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Creative Business

Femke van Schoonhoven on Changing Direction, Choosing Your Path, and Sticking to Side-Hustles

This week on the Brand Your Passion podcast, I was joined by product designer and side hustle extraordinaire, Femke van Schoonhoven. 

Femke is a full-time product designer who shares her journey and knowledge of product design through a variety of side projects, including her YouTube channel and podcast. Fem is passionate about taking the lessons from her own journey to inspire the next generation of designers. 

In this amazing episode, we talk about finding your way in a creative career, achieving growth by pursuing new experiences, setting up your side projects for success, and so much more!

Hey everybody and welcome back to this week’s episode of Brand Your Passion. I’m super excited today because I’m joined by my wonderful friend, Femke. Welcome to the show Fem! 

Hello hello, I’m so excited to be here! 

Do you want to introduce yourself a little bit and tell the people what it is that you do? 

Hello everybody. My name is Fem and I’m a product designer. I’m based in Toronto, Canada, though I am a Kiwi and do hail from New Zealand. I’ve worked full-time as a product designer at Uber Eats for a few years now, but on the side I do have quite a few side projects. I have a podcast called Design Life FM that I run with a co-host, Charli, who I think has been on this podcast already with you, Hollie. 

Yeah, she has. 

I run that podcast with her and we talk about design and side projects. Then I also have a YouTube channel called femke.design, where I teach a lot about product design and user research to help give back and help the next generation of designers launch their design career. 

Amazing. Just a few things! 

Just a couple of things on the side, no big deal. 

Just a couple of projects. I love that you’re creative in so many different ways. You’re creative in the design that you do, and then also the podcast episodes and YouTube videos. There’s so much creativity that goes into all of that. Have you always identified as a creative? As a kid were you creative? 

I think as a kid, I was creative in a very different way. Now as a designer, I’m very creative visually. As a child, I was very musical. I did a lot of performing arts and I played the violin for a really long time, so my creativity was manifested in a different way. I wasn’t that kid in art class, in fact, I never took art as a subject, it wasn’t like I was drawing or doodling here and there. So I think I’ve always had that creative bone in my body, but it’s manifested in different ways throughout my life. I feel like there might be a chance in the future that it might manifest in another way. I don’t know if I’ll be a visual designer forever - maybe eventually, I’ll use that creativity in a different way. 

I’ve always had that creative bone in my body, but it’s manifested in different ways throughout my life.

I think that’s amazing. I love that there are so many ways that creativity does come out. I totally resonate in that I feel like I could have so many different creative lives - right now I’m doing branding and podcasts, but I used to do singing so that could be a creative thing that I do in my life. Maybe one day I'll be an author. There’s just so many ways that you could be creative, so I 100% feel that. I wish I had nine lives like a cat so that I could do all the different creative outputs in my life! 

And isn’t it funny, because I feel like when you’re growing up as a child, you have this assumption that you need to choose one thing and stick with it forever, and early on I really felt like that was going to be music - I was going to go to music school and become a professional, classical violinist. For a while, I thought that was the path for me. It’s cool that we can change it and mix it up, and that creativity can come in different ways and change and evolve over time. We’ll see where mine eventually goes. 

Creativity can come in different ways and change and evolve over time.

I'm always in awe of people who play instruments or do animation or video because my brain just doesn’t work that way. 

I did a podcast interview recently with Debbie Millman. She’s turning 60 and was talking about how so many of us in our 20s are freaking out about getting everything right right now. She was saying it’s taken her to 60 to realise who she is and that she can now focus on just doing that one thing she loves. 

I love that perspective. I’m looking forward to being 60 - what the possibilities and opportunities will be in 30 years from now is kind of exciting. And I’m trying to let go of that pressure of feeling like I need to have everything figured out by the time I’m 30, because it’s just not a healthy mindset to have all the time. Obviously you want to enjoy your 20s, but you also want to achieve something and work hard and enjoy life at the same time. I’m looking forward to just doing that throughout my life in different periods and not feeling like I have to do all of it right now. 

You want to achieve something and work hard and enjoy life at the same time. I’m looking forward to just doing that throughout my life in different periods and not feeling like I have to do all of it right now.

