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Paid vs Free stuff

The crazy balance of creator economy

How to balance your paid and free materials?

Most creators offer two ways to engage with their content. Paid and Free.

The free one is often “free with ads” but for simplicity let’s just use it as “free”.

Many educational creators offer free content to guide their customers to get the paid materials. This is how they make money. Either through Instagram posts, YouTube videos, and/or free books and courses.


But why does it have to work that way?

On-demand economy

Do you want a pizza? Chances are you’re able to have one delivered to your door in less than 30 minutes.

We’re living within an on-demand economy that outpaces itself when it comes to best offers. That means we’re practically used to getting stuff either for free or extremely cheap.

And that’s ok.

I work in delivery

My job is in delivery as well. It’s not pizzas (sadly), but education. And sometime in mid-2023, I messed up.

Big time.

I lost my balance.


My sales had gone up due to a couple of very popular products and I decided to go all-in on “more selling”.

The thinking behind it was simple:

“If I talk about my paid stuff more, I will get more money”

This, however, is a failed logic and in my case, it’s best reflected in this graph. We’ll get back to that soon, but first I need to explain to you my product lifecycle breakdown.


How selling digital products works

Each product has a pretty specific lifecycle. Some are more timeless than others, but for most of them, it works in a similar way.

It starts with the announcement and anticipation phases, usually done as a cheaper preorder that allows people to obtain the product at a lower cost by committing to it early. That is that little peak at the very beginning.

Then there’s the launch date, followed by content marketing around it and word of mouth of first happy users. In my case that growth continues for about 7–8 months per product.

Then there is a natural decline of interest and the sales begin to drop as well. That dropoff is quite gradual though, with all products selling still, even after 2–3 years of release. It just slows down.


Reasons for the cycle

That is natural as people expect newer and more relevant content all the time — both from me and from other sources.

Don’t fear the drop-off. It’s natural.

When focusing on a multi-product strategy it’s also a healthy motivator to up the game with every subsequent release.

How to fail?

As I mentioned before I got blown away by some of my course sales — especially ones from the web design bundle. The obvious factor was sales numbers, but also direct feedback from people — they loved the web courses!


With that knowledge, I decided that if people love them so much, maybe I should start shoving it down their throats a little more in all my content.

I launched a sales campaign in all my content marketing for over 6 weeks. That means that most of my posts, videos, and articles were all just ways to sell those specific courses.

The products were good, but my sales approach definitely wasn’t.

A health(ier) strategy

Mid-summer 2023, while exploring the massive fjords of Norway I decided to change course. To make this story more dramatic let’s imagine I came up with this idea right here.


The new strategy

The new strategy was to limit the pushy sales and instead come up with a free product that would be so good people would think I’m insane.

I already had a moment like that when I released 1/5th of my UI book completely free which at that time was unheard of. My free 60 pages were as big as many other whole, paid books.

This time however I decided to focus on solving a very specific problem. I’ve been reviewing junior designer work for a while and realised that at those earliest skill levels, you can actually spot the same few mistakes over and over.

Things like:

  • fonts are too big, too small, or a weird typeface

  • pastel or overly saturated colors clashing with each other

  • absolutely no visual hierarchy

  • messy layouts

  • spacing that doesn’t follow a grid

That’s when I came up with the idea of creating a guide for just this specific purpose.

It wasn’t meant to be a guide to becoming a professional designer. That’s what everyone else was doing.



This guide was basically a step by step introduction to how not to suck at design.

This opposite approach worked well with a bit of profanity in the title — to show I’m dead serious and funky, playful visuals made it instantly stick.


Now this guide, when used right will definitely make your designs better.

It wasn’t meant to make them awesome though. Once you start seeing that progress you’ll naturally want more. It moves you from “I suck at design” space to “Hey I don’t suck anymore!” and it works fast.

This starter product, because of the condensed knowledge and pretty quick results people got with it became one of my most downloaded ebooks of all time and drove up the sales of everything else.


It’s easy to explain with a visual like that, but that’s actually how it worked.

For a few months, I didn’t have to promote any of my paid products — this one stunt took care of it all.

My free/paid balance now

It’s important to keep a healthy balance. Sure — you gotta inform people you’re releasing something you’ve worked hard on. But don’t add it to all the posts and all the content.

That’s why there are no links to any of these products in this article either.

It’s not about that. It’s about showing actual, measurable value for free first. And what that value is clear to people it only makes sense they will want more.


The right kind of free

One thing I realized is that it’s necessary to deliver the right kind of free. If, for example, you just release a small part of a larger complex product for free it might not be enough.

That’s because a disjointed part will rarely give any actual progress to the customers. Sure, they’ll be happy they got it for free, but chances are they won’t get better at design with it. For that, they’d need the whole thing.

My new approach fixed that completely. It offered a free product that covers all main aspects of UI design, up to a certain skill level. That led to people quickly getting better and seeing that.

That led to sales.


Right now I’m focused on delivering value first, and only informing there’s more (paid) value where it came from later.

That’s also my approach to keeping both the free and paid plans of our platform, with the free plan having most of the (unguided) exercises available to everyone without limits.

People are smart, they know when they’re being sold to.

Let’s just help them, make them happy and they’ll happily buy our stuff themselves.

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