I recently devoted about a week of my time to setting up an Etsy storefront. In this article, I'll show you how (and probably more interestingly, where) I used AI to create my experimental Etsy print-on-demand business.
I have long adopted the practice of side-project time. While my ZDNET articles have regular deadlines, much of my other work -- especially client projects -- comes in waves. During seasonal downtimes, I will often pick a side project and give it a go. I wrote two very popular books during side-project time, built a bunch of software products, created something like 40 pinpoint iPhone apps, designed and built a self-lifting motorized CNC cart, and more.
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These side projects aren't necessarily meant to be side hustles. For me, side-projects are about learning and exploring new skills, stretching my capabilities, and maintaining my technical chops. I then take those learnings and fold them back into my main work, which brings us back to the topic of this article.
I've been exploring generative AI in a big way since just before Christmas last year. Although I've studied AI for decades, the capabilities of generative AI in tools like ChatGPT and MidJourney took me by surprise. Like many of my colleagues in the AI world, I honestly thought we were 20-30 years away from the astonishing level of functionality we've been seeing in the past few months.
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So, here we are, living in the future. I've shared my worries with you, but I haven't delved too far into the benefits. Could generative AI be used to cut work time, create new value, and actually create products — in a fraction of the time such tasks have taken in the past?
That's what this side project is all about.
(Note: Throughout this article, I'll be showing you AI prompts and responses. The prompts will be in bold and quoted, or flagged as such in bulleted lists. The AI's responses will be in italic text.)
Etsy has the ability to directly tie its online catalog to print-on-demand service providers. This means that if someone orders a T-shirt or a pillow with a unique design from Etsy, it can send that order to a print-on-demand fulfillment service, which in turn will produce the design and ship it out.
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All picking/packing, production, inventory, and fulfillment are accomplished remotely. It's not necessary for an Etsy store owner to deal with any of that themselves. That means no inventory piling up in the garage, no runs to the post office, and no unsold inventory when the product sales mix turns out differently than the forecast.
This seemed perfect for my experiment. I set up an Etsy store that sells T-shirts, pillows, puzzles, and notepads. As soon as any of the products are ordered, the order is transferred from Etsy to (in my case) Printables, which prints the items ordered and sends them to the customer.
All I, as the store operator, have to do is set up the designs, and pay both Etsy and Printables for their part in the service supply chain. If the products sell, Etsy sends me the customer's payment (minus their fees), which constitutes my profit from the endeavor.
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In the remainder of this article, I'll talk about the store's creation, and where I used generative AI in each of the tasks involved in setting up the products and store identity.
Full disclosure: This Etsy store is in operation right now, and I get paid for product sales. Because this article is intended to be educational and not a sales pitch, I've discounted all the store's products to my cost for the next month. If any of my readers do decide to purchase from the store, I won't make any profit (even though Etsy and Printables will). I trust that approach will protect this article from any conflict-of-interest issues.
And with that, let me introduce you to Morley Space . . .
One of my favorite games of all time is Bethesda's Dishonored. Playing it, I encountered the name Morley, which is one of the four main islands in the Empire of the Isles.
Since I wanted to have a steampunk aesthetic in my Etsy store, and Dishonored has a very definite steampunk vibe, I decided I liked the name Morley for my store. I decided to use Morley Space as the store name because I wanted my online store to feel like an emporium, a space for creative products.
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It was in creating this online identity that ChatGPT and MidJourney were first used. I wanted a banner across the store to reflect that steampunk vibe, with a bit of a cartoon feel. I asked MidJourney to create images with the following characteristics:
1940s style color cartoon of a steampunk era artist studio.
I was astonished when it generated the following set of pictures.
I didn't like the faces in them, so I had MidJourney give me variants of each of the four images, finally settling on the four that I then used in the shop's banner.
Using Photoshop, I split the images so they were splayed out horizontally, and added the sign panel. And I had a very compelling shop header with the exact design feel I was going for. All told, it took me probably 30 minutes to get my shop's banner put together, with MidJourney doing the heavy lifting.
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Etsy also wanted a slogan for the store. So I gave ChatGPT the following prompts until it presented me with one I liked:
Write 20 snarky slogans for a company named Morley Space
Give me 20 more
After a few spins of the "20 more" prompt, it gave me "Because the final frontier is just too darned far," which I decided was perfect.