Yeah, totally. One of the quotes Debbie said was that she hopes that the best day of her life, the peak of her life, is the day before she dies. I was like, heck yes, I love that - just getting better and better, rather than peaking at 20 and thinking, “Oh okay, well now what do I do?”

So you said that you were doing music and you thought that was what you wanted to do. How on earth did you get from music to where you are now? Obviously that’s a bit of a journey, but tell me a bit of an overview of how you’ve gotten from being a violinist to a product designer. 

TLDR is that I went to university and got a bachelor in commerce. At the time, music was a real hobby and a real passion of mine. I started doing violin when I was 3 years old, so I literally didn’t know any other life without it. I guess I was kind of curious to try something else and try something different. Doing a degree in commerce and business sounded like a safe thing to do at the time, so that’s what I did, thinking that I would major in marketing and that would be my creative sliver within a business degree. 

I was really interested in maybe going into advertising, working at agencies and this world of creative marketing, so I did the business degree and I majored in marketing. I remember sitting in my final class after 3 years of university and the lecturer put up slides to show us the jobs we could get now that we were graduating with this marketing major. There was a list of all these kind of boring business-y jobs and then there was one on the list that said ‘designer’ and it was crossed out. It came with this caveat that you could do design, but you’ll need a design degree. I remember thinking, “Wow, I sat in this class for 3 years to find out on the last day that the thing I actually want to do requires a different degree.”

That was the moment when I realised that what I was actually interested in was the creative side of marketing and the physical aspect of designing something. So that’s when I decided that I would need to figure out how to become a designer after graduating with the business degree. I didn’t want to go back and do another degree, so I ended up doing a graduate diploma part-time in visual communication design - as you know, since I was in some of your classes at Massey University! So that’s ultimately how I ended up becoming a designer. 

Amazing. So you needed to do that year of design school. There are so many people who always discuss whether they should go to school for design or whether they should try and learn it themselves or find some online courses. What are your thoughts on going to design school? Do you think it was worth it for you to go back for that year? 

I think for me it was worth it because I didn’t know enough or have the discipline to self-teach myself at that time in my life. So for me, it was good to have that structure and learning with courses and projects with deadlines that I had to work on. That was great for me. I also got to dabble in different design disciplines. There are classes on print design, branding and UX. I really liked that and that learning style fit well with how I wanted to learn. 

The advice that I give now to other people is to think about what your goal is and the different ways you could get to that goal, because there are a lot of different paths you can take these days. There are so many different ways now to learn and get that design education. You can self-teach, you can take a course online, you can do a boot camp. So I think there’s no right path - it’s really up to you, what suits your learning style and the experience you want to get. 

Think about that end goal, which probably looks something like: I want to have a portfolio with projects ready to go to apply for a job. Is freelancing going to be the best way to get that work experience to go on your portfolio? Is going to a boot camp or doing a design degree going to be better? It can vary depending on the person, so think about what your goal is and what would be the best path for you to get there. 

Think about what your goal is and the different ways you could get to that goal. There’s no right path - it’s really up to you, what suits your learning style and the experience you want to get. 

100%, I love that. Even in our year at uni there were people who, like me, are freaking nerds and loved it. I thrive in that kind of environment. But there were people who didn’t love it as much and maybe could have benefited from doing a different style of learning. So I really love that advice to think about where you want to go and the many, many different ways you can get there. That’s awesome. 

I’m not sure if you were online at that stage when you were doing marketing, but how did you shift your personal brand or CV to being known as someone who does design and then going into doing product design? What was that journey like for you? 

This started in 2015 when I graduated. I was working part-time for a startup that was working on a design tool, so it was kind of in the design space but I wasn’t working there as a designer at that stage. I had this goal to work as a designer at the company and I knew that I needed to get some more real world practical design experience, particularly because at this time I was interested in the UX product design world, but at Massey, a lot of the classes were more around branding and graphic design. So I felt like there was a little bit of a gap that I needed to fill to get the right experience. 

