Case Study: No more excuses. Turning a creative hobby into $12,000

Ramit Sethi

Artists and creative people love to whine about not being able to earn more money. “But Ramit,” they say, “your tips don’t apply to me. I’m an ARTIST, not some IT expert/business writer/consultant.” (All those are codewords for “sellout.”)



There’s even the myth of the starving artist — the idea that starving is GOOD for creativity.

All of these reasons are nonsense.

Most creative people could earn thousands more every month if they adopted classic approaches to marketing their products and themselves. Interestingly, if the word “marketing” elicits an instant recoil in you, you likely have an invisible script of “marketing=sellout” in you.

Today, a story about how Franky Chung, a web designer, doubled his rates and earned $12,000.


* * * 

Desperate to accept any amount of money

Franky had been working on small-scale web design projects since high school, but he just thought of it as a hobby. He built websites for friends and family, and steadily improved his skill level. Eventually, he decided he was good enough to try working on some real paid projects, but he had no idea what to do next.

He knew that he had a skill that was in demand, but the next step of actually getting paid for it was vague and frustrating. Was he just supposed to start a blog, make a portfolio, and wait for people to contact him? Should he just rely on friends passing his name around?

When he finally did get put in contact with clients, he was so desperate that he would accept anything they asked for. He was so nervous that he would never bring up his rate, so his clients would always be the ones to set it.

Turning a hobby into a career

Franky had followed I Will Teach You To Be Rich for a few years, and he decided to sign up for my Earn1K course on earning money to see if it could help him turn his hobby into serious income..

He had considered web design to be just a hobby, not a way to make any real money. But it turned out that his conceptions were “absolutely wrong, like the exact opposite.” His biggest problem had been not knowing how to approach clients, and Earn1K “directly addressed that with very actionable steps and immediate results.”

Looking back months after completing the course, he easily names a whole list of techniques that he uses all the time: sample scripts to use in pitch emails, how to blow a client away with high-quality work, using the Briefcase Technique to dominate interviews, and the absolute best way to find customers on Craigslist (that’s how he found his first big client).

But there are other case studies that focus on each of those techniques. Here, I want to talk about the tactic that really set him apart and changed his life.

How Franky made it a no-brainer for clients to choose him over the competition

No matter how good a portfolio you have, clients can never be sure how well you’ll do on their project just by looking at your past work.

Franky realized that he could put those fears to rest by giving them a chance to work with him with absolutely no risk. At the end of every pitch email, he began including an offer for a free sample. This wasn’t just a vague, halfhearted offer, but a proposal for a real piece of work that was specific to them and their project. For example, if they were looking for someone to redesign their homepage, he would offer to do the header or the navigation bar for free.

These free trials would be as much as a full day of work for him, but they would be incredibly useful for both sides:

Franky got to know the client better and find out immediately if they were a lot of trouble, had crazy expectations, or just weren’t worth his time.

The client got the chance to see exactly what Franky could do. It let tech-savvy clients get a taste of his coding style and make sure that his skillset was what they needed. And it let non-tech-savvy customers see if their personalities were compatible and whether or not he was reliable.

This make it much easier for clients to choose Franky over other freelancers with whom they had zero experience. Plus, it also saved Franky a lot of trouble in one specific case where he realized right away that a client would be far more trouble than he was worth (he didn’t understand technology and had ridiculous expectations).

At first, Franky would explain to clients that — since he was inexperienced — he would love to offer them some free work to prove himself. Later, he thought of it more as a courtesy thing: let’s do a short free trial — for both our sakes — to make sure that we’re a good fit for each other.

Doubling his rate and moving to Tokyo

In the 3 months after completing Earn1K, Franky doubled his hourly rate and made $12,000. After starting out with no idea how to attract clients, he was shocked at how quickly he was able to line up months of high-quality paid work.