In addition to a store name, I needed a proprietor. Etsy likes to put the name of the owner right on the home page. As part of the experiment, I asked ChatGPT to provide me with Victorian-era British first names, and among the list were Thomas and Elizabeth. So Thomas and Elizabeth became the proprietors.
Etsy also likes a store description. I found that asking ChatGPT to provide a description for both Thomas and Elizabeth seemed to confuse it, so I settled on this query:
Write a 250-word bio for Thomas Morley, the proprietor of a custom merch shop, who has traveled the world, mixes technology and art, and seeks out the best artists for t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other essential merchandise.
I then heavily edited the response, adding in details about Elizabeth, and tweaking it a bit to include phrases like "They are the proprietors of a custom merch shop that specializes in showcasing the work of talented artists and algorithms from around the world." You can read the entire description on the main page of the shop by scrolling down to The Morley Space Story.
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Finally, Thomas and Elizabeth needed a profile picture. So it was back to MidJourney. Here, I used the prompt:
hyperrealistic man and woman wearing steampunk goggles
I got back the following four images and chose the one on the upper right to represent Thomas and Elizabeth. To be fair, if I wanted an image that more closely represented me, I could have used:
hyperrealistic man with beard wearing steampunk goggles and top hat
I actually ran that prompt first, but didn't think that those scary, pompous-looking characters were inviting enough for the Morley Space vibe.
So now it was time for the merch. After watching several YouTubers talk about print-on-demand (PoD) and Etsy, I decided to use Printables as my merchandise producer and fulfiller. This decision is important because the merchandise producer dictates the selection of PoD merchandise you can offer, where you can ship, and -- often -- product quality.
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Although I wanted to use MidJourney to produce some designs, I also had a cool collection of licensed art that I'd invested in for a previous project, and I wanted to use some of those images (which included some great steampunk animals) as well. In addition, I wanted to put some pithy sayings on a few T-shirts, mostly because they appealed to me.
All told, I fielded 24 products in the following categories:
The pillows used the same artwork as the main shop banner, so you've seen that prompt. I created a series of four retro-futuristic puzzles. The MidJourney prompt was merely this:
The results were just so good that I decided to use them as-is.
If I ever decide to put up new designs on the shop, I have these that were generated by MidJourney using the simple prompt of:
Sometimes, it's possible simply to state a genre and let the AI go wild. Here's another one-word prompt with a similar genre:
Here's another that is certainly usable on T-shirts and notebooks:
Because MidJourney uses seeds to randomize results, it's extremely unlikely that what a "steampunk" prompt produces for me would be the same as what "steampunk" produces for you. In fact, as a test, I typed /imagine (what MidJourney uses to trigger a prompt) and typed in "steampunk" while writing this. Here are the images produced today:
That last image grid was produced using MidJourney v5, which adds a bit more photographic quality to the image. All the rest were done with MidJourney v4.
I wanted Morley Space to have a lot of information for each product because I pictured Morley Space as a real-world shop or catalog, where the items would have long, detailed, glorious descriptions and backstories. I wanted each item to have a compelling name that reflected the steampunk-ish vibe. I used ChatGPT to help with producing all this content.
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For the steampunk animal T-shirts and clockwork clown names, I gave ChatGPT prompts like:
From these lists (a few spun repeatedly with "give me 10 more), I chose: Hector Hare, Growler Grimley, Asp Ashworth, Boots Clockpurr, Arthur Decko, and Chester Chillybear. I used a similar set of prompts to name the clockwork clowns, the retro-futuristic puzzle designs, and the Victorian offices and studios in my images.
Next up were the product descriptions, and here I decided that each product would first tell the story of the subject and then provide a description of the product. So, for example, Abner Squawkwell (one of the notebooks) has this character story, generated by the AI:
Gentlemen, behold Abner Squawkwell, a remarkable creation of modern artifice and engineering! This clockwork clown skull, with its large teeth and wide, eerie smile, is a spectacle to behold. Its gleaming red nose serves as a beacon of merriment, beckoning all to come and witness its mechanical marvels.
As the cogs within its clockwork mechanism turn, Abner Squawkwell is brought to life, his movements as smooth as they are precise. Its creators have truly outdone themselves, for Abner is not just a machine, but a work of art.
With its uncanny appearance, Abner Squawkwell is sure to evoke a range of emotions from all who behold it. Some will be filled with wonder and delight, while others may be struck with fear and trepidation. But make no mistake, Abner Squawkwell is a marvel of science and technology, a true testament to the boundless imagination of man.