I started to freelance a bit at this stage and I created this agency of one, of just myself doing part-time freelance work on the side. It was called The Apartment. I just started getting freelance gigs for projects through friends and people I knew online. They were really small projects, nothing super flashy, but it got my feet wet into what UX design could be and learning about product design “on the job”. 

That’s when I really started my personal brand, because to find the clients I needed to have some sort of online presence. That’s when I started to blog about design and I started an email newsletter where I would talk about design and life as a creative - things I was struggling with, imposter syndrome, making trade-offs between different decisions, how to have confidence in  your work and things like that. That’s how it started. 

It started to grow a little bit from there to the point where I eventually had enough UX projects and experience to put together a portfolio, so I started applying for UX jobs. It’s actually kind of funny - when I got my job at Uber, they actually found me through my email newsletter. One of the designers at Uber had subscribed to my newsletter at some point and then they reached out to me to talk about a job opportunity. So it’s kind of amazing to think back that if I didn’t start this little personal brand, I might not even have the job that I have today. 

It’s kind of amazing to think back that if I didn’t start this little personal brand, I might not even have the job that I have today.

Yeah, that’s incredible. When you started that email newsletter, I’m sure there was an element of hoping it would help you grow your career and get you where you wanted to go, but I’m sure you had no idea that someone from Uber was going to subscribe and that’s how you would get your job. That’s so cool. 

It was pretty crazy. This was around the same time that Charli and I started the Design Life podcast too, where we wanted to document our journey and our careers in design. I think doing the podcast, the email newsletters and blogging helped me naturally start to create this online presence. 

I feel like a lot of the messaging I see today says - you should start a personal brand, here’s why. It’s funny because when I think about how I started mine, it was a lot more organic. It wasn’t like I decided, “I’m going to start a personal brand now”. It was more like I started with the content, the values, the things I wanted to teach and the things I was learning and giving that away. My personal brand grew on top of that foundation as opposed to the other way around. 

Femke started to build her personal brand in order to build her experience as a product designer, leading to her starting her blog, email newsletter and eventually YouTube and podcast.
I started with the content, the values, the things I wanted to teach and the things I was learning and giving that away. My personal brand grew on top of that foundation.

For sure. It’s definitely an interesting place that we’re in where people are intentionally deciding to try and start a personal brand now, whereas I was the same - when I started blogging, I was just documenting my life at uni and being a design student. I was doing it so I could look back at me being at uni and being this embarrassing little creative person, but also share these experiences with other people who are deciding if they want to go to uni or are in uni and want to feel like they’re not alone. It’s the same thing, it just grew on top of that, which is an interesting way to look back and think about how that’s changed. 

And all the opportunities that’s provided you with over the years as well. I’m very grateful for that too. 

Yeah, me too. So you have this full-time job now with these side hustles that you do on the side. A lot of people want to do their own businesses full-time, then there are so many people who are in the same position as you, who don’t want to do their creative passions full-time. They want to have a full-time job and then come home to do these creative things that they love. What is it that made you decide that you didn’t want to do these side hustles full-time? Tell me about your decision-making process behind that. 

I think initially it was that I knew that I still had more to learn and grow on my own, and I felt like getting a full-time job was the best way for me to get there at the time. That’s why I started looking for a full-time job as a UX product designer and I took the role at Uber, because I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing opportunity. I’m probably going to learn so much and so much quicker than I could ever try and learn on my own by freelancing.” 

At that time, I hadn’t really worked as a designer full-time yet, so I was really craving that mentorship, learning from others in a team, that real world experience of working in a company as a designer, the impact that could have and everything I would learn that would come across with it. That’s why I took the job back then. 

Now, it’s almost 4 years later. My side projects are doing pretty well. Not only are they growing and I have a really engaging audience, but I’m also at a point now where I’m making some decent side income from it, to the point where people have started asking me if I’m going to take it full-time. It’s at the tipping point now where from a financial perspective, if I wanted to, I probably could. 

There’s several reasons why I’m not doing that. I still feel like I have a lot to learn as a designer and I don’t want to give up designing full-time. Freelancing is not really something that interests me. I prefer to be embedded on a team and working towards a common goal or common mission and playing the long game instead of jumping from project to project. I feel like I still have something to give and I’m not yet satisfied with the impact I’ve made. I think there’s more I can learn and grow. 