There are several basic and sophisticated variables to consider when doing free work. Who’s worth doing free work for? When should you never do free work? How do you go from free to highly paid? Franky used the Earn1k material on pricing to execute his free-to-fee strategy.

His life has completely changed since then: He quit his management consulting job and now does web development full-time. “I didn’t know I would love it so much! It’s especially amazing to get to work at home on my own time instead of going into the office every day.”

Finally, after just a few months of freelancing full-time, an amazing opportunity fell in his lap: a startup wanted him to move to Tokyo to work on their website. And it’s all thanks to his new strategy: “There’s no way I would have been able to get this offer if I hadn’t been developing my skills in this new field.”

First, he had used his new techniques to turn his hobby into a full-time career. Then, without the burden of his day job, he was able to push his skills to where they needed to be for his new job in Japan.

Looking to the future, Franky feels the complete opposite of the desperation from last year. “I don’t know where I’ll be in a year from now, but it’s very reassuring to know that I can take my new skills anywhere with me.”

If you’re curious to hear the story from Frankie’s own mouth, here he is on video (starts at 2:10):



Curious what Frankie learned?

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  1. Paula @

    “Try my services for free!” is one of the best, and most overlooked, forms of sales. It works because it’s NOT a slimy strategy: it’s an honest opportunity for both parties to “go on a date,” if you will, and get to know each other before they decide to commit for the long haul.

    I earned my full-time job at a newspaper by interning for the paper first, and I can’t think of a single better way to prove my worth than by SHOWING it, day in and day out.

    • Jeff

      Agreeable disagreement here.

      I’ve dealt with a number of freelancers and all too often I am willing to pay for quality. The higher the rate, the higher quality of work, and the more professional everyone becomes.

      On the flip side, when a freelancer provides work for free, that value drops to zero.

      That said every company has its slight difference and each persons mileage will vary with every piece of advice.

    • Franky

      That’s interesting! Would you feel different if the free work is emphasized as a very small subset of the entire project and the rest would be at a standard rate, or is this the case with any free work at all?

  2. Daniel M. Wood

    Its all about what you believe. If you consider yourself to be worth nothing, you are.
    If you consider yourself to be a valuable asset, you are.

    You have to present yourself as someone you should and need to work with. When you do you can elivate hobby to business, whatever market you are in.

  3. Peter | Drupal Video Tutorials

    Interesting post. I can’t watch the video at work but hope it would provide some more techincal details on what franky offers (development from scratch, php vs. jsp, wordpress or drupal, etc.), how he continues to stay up to speed on changing techniques (i.e., css3). I was in a similar boat, took beyond1k and started doing free video tutorials just to help other people who were starting out like me. turns out, clients were finding my site based on the tutorials which were actually demonstrating my knowledge of drupal / web development.

    my perspective has definitely changed and i have less patience for people who tell me it’s impossible to make more money or that the economy is screwing them.

    • Franky

      I work mainly with Drupal – It’s a great tool to bring a project from inception to a fully functioning site when it’s a one-man operation. I keep up with the latest technology on my own time but I’ve been lucky many of the people I’ve worked with have been open to trying new things 🙂

  4. cc

    +1 for doubling web design fees. different designers’ fees so across the board no one even notices. i doubled them last year and there was no slowing down of work.

  5. Investor Bees

    Turning hobby into career is great option as it can help you increase your sources of income and help you become rich. Most importantly you will be doing what you enjoy 🙂

  6. Nico Schweinzer

    Hey Ramit, your retweet has a misspelling, thought you wanna know 🙂

  7. anonymous

    Might want to correct the spelling of Franky’s/Frankie’s name.

  8. AL

    This is good advice, but the video made me laugh. It looks suspiciously like those late night infomercials…

    • Ramit Sethi

      : )

      I’ve found that no matter how many ways I talk about living a rich life — even including real people sharing their stories on video — some people won’t believe it. Oh well!

