On October 10, 2013, Charli Prangley uploaded her first YouTube video. But you won’t be able to find it anywhere. Like many early adopters of YouTube, she’s taken down a few of her first videos. It’s normal to be awkward and imperfect when you’re trying something new; most creators are embarrassed by their first attempts. But those shaky first steps are crucial.
Even though Charli cringes when she watches her first video, she knows without it she wouldn’t be where she is today: the Creative Director at ConvertKit, and a creator with over 205K YouTube subscribers.
Charli’s YouTube channel focuses on design. It showcases her design life and process, and shares content to help other designers move forward in their careers.
But it didn’t start out that way.
I know because Charli gave me access to watch that very first video.
It doesn’t make me cringe like it does for her – I find it rather delightful. But I can understand why she’d find it hard to watch now. Because she isn’t quite herself. She’s doing that thing almost everyone does the first time they speak in front of a camera – they try to act like other people they’ve seen in front of a camera, instead of themselves.
But Charli’s sincerity still shines through. In her first video she shares:
My videos will mostly be about design, music, travel, fashion, maybe a few healthy recipes thrown in here and there.
So why and when did she stop making videos about music and travel and fashion and food? How did her channel go from 0 to 205K subscribers in eight years? And how does she manage being a full-time creator and having a full-time job? That’s what I’m here to find out.
But first, Charli gives me a tour of her home office in Valencia, Spain.
The first things I notice are a record player and a cat tree. The cat, Nora, shows up shortly after and almost trips Charli (“She likes to be near me at all times.”).
Charli recovers her balance and shows me the most important thing in the room: “Here's my pride and joy: my gallery wall.”
Prints cover almost every spot on the wall, expertly placed, nothing matching but everything working together.
I ask Charli which print she’s had the longest and she points to the one she designed herself years ago, inspired by a quote from a friend. It reads: “High-Def Hopes and Dreams.”Then I ask her an impossible question – which one is her favorite?
She starts by telling me about the print that says “I like it. What is it?” by Anthony Burrill. But then she also adds a few more of his prints. Oh and also the one that says “You’ll think of something.”
I love them all. This is too difficult. I'm just going to tell you about every single one.
And she does. She’s as big a fan of design as she is a practitioner.
And it was being a fan that got her started in the first place.
“Being a designer wasn't really seen as a good, solid career.”
Charli’s love of design started with music. When she was 13, she got a job delivering newspapers just so she could earn enough money to buy her own CDs, obsessed with opening the little designed booklets folded in the front that revealed lyrics. She always read the liner notes and was fascinated by how they, and the album covers, were designed.
On the weekends in high school, she’d design and create her own magazines, cutting and folding paper and gluing things from real magazines but with her own layout. She remembers spending a lot of time once making sure a “P” was in just the right place.
I was a nerd my whole life.
It was in a high school art class that she learned graphic design was an actual job. She realized: “These people who are making magazines and CD album art, that is their job. There's people who do that. The musicians don't design it themselves.”
But for a while, when anyone asked her what she wanted to do with her life, she’d say “teacher.”
It just felt like the thing you were supposed to say. Because everyone understands what a teacher is and what they do. And it seems like a respectable job. Whereas at that time being a designer wasn't really seen as a good, solid career. It was like, that's the risky artsy choice.
But it seemed like a risk worth taking. By the end of high school Charli told people she wanted to be a designer.
I remember feeling judged in school. I got third in my class for the year and someone said, “Oh, it doesn't count though because your grades were in art subjects.”
But I don't feel like that ever turned me off it. It was just more like, “screw that person.”
That fire would help Charli when she took her passion to the judgemental world of the internet.
But first, she went to design school, where she started the business that would change everything.
“In my real life I was a nobody, but the brand made me somebody online.”
Charli studied design at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, about a four-hour ferry ride from where she grew up in Nelson.
She loved being around other people who cared about art and design as much as she did – but when it came to finding people who also shared her love of music, she turned to Tumblr. She spent hours with her new online Tumblr friends deciphering clues to figure out when Fall Out Boy would release their next album.
One day she got enough courage to share a photo of a T-shirt she’d made herself, inspired by Fall Out Boy lyrics. The community was so encouraging, and many said they would love to buy something like that.
It made me dare to dream. Could I print and sell T-shirts? Is that something I’d be able to do?