I still have something to give and I’m not yet satisfied with the impact I’ve made. I think there’s more I can learn and grow.

In addition to that, my content and side projects are very connected to my job too. I think there are a lot of people who have side projects that are very different to their day job, but I work as a designer and my side projects are about design. So a lot of the stuff that I do in my day job fuels the side projects in a way. I suppose a little bit of me is worried that if I stopped my day job, I wouldn’t have ideas for content anymore because I wouldn't be experiencing it anymore. I’m sure that’s probably not true, but something about having the security of the job gives me the ideas and the content for my side projects a lot of the time. 

Similarly to what you mentioned before, I also enjoy having that fun passion project that I don’t need to rely on as an income generator. I can say no to a lot of things when it comes to my side projects because I don’t need the money, I have a full-time job. So I can really protect my side projects and my personal brand and say no to a lot of things to keep it fun, rather than putting that pressure on it to be my earnings. 

I enjoy having that fun passion project that I don’t need to rely on as an income generator. I can really protect my side projects and my personal brand and say no to a lot of things to keep it fun.

Your content especially includes a lot of talking about how you and your team do things, so I understand you feeling like if you’re not doing that, what are you going to talk about? I’m sure you would have loads of things to talk about, but I totally understand that. 

I’m on this path at the moment of talking about how creative business looks so different for so many different people. Working full-time on your creative business works for some people but it doesn’t work for others. Some people start these side hustles because they just want to and they love it, some people do it because they have to. Creative business doesn’t just look like one thing, so I love hearing how your business is structured in a different way. 

One of your side hustles you mentioned is your YouTube channel. I’m a huge fan of your YouTube channel and I’m always super impressed at how you’ve committed to it and it’s grown into this amazing, massive channel with so many people who are so engaged with it. How and why did you decide to start this YouTube channel in the first place? 

I was doing a lot of blogging, as I mentioned, and I just really didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t like writing, it just wasn’t the format that felt right for me - especially blogging about design, which is such a visual medium. I wanted to teach design and it was getting really tedious to try and do that in a written format by writing these tutorials. I thought that maybe this medium and format is better and more immersive if it’s in a video style, rather than me blogging and writing about design. I wanted to teach in a more visually engaging way and I felt like video was a really obvious answer to that. 

Another thing was that back then, I felt like there was a lack of people on YouTube teaching UX and product design. There’s a lot of graphic design, visual design and digital design, but not really many people going into the nitty gritty of UX and product design. That felt like a gap. 

Also, at that time I had already built a pretty solid audience and I was getting a lot of questions about design, careers and how to create a portfolio. I was starting to answer the same question over and over again. I realised - what if I just made a video addressing this topic? Then anytime someone asks me about it, I can just send them the link to the video. So it was a bit selfish because it was going to save me a lot more time. 

That’s what initially kicked it off, a combination of those things. 2 years later, I still have some of those motivators. My channel has been growing a lot, especially in the last 12 months, and now I’m just really excited to turn it into this resource educational repository where I can help people become product designers and help them level up in their career as well as throughout their path in design. 

I’m just really excited to turn it into this resource educational repository where I can help people become product designers and help them level up in their career as well as throughout their path in design.

Yeah, amazing. I was going to ask you about this, because you said you had an audience already that you could bring over to your YouTube channel. Do you think that helped you in getting your YouTube channel started? What do you think has then helped it grow so infinitely since then? 

I definitely think having that audience that I’d already started building up from the blogging, the newsletter and the podcast to eventually launching the YouTube channel was very, very helpful in kicking off my channel. Even having an audience to announce it to was definitely helpful. 

It’s exponential too, because as I launch and introduce new things, the launch is usually with success because I have an existing audience. For example, I launched my mentoring services a year ago and I’m consistently booked out. I’ve had people ask me how I got so booked out and it’s because I have an existing audience on other platforms, and so I drive people to my mentoring services.

