Case Study: Zen Pencils

Every creative dreams of being able to quit their day job to pursue their craft full time. And Zen Pencils creator (and Artist Shop owner) Gavin Aung Than managed to successfully trade his corporate design job to pursue his passion of cartooning. But while Gavin managed to turn his passion project into a successful career, his story is also humbling and realistic. It took more than simply posting a comic and gaining success – getting to where he is now took work, insane dedication, and a leap of faith. Here’s the story of how Zen Pencils came to be successful and some takeaways to learn from if you’re looking to quit your job to pursue art.



In the eight years leading up to diving into Zen Pencils full time, Gavin was working at a newspaper as a graphic designer. He had a few of his comics published regularly in the newspaper he worked at. But at a certain point he knew he wasn’t happy and if he was going to pursue cartooning, he needed to just do it.

He quit his job in late 2011, and in February of 2012, Zen Pencils was officially born.

Since then, Zen Pencils has been featured in major publications like The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Slate, Mashable, Gawker, and many, many more. Gavin has been able to turn his passion for cartooning into a full-time career, and a successful one at that.

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It wasn’t just going from point A: quit job, to point B: success. Gavin had to make a lot of sacrifices, put in a lot of work, and be very focused to grow Zen Pencils into a career. He even sold his house so that he could make some extra money to support himself throughout the process, and as security in case things didn’t work out. What’s more, in an interview with Threadless, he said that he gave himself just 6 months to make it work.

Zen Pencils was also built with a very specific vision – make a series of  inspirational quotes into comics. He knew exactly what he was setting out to do and was laser focused on it.

(Takeaways and tips after the comic!)

a cartoonists advice

  • Dedication and sacrifice: Just to say it again – he sold his house: this is a perfect example of how starting your own business takes sacrifices and a helluva lot of dedication. I’m not saying you’re going to have to sell your house, but know that there will be trade-offs and financial choices to be made.
  • He gave himself a deadline: Setting a deadline, or a specific amount of time you want to grow a business in is a good way to narrow your focus and make sure you’re not wasting any time.
  • It’s. Hard. Work. Gavin mentions in a video on his site that people think it’s just fun all the time to write comics professionally. But it’s a lot of drawing and a lot of hard work. You can pursue your passion, but that doesn’t mean a ticket to living the easy life. You’re still running a business.  
  • Consider doing something parallel to what you want to do: Working at the newspaper as a graphic designer for eight years didn’t make Gavin happy. But being there helped give him the technical skills he needed to cartoon professionally, not to mention, gave him access to getting his comics published in a newspaper, which further honed his skills, as well as his resume and visibility.  He told GoComics,

    I’m glad I worked that graphic design job, because I developed an eye for good design and learnt how to use Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator like the back of my hand…Having my work published regularly [in the newspaper] for years improved my cartooning skills enough so that when the time came, I would be competent enough to make Zen Pencils a success.”

    Consider doing something that pays the bills for a bit that’s just parallel to your passion, something that allows you to hone your skills and prepare for when you do want to make the freelance move.
  • Multiple Money-makers: On Gavin’s site, he has multiple products you can buy – including prints and mugs – and recently expanded and opened up a Threadless Artist Shop. Make your art available to purchase on multiple canvases. (Want to sell your art on apparel? Threadless Artist Shops are free! Save money where you can by starting one today!)
  • Fill your free time: Gavin mentions on his site that while he was working corporate jobs, he would kill time by reading Wikipedia pages about interesting people, which would later inspire many of his comics. Use your lunch breaks, your free time, when the boss isn’t looking at your day job to sneak in opportunities to doodle or plan out a sketch or comic or do some research for a piece, etc.
  • Consistent social media: Within a week of posting his Artist Shop, Gavin updated a gif on his site that shows what products he offers to include tees, as well as posted about it on his blog. He posts comics every 1-3 weeks and frequently posts with updates.

In an interview with Threadless, Gavin offered some realistic advice:

“Advice is tricky, because what worked for me might not work for others. All I can say is that if you’re looking to break out on your own and be a successful freelancer or creative entrepreneur, it’s going to be really, really, really difficult. You’re going to have to work harder than you ever have and constantly hustle and sell yourself. You most likely won’t make much money in the first few years, if at all, and your stress and anxiety levels will skyrocket. If this STILL sounds appealing to you, then go for it, because the rewards of being your own boss and being fulfilled creatively make it all worth it.”

.     .     .

We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!

Illustration done by the fantastic Katie Lukes

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