Jenn Zieser sold her first custom-made T-shirt on CafePress.com for fun in 2006. The entrepreneur now makes about US$25,000 (Dh91,825) a year from the site, more than at her regular job.
Ms Zieser, 41, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is part of a wave of entrepreneurs selling unusual merchandise in online marketplaces.
CafePress, Etsy, Zazzle and Spreadshirt help users find buyers for one-of-a-kind wares - from shirts to magnets to iPad covers. Now CafePress's initial public offering (IPO), which may come this year, will test whether Wall Street is ready to embrace the concept.
Web-savvy consumers are increasingly seeking out customised goods, says Frank Piller, a founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's smart customisation group. The challenge facing CafePress and its peers will be moving beyond their status as hobby businesses, expanding sales and withstanding the scrutiny of publicly traded companies.
"Consumers are more educated - they are really willing to adopt this model," says Mr Piller. "However, no one has proven that you can bring it up to a large scale."
CafePress and other would-be IPOs will have to contend with an increasingly skittish market for public offerings.
At least 11 IPOs in the US have been withdrawn or postponed since August 7, which at one point was the most in one week since 2000, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Sluggish consumer spending also could hurt CafePress and similar sites, says Francis Gaskins, the president of IPODesktop.com, which tracks the IPO market. "They're going into an adverse consumer-spending climate," he says.
Marc Cowlin, a spokesman for CafePress, based in California, declined to comment.
CafePress, which filed for its IPO in June, shipped 6 million items last year, ranging from clothing to drinking glasses to blankets. The company lets customers design and purchase products with their own text and images, or they can buy predesigned products from stores run by entrepreneurs.
Philip Rooke will be among those closely watching the company's stock-market debut. Mr Rooke, the chief executive of Spreadshirt, based in Germany, says he wants to find out how the market will value a company that specialises in customisation.
Spreadshirt, like CafePress, lets users design their own T-shirts and other clothing. In contrast to its larger competitor, Spreadshirt gets more than half of its revenue from fulfilling orders made through the websites of other shops. Those customers typically don't know they're making purchases using Spreadshirt's system, Mr Rooke says.
"The point of our platform is to bring partners' ideas and customers' ideas to life, so the customer ends up with a shirt they like and want to wear every day," he says.
Etsy, which markets itself as the world's handmade marketplace, also stands to benefit from consumers buying unusual and custom-made items, says Adam Brown, a spokesman for the company, based in New York.
"More people will find Etsy if they want things that can be customised," he says.
Etsy runs an online marketplace for buyers and sellers of just about everything handmade, from earrings to turtleneck dog sweaters. Unlike CafePress, Etsy does not fill orders or process transactions. Instead, it charges a 20 US cent listing fee and 3.5 per cent of the price of an item when it's sold.
Zazzle, meanwhile, offers customisable products ranging from T-shirts to speakers. Jason Kang, the vice president of marketing, says Zazzle, based in California, is a technology company that is focused on giving customers a highly realistic impression of what their clothing or accessories will look like.
* Zachary Tracer / Bloomberg News