One of her Tumblr followers introduced her to Phil who owned a vinyl T-shirt print shop. He offered to give her a discount if she helped with the printing process (in the blog post she wrote about the T-shirt venture she says, “Phil, if you ever see this: thank you for believing in me!”).
I had a way to print shirts. I had designs. I had a (pretty crappy) brand logo and some hilariously emo promo imagery. And I had people who wanted to wear my designs.
She made sales through Tumblr: “No ecommerce store. No email list. Just posts informing incredibly trusting strangers about how to send me money for products that didn’t even exist yet.”
She printed 40 shirts in her first run, and weeks later started getting pictures from people all over the world wearing her designs.
It was the best feeling in the world.
In my real life I was a nobody, but the brand made me somebody online.
That T-shirt business helped her get through the loneliness and struggles of university, and taught her everything she would need in her next season.
That business was my training on how to hustle. It taught me that I can learn to do anything I want. It taught me time management and discipline. And most importantly, it taught me how important passion is.
It also showed her what it meant to be a creator: “You can have an idea, you can figure out how to bring it to life, and it can exist, you know?”
That business lasted for a decade: “But by the end, it was barely hanging on by a thread. Pun intended.”
The reason why? She’d fallen in love with something else.
“Making is one thing, sharing with the world is another.”
After graduating design school in 2011, Charli got her first design job on a marketing team and moved in with her younger sister Samme, who’d just started making YouTube videos.
I thought it was super weird. I was like, “What are you doing? You're filming yourself in your bedroom and you're putting it on the internet for other people to see?”
As kids we always liked making our own home movies and we'd always grab a video camera and film each other. But that felt different to uploading it to the internet.
Making is one thing, sharing with the world is another.
But then Charli started watching her sister’s videos and finding other vlogs. She finally got it: “Okay, people are talking about their life on YouTube.” So next she started looking for people like her, people who cared about design. But she couldn’t really find anyone like herself.
Charli also noticed her sister Samme seemed to be getting a ton of new friends, going to meetups with other people in the New Zealand YouTube community.
I was like, “I want to be a part of this.” And so basically, I copied my little sister. That's why I started.
Charli would walk back to her flat on lunch breaks and film her videos, but she didn’t tell anybody at work she was starting a channel at the time.
After her first intro video, she made a video to help design school students survive those final weeks at the end of the last semester when everything is due at once.
She couldn’t find anyone else talking about design like that at the time, so she figured:
Well, if no one else is doing it, maybe I could talk about it. Maybe I could be the one to share this information, and maybe it could help someone else because if I'm searching for it, maybe someone else is too.
I ask Charli if she was nervous at all, starting her own channel, putting herself out there:
I definitely was nervous, but I was more motivated than I was afraid.
Charli also did a lot of research, about how to make good videos, how to get the sound right, how to make a thumbnail and choose a channel name and have a nice background: “I wanted to do it properly.”
Charli took YouTube seriously, and remembers making money with her first ads – but she never planned on YouTube being a business. What she really wanted was a community, especially in the design world.
I wanted to feel like I was a part of something. Because in New Zealand, it's so far from everything.
Charli filmed, edited, and uploaded at least one YouTube video every week (often more than one) for the next five years. She made vlogs and DIY videos and a few food videos and some on makeup and fashion and design and music and travel. She never missed a week.
The subscribers came very slowly. But the community came too. And one of those people she discovered would inspire her to move to another country.
“If it's something I really wanted, then I had to actually do it.”
Charli always dreamed of living overseas, and thought about it all the time, especially because she watched so many vloggers around the world.
Then one morning she listened to a podcast episode by Sean McCabe.
It was about going after your dreams. You've got one life, have bigger dreams, and make them happen, that sort of thing. I sent Samme a text, like, “Hey, we should move to England.”
She replied: “Okay, let's do it.” And we started making these plans together.
I realized, it wasn't just going to happen for me. I couldn't just wait around for the England opportunity to come up. If it's something I really wanted, then I had to actually do it.
Charli and Samme moved to London in 2015. Being there helped Charli be more of herself.
In New Zealand, she explains, there’s this thing called Tall Poppy Syndrome:
You're not supposed to stand out, you're supposed to go with the crowd. Don't do anything weird. Don't think of yourself as special. Don't do anything that would make you stand apart from others. Don't be seen as trying too hard. That is not cool.
Charli didn’t feel mocked by anyone in New Zealand for being a creator with big dreams; people were accepting, but it was also clear they had put her in the category of “weird.”
In London, that changed.
