Zen Pencils: From Scratch to Online Success in 9 Months

Tired of his boring 9 to 5 job in the corporate world, Gavin Aung Than broke free and pursued his dream to find a more fulfilling way to make a living. He quit his job, sold his house, and committed himself and his savings to a new direction.

Being an avid reader of Wikipedia biographies and a lover of famous quotes, he decided to use his drawing skills to put illustrations to these quotes and stories to share them with the world. From one page posters of quotes to longer comic book style pieces, Gavin puts pictures to whatever quotes or stories he finds inspiring, challenging, or simply funny.

In less than 9 months since its launch, Gavin's site, ZenPencils.com, has made quite a name for itself and has steadily become one of the most popular sites in its niche. These days, Zen Pencils attracts thousands of visitors a day and it's poised to grow exponentially.

I met Gavin a few months ago at a blogging event and found his story inspiring. He kindly agreed to share some of his success secrets with us. Enjoy!


1.Gavin, on your about page you stated that you left your corporate job out of boredom and a desire to pursue something that was more personally fulfilling. Has this paid off? Are you managing to do what you want and make a living from it?

Definitely! Although I’m not quite making a full-time income yet, I think the website has a lot of potential and I’ve never been more fulfilled creatively. Everything is better since I left my previous job, the air smells fresher, food tastes better, life in general is just sweeter when you try to forge your own path rather than following the orders of others. Although it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s work that I love doing.

2.Why did you choose to illustrate famous quotes and stories? What was the draw to them in particular?

I really enjoy learning about history and great people whether they be politicians, revolutionaries, athletes, comedians or whomever – I just like learning about different things so I wanted to combine this with my love of cartooning and comics. I thought adapting quotes by these famous people into comics would allow me to combine all of my passions while at the same time, I thought the comics might help others who hadn’t come across these quotes before.

3.You mentioned that your favorite quote is one by Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America, in which he speaks about taking action and striving against all odds to accomplish a worthy cause. This seems like it could relate to what you are doing with Zen Pencils. Would you agree there is a correlation there? How are you taking action with Zen Pencils?

Yes, the quote is all about taking action and striving for big things and even if you fail ‘at least you won’t be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat’. So I guess I’m taking action by starting my site, even if it doesn’t work out at least I would know that I’ve tried. I could have stayed at my old job, it was very comfortable, it paid pretty well but I would have always wondered about ‘what could have been.’

4.What has been the most difficult part of starting your own business so far?

Probably trying to handle all the OTHER necessities besides just the creative part. Paperwork, emails, marketing, bookkeeping, hustling etc.

5.You mentioned on your website that you find yourself more geared towards the creative side of your business in that you really enjoy the illustrating. Yet, you find the sales and marketing side a little more daunting. I imagine a lot of creative people would find themselves in the same predicament. How do you manage that dichotomy?

Well, like I said I wasn’t paying enough attention to the business side of things so I’ve actually cut back on my updates to only one a week (it used to be two) to give me more time to focus on the business aspects of the website.

6.What advice would you give to other creative individuals thinking about starting a business selling their art?

There’s never been a better time to do it. Thanks to the internet and social media your work can be seen by the entire world and with the influx of print-on-demand websites you can now sell your work without having to print them yourself.

7.Do you have any plans for Zen Pencils in the future? Where do you hope to see the business in five years?

Just to keep growing the website and community. Five years, wow, I’ve got no idea to be honest. I might be onto a new project by then!

8.Can you tell us a little bit more about your background in drawing? Did you pursue any formal education or was this all a self-taught skill/natural talent?

I studied graphic design in university, but don’t have any formal cartooning training. I have been drawing though in one form or another since I was a child.

9.As a child, were you a doodler? Did you feel naturally drawn towards illustrations from an early age?

I was mainly drawn towards cartoon shows when I was a kid. I constantly watched cartoons on TV, then immersed myself in comic strips and comic books. They were just always a big part of my life … and still are!

10.On your Facebook page, you allow fans to suggest quotes to you for illustration. How has that worked out? Do you find a lot of inspiration coming from your fans?

It’s worked out great. I think about 75% of the quotes I use are reader-submitted quotes, so the website has also helped me connect with people and learn new things . I am constantly amazed by my readers and the response I’ve received.

11.Your prints for sale look absolutely rich in color and quality. How satisfied are you with the print production of your work?

I’m using a print-on-demand service called Society6 and they’ve been great. The quality is fantastic and I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from readers.

12.Where do you see your print work as being best displayed? Are these prints people might put in their offices? Their homes? Schools?

Anywhere and everywhere. I’ve gotten many photos from readers with my work hanging in their bedrooms or office. And yes, I think they’re perfect for the classroom – I’ve donated a few posters to some school teachers.

13.How do people find out about your work? Is it mostly via searching the Internet, through recommendations by others, or do you have any other marketing avenues?

I think word-of-mouth and social media have been my biggest marketing tools. A lot of people share the comics on Facebook and Twitter. StumbleUpon has also been a big help and brought in lots of new readers. I make the comics easy to share online which helps.

14.What piece of advice would you give to other individuals who feel bored in their 9 to 5. job and want to try pursuing something they would find more personally fulfilling?

Just go for it! I mean, obviously have a plan but don’t wait until everything is perfect before taking the plunge because there is never a perfect time. As Ray Bradbury in one of the quotes I’ve used said: “You’ve got to jump and build your wings on the way down.”

Thank You


Gavin updates his website zenpencils.com weekly where fans can view his work. He also maintains a Facebook page titled Zen Pencils where fans can interact with the artist himself. As a bonus, Gavin does take requests from fans to illustrate quotes they suggest to him, although he cannot promise to do them all, of course. You can also find him on Twitter @zenpencils

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Chief Editor

Tal Gur is an author, founder, and impact-driven entrepreneur at heart. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living, has led him to found Elevate Society.

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