Merch Momentum creator Michael Essany had a busy summer.
Meeting with artists from Marvel, D.C. Comics, Disney, and a sundry of preeminent titans in animation, publishing, filmmaking, and anime, Essany’s obsession with being a student of art and design isn’t patently obvious to the 16,000 members of the Merch Momentum Facebook group. They see the 39-year-old print-on-demand icon as a teacher more than a pupil.
But his appetite for knowledge is voracious. Almost obsessive.
“Every year I realize how much more I still have to learn,” says Essany while navigating the aisles of the July 2022 Comic Con at the Donald A. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois.
“I love coming to places where talented artists and creators converge,” he notes. “It doesn’t look like a classroom but it is one.”
When you meet Michael Essany, his presence is as intense as the on-screen energy that is his signature. It’s almost too much. Yet despite having a speaking pace and energy that some may find exhausting if not annoying, there’s little doubt that this natural born entrepreneur is doing what he was meant to do.
While in Rosemont for meetings, interviews and photo-ops with celebrities from film franchises spanning Rocky to Lord of the Rings, Essany’s single-minded focus was on design trends for print-on-demand.
“I think one of the reasons why so many print-on-demand creators struggle is because they’re always chasing hot niches but then they go and design tshirts for those niches with fonts, graphics, color schemes and aesthetics that haven’t been hot in years,” he admits.
Imitation, according to the 2005 magna-cum- laude Valparaiso University graduate, is not the sincerest form of flattery. In ecommerce, it’s the pinnacle of pathetic design work.
“You really have to use a wide-angle lens when creating original designs for POD today,” Essany preaches. “It’s not enough to pick an opportune niche. That’s just one part of it. Your style has to match the energy of your design’s message, the mood of the audience, and the mindset of your targeted buyers. Those things are all accomplished by being creatively fluid and rolling with today’s trends and effective strategies across multiple levels.”
While buoyantly optimistic about the future of the print-on-demand industry as a whole, Essany only flashes a glimmer of pessimism when discussing the explosion in negativity that he feels is plaguing ecommerce communities on social media.
“I’ve had many designs stolen — some of my best sellers,” Essany admits. “It hurts. Lost a lot of money because of it. It’s infuriating. This is made worse when you feel as though the platforms you’re selling on don’t go to bat for you in defense. But you know what? Between fraud and consumer theft, U.S. businesses lose an estimated $50 billion a year. And yet, these business owners keep their game face on and keep pushing forward. Too many people expect POD to be a seller’s paradise free of regular business problems. But a POD business is a regular business. So while I have sympathy for those not having an easy time, this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for me either! The sooner you stand up and face that reality, the sooner you can navigate around the obstacles that can’t be entirely eliminated at this point.”
Essany’s Etsy and Merch By Amazon royalty reports show annual year-over-year earnings increases since 2017. Impressive. But he’s not the least bit keen to flex about these digital receipts.
“There’s nothing reflected on my royalties that’s worthy of praise when you consider that I work myself into exhaustion trying to keep those sales up,” Essany says with a laugh.
The bags under his eyes would appear to validate those claims.
“It doesn’t come easy to me,” he reiterates. “If it looks like it does, it doesn’t. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But that’s the point. If I can do this and keep growing, I think anyone can. But they have to get out of their own way to do so.”
Since our interview, Essany completed work on his first coaching course. Merch Momentum’s “Course of Action” currently holds a 100% 5-star rating on Gumroad, the release platform of his 3-hour video presentation.
Fresh off the success of “Course of Action,” Essany is tight-lipped about his next project.
“I’m working on something for October that I don’t think has been done before, at least not in the way I’m intending to do it,” he teases. “We’ll see how it turns out.”
Essany’s next project may be shrouded in mystery but his goal is anything but a secret.
“Creators in print-on-demand have to think more strategically about growing their businesses in 2023,” Essany says. “Too many people are operating POD businesses with superficial knowledge about the niches and aesthetics that could be making them a lot more money by virtue of providing a lot more value to consumers. We have to get back to remembering that we’re here to serve target audiences. When that reality clicks with a seller and he or she can work toward that goal free of distractions, they’re unstoppable.”
According to Essany, it’s about “going the distance.”
“Most people in POD right now are not making life changing money,” he admits. “But to use a boxing analogy, they’re still in an early round of the fight. Heroes are made in the later rounds. If you can learn to take the educational punishment that comes from fighting your way through these early rounds, you just might knock out your own expectations in the end.”
For a man who constantly talks about originality, Essany’s advice is the furthest thing from original.
According to Essany, persistence and consistency can still elevate any besieged seller to the top of their game.
“Just because it’s been said a million times doesn’t make it any less true,” Essany fires back. “If you are a persistent student of the game and consistently deliver designs that audiences haven’t seen in the niches they care about, you will eventually do well. Your originality has to be in your creative output, not your approach to running a business. A tough mind, an appetite for knowledge, and a refusal to lose are as old as time. But they still work. And we need more of it in print-on-demand.”