People wouldn't look at you strangely for anything really. And so I got braver and braver about being myself.
She was also brave on YouTube; she still is. If you follow her on Twitter, once in a while you’ll see her put a troll on blast, especially those who comment unprofessional and sexist things. She also uses the block button liberally and has turned the comments off on a few videos that generated unnecessary cruelty: “The internet is my happy place, and I want it to stay my happy place. So people don't deserve to be there if they're just going to bring me down.”
Charli also got heavily involved in the London YouTube community. But then something kept happening that really bothered her.
When people would introduce her they’d say, “Charli makes lifestyle videos” or “Charli makes DIY videos.” She was grateful to be invited on a few DIY and lifestyle panels at YouTube events, but she was also discouraged.
When do I get to be on the design panel? When do I get introduced as a designer, and not as a YouTuber.
I realized that what I was putting out there was forming that opinion for people.
So after three years and 15,000 subscribers, Charli decided to pivot her YouTube channel and only make videos on design.
If this is what I really want to do, if I want to go all in on design, and make that my thing, then that's what I should make videos about.
But it was a risk. Her most popular video was one she did on screen printing T-shirts – it had about 220,000 views.
Was she going to lose subscribers by focusing only on design? Was her growth going to slow?
But something better also happened.
She felt renewed passion. She’d started to feel burnt out on some of those other topics. Her attempts at cooking videos are hilarious, because, after showing the steps and ingredients she’d often forget to show the finished meal and just eat it instead with the camera off, so you’d never see how it turned out. It was obvious food content was not her passion.
She also felt a renewed sense of identity. She was a designer. She wanted to be known as a designer. Design – “art with purpose” – is what she loves most, and you could feel that in her design videos.
She was scared at first to own that identity online, afraid she wasn’t skilled enough to be sharing much on the subject. But the more design videos she made, the more she quieted that voice.
She was a designer, and people were finding her videos incredibly helpful, even life-changing, like this designer who wrote:
I’m a junior designer soon starting my first design job and have been stressed about it, but your vlogs where you also show your lows, like last week, gives me confidence in myself that I’m good enough to do the job.
I’m from rainy Delaware and where I am from, the whole art genre of careers is kind of frowned upon, so until I found your channel I didn’t really realize that having a design career was possible. Because of you, I am now a full fledged graphic designer.
And in those five years of focusing just on design, her channel went from 15,000 to 205,000 subscribers.
“You should give back as well as take.”
Charli also keeps in touch with her audience through her newsletter, which has evolved over the years and today is called the Marketing Design Dispatch, where she shares links to marketing design content online, recommends books, and shares her design journey.
She also shares new content – like new videos, new podcast episodes of the design podcast she also hosts, jobs from the new design job board she recently started, links to the new YouTube channel she started where she interviews other marketing designers, and the progress she’s making on the design book she’s currently working on.
I find the memorable email replies come when I write to my audience like I'm very honestly speaking to a person. Which you are. Your audience are people.
And I feel like the replies I get to email newsletters are very different to the replies you see on Twitter, on Instagram, on YouTube; I feel like people are more honest and they share more of themselves. Maybe it's the longer form that they have more space to tell a bit of their story or maybe it's just because it feels more private and personal.
That's how I judge the success of a newsletter really – not by its open rate or clicks or things like that. It's like, “Okay, did something I say prompt someone to hit reply?” Even if it's nothing more than like, “I really enjoyed this.” It takes effort to reply to a newsletter more than giving a like on Instagram. So if someone wanted to do that, that means that it struck the right note. Keeps me going.
I also learn about what my audience is struggling with as well, which helps me think about what content to make in the future.
Her biggest dream-come-true moment was speaking at the seanwes conference about design. Sean was the creator who’d inspired her move to London. It’s also at that conference where she met Nathan Barry who, during a lunch, offered her a job to design for ConvertKit, where she’s since designed everything from marketing pages to slides to our homepage to the brand for our music series Creator Sessions to the page where this very story lives.
Charli has been creating YouTube content for over eight years, and with money coming in from ads, sponsors, speaking engagements, and freelance design offers, she didn’t have to get a job.
But she wanted one.
She’d learned early on that freelance wasn’t for her – she didn’t like abandoning a project when it was done, never to see or hear how it performed. And doing design work and design strategy is what she loves most.
YouTube is not her end goal; it’s her communication tool. Her conduit to help other designers, and to be a “good digital citizen,” something she wrote about in design school:
We live a lot of our lives on the internet. We take a lot from it. And if you want to be a good citizen, like of a city or a country, you should give back as well as take.
