easier for a customer to shop around. You don’t have to set sections up yet; you can come back to this step at any time.
There is also a field into which you can specify your Google Analytics code if you have an Analytics account. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this is–it’s for experienced ecommerce business people and it’s used for analyzing your traffic and sales conversion data.
Make your models available for sale
When you upload a design, it is initially designated as not for sale. You have to change this setting for each design you want to offer in your store.
When you go into “My Models,” the Edit button will appear up as you hover over any model. Click it and you’ll see on the right that you can click on the checkboxes for “Display to the public” and “Offer for sale to others.” Checking these will make them available for inclusion into your store.
The Edit Model page also lists all the available materials with which the model can be printed. Select those that want to make available to your customers. You also set one of the materials to your default material here.
You’ll see that you can assign to the model to up to two predefined Shapeways categories, one or more of the sections you’ve created, and any number of tags. Setting these to proper values will help customers find your models through the Shapeways search and browse interfaces.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but make sure you name your designs. Don’t all it something like Joe’s Test #14, but instead to something like “The Octagon Lampshade; a descriptive name whose meaning people understand immediately.
Don’t skimp on the visuals for each model. One image will appear, generated from your uploaded file. But you are allowed to add multiple photos and videos to each model’s sales page. Take care to create remarkable photos or images. You should print your model in the most visually appealing material and photograph it with a good camera and lighting. A poor image will kill your sales. If you want to add a video, you’ll need to upload it to Youtube and them add that Share URL to the model page’s gallery.
Shapeways has a very thorough page called “How To Photograph Your Designs.” I recommend reading it if you are serious about selling your items.
Market it baby! This is business. You may have an object that your friends think is cool, but to get beyond friends and family sales, you need to SELL IT. You’ve gone from maker to marketer, so wear that hat well. Contrary to most peoples’ opinions of themselves, most are not born marketers. But you can at least make an effort to tell the world what excites you about your model, what use it serves, why someone should purchase it.
SEO each model page
SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization. SEO experts can execute various optimization techniques to website pages to make them rank higher in search engines for given search terms. For example, if you have a model that is a Kinect Tripod Mount, you want it to come up in search engines when someone keys in Kinect Tripod Mount. You need to do things correctly for this to have a chance of happening.
There isn’t much you can do on a site that is not your own, and likely you are not an SEO expert anyway, but there are a couple basic things you can do: on-page optimization and link building.
On-page optimization: There are two very important things you can easily do. Of utmost importance is getting the title right. When I say title, I’m talking about the “SEO title,” which is the title that shows up in the search engine results listings. On a Shapeways model page, this is made up of the title you enter for the model, concatenated with “by [user] at Shapeways.”
Google (I say Google because the others are a very small fraction of search traffic) wants to see the keyword term you think people will use to search for your model in the first few words of the title. Importantly, they will evaluate only up to the first 60-70 characters of the title, and they very much dislike titles that go beyond around 70; sometimes when a title is too long, Google will simply replace it in the search results with something else, and that something else isn’t always pretty. Lately, I’ve even seen them replace it with URL or create their own title!
So, let’s say that your user name is 10 characters long. That’s 26 characters right there that are used up by “by [user] at Shapeways.” You’ve got 34 characters left to play with. Use those 34 characters to market your product. If it’s a Kinect Tripod Mount and that’s what you think people will search for when looking for one, name it that and nothing more, unless another word is critical. Your SEO title will be end up being “Kinect Tripod Mount by [user] at Shapeways.” With that 10-character user name, that’s 46 characters total. Very good. Now, if you have a modifier you really want to get in, you can add it if it’s not too long.
I think Shapeways would be doing shop owners a favor by removing the “by [user]” from the SEO title. I know they will want to keep the word Shapeways in the title for branding, but they could end the title with just “at Shapeways” and give shop owners more room for their important title (hint, hint Shapeways).
The second thing you can do is to make sure that you fully take advantage of the description field for each model. The more text on a page, the more Google likes the page. Try to add several hundred words to the model description. I know this isn’t always easy, depending upon the model, but the more the better. Don’t just place a couple sentences in it.
Google not only looks in your title for keywords, trying to match up people searching for a term with the words on a page, but also does so with the words elsewhere on a page–and that includes the description. Use the keywords that describe the product, in varying forms, while keeping the writing natural. Make sure to repeat the main keyword that is in your title (i.e. Kinect Tripod Mount) 2-3 times near the beginning of the description. But don’t over-optimize with repetitive keywords, or you’ll get penalized for that too.