So, come one and all, and witness the clockwork clown skull that is Abner Squawkwell, a creation unlike any other in the world.
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To create these stories, I used prompts like these:
I selected the stories and asked refining questions of the AI. I also did a final edit. But the backstories of 20 characters would have taken a lot longer than a couple of hours if I'd had to write them all from scratch myself. The pithy saying T-shirts didn't get stories.
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Most of them, like Abner's story above, were cute, fun, and frankly good enough for an Etsy store description.
I wanted product descriptions for each product to go along with the backstories of the characters. It wouldn't do to just say something was a cotton T-shirt or a pillow or a puzzle. I wanted detailed, welcoming, almost overwhelming descriptions that evoked a special feeling about each product.
In short, I wanted Jony Ive.
And so, because ChatGPT can channel the style writing style of particular individuals, each product category got a treatment like this:
In the style of Jony Ive, write about a square throw pillow that comes in 14-inch, 16-inch, 18-inch, and 20-inch square sizes, is 100% spun polyester made from recycled polyester, and has a beige plastic zipper with metal head that allows removing of the pillow cover for cleaning. The pillow is custom printed from an original steampunk 1940s style cartoon illustration.
Presenting the Square Throw Pillow, a masterpiece of form, function, and sustainability. With four sizes to choose from - 14-inch, 16-inch, 18-inch, and 20-inch - this pillow is the perfect addition to your home's décor.
Crafted from 100% spun polyester, derived from recycled materials, this pillow is a harmonious blend of comfort and eco-consciousness. The fabric is soft to the touch and beautifully complements any décor style.
But what truly sets this pillow apart is its custom print. Inspired by the steampunk 1940s, this original cartoon illustration is a bold expression of creativity and individuality. The print is meticulously crafted, bringing the whimsical charm of the steampunk aesthetic to life in your home.
We've also thoughtfully designed the pillow's closure, incorporating a beige plastic zipper with a metal head. This not only adds to the pillow's visual appeal but also provides practical benefits - the cover can be easily removed for cleaning.
This Square Throw Pillow is more than just a pillow. It's a work of art, a fusion of innovation and style. And with its commitment to sustainability, it's a product that enhances your home, and the world around you.
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I tried a bit more to refine it:
In the style of Jony Ive, describe the health benefits of a pillow made from recycled 100% spun polyester
And ChatGPT gave me:
At the heart of our design philosophy is the belief that products should not only look beautiful, but also enhance people's lives. And that is exactly what our Square Throw Pillow, made from 100% spun polyester derived from recycled materials, accomplishes.
This pillow is not just aesthetically pleasing, it is also beneficial to your health. The 100% spun polyester fabric is soft to the touch and provides the ultimate comfort for a good night's sleep. The material is also hypoallergenic, making it a great choice for those with sensitive skin or allergies.
Furthermore, by using recycled materials, we are not only reducing our environmental impact but also providing a healthier sleep environment. Traditional pillow materials, such as feather or down, can harbor allergens and bacteria, leading to a less than optimal sleep experience. Our recycled polyester pillow is not only a greener option, it is also a cleaner one.
In conclusion, our Square Throw Pillow is a perfect example of form and function seamlessly blending together. With its commitment to sustainability, health, and comfort, it is a product that truly enhances people's lives.
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I asked for one more run:
In the style of Jony Ive, explain why throw pillows are valuable for room décor and design
Throw pillows are a testament to the power of simplicity and elegance in design. They are small details that make a big impact, adding texture, color, and comfort to any room.
At their core, throw pillows are versatile and functional pieces of décor that allow for endless possibilities in terms of design. They can be used to add a pop of color to a neutral room, complement a room's existing palette, or even serve as the focal point of the space. The options are limited only by one's imagination.
But beyond their aesthetic value, throw pillows also play a crucial role in comfort. They provide support for reading, watching TV, or simply lounging, adding a touch of coziness to any space.
Our Square Throw Pillow is a prime example of how throw pillows can enhance a room's décor. With its customizable print, neutral color options, and commitment to sustainability, it is a statement piece that not only adds visual interest but also comfort.
In conclusion, throw pillows are an essential element in any room's design. They offer endless possibilities for customization, add comfort and coziness, and enhance the overall aesthetic of the space. It is a testament to the impact that small details can have in shaping the look and feel of a room.