  9. Razwana

    Offering your service for free is an interesting concept. As a coach, I have always been taught never to offer a free session as it never takes just one session to help someone move forwards…. Earn1K here I come …

  10. Justin @ MoneyIsTheRoot

    I hope I am able to turn my personal finance blog into a money maker like that!

  11. Gal @ Equally Happy

    I’m actually hiring a graphic designer right now and I’ve gotten a multitude of offers. Most of them I’ve turned down since they never bother to show me examples of their work. Here I am hiring for work that is very visual and you don’t bother sending me samples or a link to a portfolio? I don’t need you to offer me free work but I do need to see what you’ve done. Even if you haven’t had any professional work yet, put together a portfolio of “here’s how I would have designed the CNN website” or “here’s my idea for a cool iPhone app UI”. Heck, send me to your personal website with a cool layout that you designed yourself.

    I’m willing to pay for good work but I’m not willing to pay without seeing proof that you do good work.

  12. Monday Roundup: Personal Finance & Credit News | Credit Karma Blog

    […] Case Study: No more excuses. Turning a creative hobby into $12,000. Franky had been working on small-scale web design projects since high school, but he just thought of it as a hobby. He built websites for friends and family, and steadily improved his skill level. Eventually, he decided he was good enough to try working on some real paid projects, but he had no idea what to do next. I Will Teach You To Be Rich […]

  13. John Bardos - JetSetCitizen

    Charlie Hoehn published a fantastic ebook on using free work to get gigs. He managed to work with Tim Ferris, Seth Godin, Tucker Max and of course, Ramit Sethi.

    It is definitely worth a read.

  14. seema sinha

    The story of Franky Chung is very inspiring.It shows that if you have creativity and persistence,nothing can stop you from succeeding in your life.

  15. Justin

    It’s all about getting your foot in the door, and by offering something for free you aren’t lowering the value of your service like offering a very low initial rate.

    For example, if you want to be making $1,000 per website you design, don’t start by offering to do them for $200. Instead offer something free like Franky did, and then hit them with the real deal.

    While its true that some businesses go for the lowest bidder, there’s also a lot out there that see higher price = higher quality so they’ll pay it

  16. Al Pittampalli

    Agreed. Client acquisition is so expensive through advertising or any other means, it turns out offering your service for free is one of the cheapest investments in marketing anyone can make.

  17. vanita singh

    Very inspiring.I just want to ask you one thing : “do you think that you need to be lucky along with other ingredients like hard work,etc to be successful or you dot need luck?

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  19. T. AKA Ricky Raw

    This has been pretty inspiring. Thanks for sharing Frankie.

  20. Kate

    Ramit! You didn’t mention this (understandably) but the free-to-pay strategy is what you use yourself, isn’t it? I can say with total confidence that I would never have signed up for some “program” of yours I’d have to pay for without having read your website, gotten your newsletter, etc. I’ve had your emails rolling in for so long that I feel completely confident that were I to pay for one of your courses, I’d get something of real quality. (And I’m tempted, but I just bought a finance book more specific to my chosen career!) Same for this guy who runs an internet dating course – I’ve had his emails around so long and seen all the good advice he offers for free, so I already trust him more than some random schmuck.

    Now that I look at it this way, it’s a fantastic idea. I am in that weird place Franky was in, where I have the training and (to some extent) the ability to turn out a good product, but I’m inexperienced and I get nervous asking for a truly fair price. I’d be interested to see if I can’t find some way to make this suggestion work for me, as a future studio artist. Of course, studio artists are supposed to make the paintings and *then* sell them, but there’s no reason I can’t start out doing commission work. I’ve just made a really good connection with a woman who has me painting custom games for children’s parties – I can try to expand my client base and offer them something small for free. Maybe a design for a party invitation! Oh, boy, I’m excited now. Thanks so much for this advice.

  21. Toni Ruppert

    Hi Ramit! This is awesome and very effective for artists. Thank You.