Very importantly, make sure that your description is unique. Do not copy and paste anything in from another page on the web. And do not use the same content on any two or more of your own models pages. Google hates duplicate content more than anything, and can deindex the page for it. Zap, at the bottom, or even right out of the search results.
When writing your description, don’t forget that not only will Google be looking at it, but humans have to read it as well. So make it good, clear writing that both clearly describes and competently sells your product.
Link Building: Google judges how important a page is, and thus how high it will rank in the search engine results, by how many and what kind of sites links to the page. They push you up the results if you have links from what they consider good sites and push you down if you have links from bad sites.
It used to be that you could just buy links from spammy sites and pay for inclusion in junky directories, and get your pages ranked quickly. But Google has gotten smarter now and sites that do this have been demoted or even removed from the index.
If you can, you want and get links from “real” sites. Perhaps you can get a blog to write about your product and link to the model page. Or maybe you have some friends who would like to place a link on their blogs or social profile page to your model. All these things help more than anything–as long as the link is natural. The Google algorithm is smart and heartless; don’t try to trick it.
If you are able to control the link you get, ask create the link with proper “link anchor text.” The anchor text is what words are that in the link that points to your site or model page. Google evaluates the link anchor text so it can better understand what the page it links to is about. So, you want to have a link that says something like “Kinect Tripod Mount” versus “Go here.” If you go all gung ho and gets many links, you should alternate the wording of some. Google does not like it when they are all the same — they will assume you are trying to game the search results.
Price your models
When you first make a model available for sale, it will default to sell for the base price set by Shapeways. This mean you make zero profit. So you have to set the profit — called the markup — that you want to receive for each model you sell.
The markups are set per each material in which the model is available. Shapeways must have set it up this way so that a $5 nylon part might have a markup of let’s say $3, yet the same model printed in silver might receive a markup of $10 on a base price of let’s say $25. Makes sense.
You set your markup amount in the materials section (the same place you selected the materials you offer) or in the model inventory page (way easier). Just go through each one, and don’t miss any or you will end up making $0 profit on a sale.
So, the big question is, how much should you markup your models? Shapeways suggests 10-20%, but the amount is completely up to you. Do remember one harsh reality: no one is in love with your model as much as you are, so you need to price things realistically. If eventually you make a name for yourself and start making a good number of sales, you can play with your pricing and increase it. If you aren’t selling anything, and you have room to drop your price, bring it down.
The 10-20% markup suggestion isn’t really appropriate for low-priced models. Suppose a model’s base price is $4.00 and you add 20% to that; you’re going to make $0.80. Chances are, if a customer will pay you four dollars, he’ll pay you five, six or seven dollars for that very same part (depending upon what it is, of course). At the other end of the scale, if you have a model that has a base price of $300, it’s already getting expensive enough so a 10-20% ($30 to $60) markup is likely appropriate, again, depending upon the particular type of product it is.
If you have many models for sale in your shop, and if your models come in many materials, it can be a real pain to make mass pricing changes. Imagine that you have 25 products that come in an average of five materials each, and you want to increase all your prices a bit, you don’t want to have to go into 25 Edit Model pages to set 125 prices.
That’s why Shapeways has a tab you’ll see in My Shops, called Markup CSV Wizard. With this tool, you can download all your model pricing data to a CSV file. Once in your spreadsheet program, you can edit the files quickly and easily. Each model/material combination is on it’s own row. You change each row manually or if you know your way around a spreadsheet, you can make a consistent update with a formula, i.e. multiply each markup by 1.05. Once you are done updating the file, upload it back to Shapeways preview it, and your shop’s pricing will be updated.
Categorize and arrange your models
So now that you have your store set up, if you’ve got more than a few models for sale, you’ll want to arrange them properly on the page. If there are too many running down the page, the reader will be overwhelmed and never get to all your products.
You have two choices. One is to order your models with the most popular, most interesting, most visually appealing at the front of the list. Pretty simple. The interface allows you to move models around to where you want them.
Your second choice is to use sections. As mentioned earlier, you use these to group your like models together in “departments.” If you do use sections, order that models within each section to best show off what is most appealing — the best at the top.
For ideas of how to decide upon what sections to make, take a look at the most popular stores on Shapeways. Usually, they are doing something right, and you can learn from them.
How your commission payments are calculated
I explained the markup already–it’s the amount you decide to add to the Shapeways-specified base price to come up with the sales price. But you don’t get paid exactly the markup for each sale. Almost, but not quite. There is additional 3.5% fee that is charged and taken out of your profit.
For example, if your markup is $20, you will actually only receive $19.30 on the sale. Not a big deal, but you should understand how it works.