I feel like that's what I'm doing when I'm sharing design knowledge- trying to give back to the design community and help the people who are coming up a few years behind me.
Sometimes I make videos where I'm like, “Nobody is searching for this. I don't know how to make people click on it, but they need to see it. You don't know you need this, but you need it. So please watch it.”
That's what motivates me.
She’s even made videos where she shares her exact salary history to help other designers get a better sense of the industry.
But how does she manage a full-time job – a manager job now, no less – and find the time to create, without burning out?
Well, if you’re subscribed to her newsletter, you’ll have seen her write about burnout a few months ago. She’s no stranger to it. But when it hits, she knows it means she needs to make a change: “One of the first signs for me is always when I dread doing the things that I usually find fun.”
Like when she got burnt out after posting multiple times a week, every week, for five straight years.
“Why make myself miserable?”
It was 2017. And for the first week in five years, Charli wasn’t going to upload a video.
It was all too much. I was forced into taking a break because I completely ran out of energy and I was like, “I can't do this anymore. I need to just stop for a while.”
And so I was like, “I'm just going to take December off.” And then it turned into, “Maybe I'll come back in February.”
Ever since then, I feel like the uploads have been more sporadic, because I realized that holding myself to this weekly standard was coming at the cost of my mental health sometimes.
And I was holding myself to that standard because that's what I saw the other YouTubers with channels of my size doing. But a lot of them do YouTube full-time. And I didn't.
I realized I should adjust the expectations for myself and not put that on myself, because I've got different factors in my life than what they do. So maybe I don't have to upload at the same cadence.
I want to enjoy life and the process as well, because side projects are something we choose to do. I don't have to be doing this. So why make myself miserable?
When she takes breaks, her monthly subscriber rate does tend to drop:
You are rewarded on YouTube for uploading often and regularly, with consistency. And I just can't do that. So I'm like, “Well, we'll see how we go doing it my way.” And I'll be content with that, because I'll know I enjoyed the process and whatever I get is what I get.
In 2018, Charli received a silver play button from YouTube to commemorate her first 100K subscribers. Today she has over 200K and counting.
And when it comes to managing all the work that goes into being a creator along with a full-time job, she’s made adjustments as time goes on. As she got older, she realized she didn’t have the energy to do her side projects after work, so she started doing them in the morning and working her day job later into the evening. As income from her channel grew, she also hired an editor.
And when she got promoted to Creative Director, she hired a virtual assistant.
Because not doing side projects, at least for now, is not an option for Charli.
I honestly feel like I make it happen because I have to. I don’t know who I'd be if I didn't have side projects. I don't know how to be a person who doesn't have ideas and wants to take action on bringing them to life.
Sometimes you can't even stop the ideas, and you're trying to go to sleep at night, and your brain is like, “What if we did this?” I'm like, “Yeah, cool. Not right now, though.”
I'm not always motivated. I don't wake up every day like, “Woo, go do two hours of work, then do eight hours of work.”
But I do it because it's who I want to be.
“Okay, that's who I am.”
Towards the end of Charli’s very first video she says: “I just really love watching YouTubers and seeing their lives, hearing what they have to say, and I thought that maybe, someone out there might want to hear from me.”
When she started, there weren’t very many design videos online; today, you can find thousands. I ask her advice for other creators longing to create in the niche they care the most about:
Even if it just helps one person who you think this content is for, then you did your job and it was worth it.
I think if you trust yourself and trust your gut, if you're saying this content needs to exist and you think people need to see it, it will come.
And you never know when a niche is going to take off. Maybe you could be the first one to it, and that's pretty cool.
For Charli, the biggest transformation since that first video – aside from how her income and subscriber counts have grown – is that she feels like she’s herself on camera now.
I look at my first video and I'm like, “Who is that person?”
Videos from a few years later I’m like, “Okay, that's me, but I'm clearly performing.” But now, it’s just like, “Okay, that's who I am.”
Now when I meet people who watch my videos in person they're like, “Oh, you're just like you are in your videos.”
The more videos she made, the more she felt like herself.
And it wasn’t just that her real, full self took time to bloom on camera. Who she was on camera also influenced who she became in real life.
As she’d try to seem more confident in videos, her confidence in real life would grow. It was a merging – of who she was, and who she longed to be. After over 10 years of creating, those people became one.