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I did this sort of thing across the product line. I took all of ChatGPT's responses and edited them together, pulling the best points from each version. I won't make you read all of the descriptions (you can visit the Etsy store if you want to see them). But one thing I will point out is that I took a few extra minutes to have ChatGPT talk about the health benefits of puzzles.
Describe in one paragraph the social benefits of puzzle solving as well as the benefits for those who are alone. Cite your sources.
Solving puzzles has many benefits, both for people who are alone and those who do it with others. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, older adults who regularly engaged in leisure activities, such as jigsaw puzzles, had an increased sense of social connectedness and well-being.
Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Leisure Research found that working on jigsaw puzzles with others can lead to increased communication and social interaction, which can help to foster a sense of community and belonging.
Furthermore, for those who are alone, a study published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy found that completing jigsaw puzzles can provide a sense of accomplishment and distraction from feelings of loneliness and it can also help to improve mood and self-esteem, especially in older adults.
Now, here's where marketing and journalism part ways. Knowing full well that ChatGPT doesn't always cite valid sources, I left the sources in the above product description because the journals actually exist and the findings make logical sense.
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For my experiment, I was looking at how to produce this sort of work fast, which is how I expect most people will use the tool. It's not great, but it is a realistic observation. Since I didn't have access to individual paywalled journal articles to find exact quotes, I left the citations as ChatGPT provided them.
So there you are. In less than a week, I created a unique-looking Etsy store with a complete identity and a lot of unique text and art -- almost none of which I created myself.
That's not to say it wasn't a lot of work. I edited everything ChatGPT produced. I played a lot with MidJourney to get to know it. I used Photoshop to convert images to formats I needed and Eagle to organize all my art assets.
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Plus, the process of setting up a store, each product, and each listing on Printables and Etsy is rather tedious. I found no way to automate the process, or pull listing information from one Etsy product into another, so I spent an inordinate amount of time filling in forms. For this extensive and unpleasant task, the AIs were no help at all.
What about my bottom line? I had no sales in the first month. In the second month, I sold two T-shirts to one buyer. And I had no sales in the third month.
To be fair, Etsy is huge and product discovery is difficult. To make matters worse for new stores, the social proof of lots of positive comments doesn't exist, because the customers aren't there yet. So it makes sense that a customer might buy a steampunk cat T-shirt from a vendor with hundreds of positive reviews, and skip a vendor with no reviews.
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I did try ads for the second and third months, but even though I allowed for a fairly hefty ad spend, Etsy didn't serve the ads all that often. I allowed Etsy to spend up to $20/day on advertising, but wound up spending a total of $16 for the two months, total. I've since turned the ads off.
SEO was clearly a big issue, as was my rather niche product selection. Unfortunately, ChatGPT wasn't able to help me with SEO at all. With short prompts, it just produced short, relatively unusable results. I don't know enough about Etsy SEO to train ChatGPT to produce better results with more extensive prompts.
As for the AIs, there's a lot to think about. MidJourney is astonishing, but it's also a bit stubborn. It really likes putting characters in images. Convincing it to produce exactly what you want, or to work on variations of a similar scene or character, is a lot of fiddly, arcane work. In some ways, it's a lot like working with a temperamental human artist.
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ChatGPT took on a lot of work that back in the day would have been perfect for an in-office or virtual assistant. I can certainly see handing a junior product manager or intern all the products and telling them to produce product descriptions in the style of Jules Verne and Jony Ive. So, in that context, ChatGPT can do the work of some humans, and can definitely impact job security.
On the other hand, I haven't had an assistant or virtual assistant in more than a decade, and I'm unlikely to hire one in the future. So having ChatGPT to help crank out all those descriptions was a help, and didn't put anybody out of work. And, if I'm being honest here, it was fun interacting with the AI and getting back a wide range of answers that I could then transform into final copy. It felt like a real collaboration.
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As a guy who's been exploring AI for my entire professional career, I experienced collaborating with these AIs as something far beyond the basic Turing Test and something of a dream come true. It was also a bittersweet feeling because I'm fully aware of the implications of what generative AI can do to many professional careers, and that scares me.
So what are my final conclusions?
For now, I'm keeping the store running. I might even add a few new designs. But I'm not advertising anymore, and I probably won't put much more energy into it, given it's not producing any real benefit other than a bit of job-related entertainment.
Do you have an Etsy store? What did it take for you to get it up and running? How long did it take for you to get sales? What tips do you have? Have you used ChatGPT or Midjourney to augment your content efforts? Let us know in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.