Shapeways pays its shop owners on a month basis. It pays on the 15th of the month, for any unpaid commissions on sales older than 30 days. To put it another way, they are giving each sale 30 days before paying the commission on it, just in case a problem arises with the sale. If Shapeways cannot work out any problem and has to issue a refund to the buyer, then of course you won’t be paid on that sale.
The amount due must be $30 or greater in order for Shapeways to issue a payment. If you purchase a product form your own store, the markup is not added to the price.
You can easily track your sales from your shop’s My Sales page. In addition, Shapeways sends out emails when you make a sale, or a sale had to be credited.
Promote your shop on other sites with Shapeways widgets
Once you’ve got your shop set up the way you want it, there is still more you can do to increase sales. Specifically, you can promote your store on other blogs and websites with some tools found on the Shapeways Labs page, in addition to the original Shapeways Widget.
All of these tools work in the same manner. You specify the criteria for what you want to market, and the tool returns some code you embed into a page, which then displays whatever the specific tool’s function is.
The Original Shapeways Widget: When you embed this widget code into a blog or website, it will display a gallery of images — four at a time, with paging — on that site in a horizontal or vertical format. You can choose light or dark colors for the surrounding frame, and the number of rows and columns in the gallery.
The set of images can be from your shop overall, from a specified section, or from your favorites. Each image, when clicked, will bring the reader directly to the model’s sales page.
There is also a WordPress plugin called Shapeways Galley Plugin that makes it easier to pop into a WordPress blog.
Shop Embed: Similar to the older widget above, but more flexible, you can embed a Shapeways-enabled storefront into your website. You can place just one product, multiple products or a whole shop on your site. You specify what you want to show, and the tools provide you with the code to embed. And the code is just css and html, so you can customize it if you like. The buy button sends people directly to check out.
Classic Embed: Pop your in your model number and a desired width, and you’ll get the code to embed into your site that will show an image of the product. Clicking on it brings you to the shop’s model page.
3D Viewer Embed: Works like the Class Shapeways Embed, but shows a rotating 3D view of your model.
Products Sets Mod: Sometimes you may need to sell a set of models to a customer. Rather than making the person add each model to the shopping cart one by one, using this code will show small images of the models and add them all into the cart with one click. The models are still separately itemized in the shopping cart.
Products Variants Mod: If you want to “size” variants of your model, you can use this tool. For example, lets say you have a model available in three sizes; rather than specify each as X x Y x Z, you can define a handle for each such as small, medium and large.
Make your own sales site
If you know how to create a website, or have someone who can do it for you, make one that is dedicated to selling your models. You’ll have complete flexibility in design and unlimited room for sales copy, which will then point to your Shapeways store model pages for purchase. If you are not a designer, many WordPress themes are available for free or at a reasonable price and will get you started. Or, a great option is to set up a site at SquareSpace, which is heads and shoulders a better experience than most of the other ten bucks a month types of hosted website companies.
The other great advantage of setting up your own site is that you are then able to properly SEO and promote your website.
Now start selling!
You now have the understanding required start selling your models. Take your time to set each one up properly, so that you maximize your chances at making a sale to visitors.
Don’t forget that setting up your store is just the first step. After that, get out and market the heck out of it. Contact bloggers that might find your model interesting — they are always looking for content. Post on forums outside of the maker community, to groups of potential users of your product. Talk to people in your social networks. Tweet it, Plus One it, StumbleUpon it, Digg it, Reddit it. Another idea is to submit your design to one of the many design sites. Create your absolute best image/photo and submit it to sites like freshbump.com, notcot.org, notcouture.com.
Remember something very important. The ideas in the last paragraph fall under marketing. But they also fall under SEO link-building. Whenever something mentions your site and provides a link to a page of yours, it adds value to your pages in Google’s eyes, which moves them up the search results. If you find that someone wrote about your designs and did not link to your shop, don’t be shy, send them an email and ask if they would please add a link.
After you’ve done everything you can think of, work on becoming an opportunist: keep your eyes open, looking for opportunity, and you might be surprised as to what you’ll find.
I have to assume that someday soon Shapeways will add an affiliate program to their site. Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t yet, as it really increases sales. 2D companies like Cafepress and Zazzle do this and it enables thousands and thousands of sites to want to link to your models, as they get an affiliate commission for each sale they refer by the link. It’s good incentive to get people to do some of the sales for you.
Until then, it’s all your brilliant designs, a clean looking store, and a bit of marketing.
The ultimate 3D printing designer's guide to opening and profiting from a Shapeways shop
by Mark Fleming