Your other question was around the growth in the last 12 months. This is funny - I don’t know, but my guess is that COVID had something to do with it, because I definitely had some spikes in March and April of 2020 when I think people were at home, didn’t have much to do and were consuming more content. I just continued riding that train. I saw that I was getting spikes and I thought - okay, people are checking out my channel, I’m going to produce more videos, be consistent, show up and talk about content that’s relevant to the problems or challenges that these people are going through right now. So I’ve just been riding that train since then and it seems to have been working well. 

Listening to your audience is also a really big important thing. I could create videos about things I care about, but if nobody else cares about it then nobody’s going to watch it. Having that audience, having them be engaging, listening to their questions and what’s important to them and then addressing that with my content is like a self-fulfilling cycle. I think being conscious of that and being consistent has really helped in the last 12 months. 

Femke started her YouTube channel to teach what she knew about design in a more visually engaging way and dive into the nitty gritty of UX and product design.
Listening to your audience is also a really big important thing. I could create videos about things I care about, but if nobody else cares about it then nobody’s going to watch it.

It’s so true. That simple thing of listening to your audience and creating helpful content is so powerful. 

You’ve done quite a few partnerships with your channel, which is something that we haven’t really talked about on the podcast before so I’m interested in how you got into doing that. Did somebody reach out to you? Did you reach out to some of those people? How did that get started? 

This started pretty organically, where companies started reaching out to me. I don’t know if it’s like you reach some magic threshold on YouTube where people start noticing you, because it all seemed to start happening at the same time. I’m not sure if that’s something to do with the YouTube algorithm or something else. 

I realised this was an interesting opportunity for me to teach these design tools and make a bit of money on the side at the same time, as well as learn about these different ways that I could use different tools in my design process. It felt like a good match and a good fit. That said, I do get people reaching out to me wanting to collaborate that have nothing to do with design on my channel, so you only see about 5% of the opportunities that I say yes to. 

It’s really important to me that I partner with brands and tools that I like, use, am familiar with and think would be valuable to my audience. I’m definitely not in it for the money. That’s another benefit of having the full-time job - I can say no to these things and be really picky as well. 

It’s really important to me that I partner with brands and tools that I like, use, am familiar with and think would be valuable to my audience.

In addition to these one-off sponsored videos that I do, I’m also very grateful for my channel sponsor, Superpeer, which is actually the platform I use for my mentoring services. They were really kind and wanted to keep supporting me in other ways, and so eventually we decided on this channel sponsorship. It’s been really nice to have a brand sponsor with me that really aligns with my values and that I use multiple times a week to help mentor other designers. 

It’s really important to me that I partner with brands and tools that I like, use, am familiar with and think would be valuable to my audience.

That’s so incredible that they wanted to keep supporting you with a long-term relationship and partnership, not just this one-off thing that benefitted them. That’s awesome. 

Do you have any advice or lessons for people who are maybe just getting started with doing those partnerships? 

For me, I’m at a stage where if my reaction is, “Oh I don’t know”, then it’s immediately a no. I have to be really excited and it has to be a “Heck yes” for me to say yes to the opportunity. So I watch out for that signal - how do I react? Am I feeling excited and like this is such a perfect alignment, or am I not sure? If I start doubting it, then for me it’s immediately a no. I don’t know how practical that advice is, but for me, using that gut check has been really helpful to make sure that I’m aligning with brands that I’m really excited about and that I think would be beneficial for my audience. 

I make sure that I’m aligning with brands that I’m really excited about and that I think would be beneficial for my audience.

I think that’s great advice. You’ll feel it in your gut if you’re like, “Yeah!”

Or even when you feel like, “Oh, maybe not” because you don’t want it to be a burden. If you say yes, then you don’t want it to be a process that you don’t enjoy and that you don’t look forward to, especially when it’s a paying arrangement that you have. You want to make sure that it’s aligned with your values. 

Yeah, for sure. I feel like I could keep talking to you forever and ever, there’s so many other parts of your brand and business that we haven’t even touched on, like mentoring and coaching that you’re doing, and that you and I worked on your visual branding refresh together. 

Yes, shout out to you! You did an amazing job. If you go and check out my YouTube channel, Hollie did all of the visual design and branding for it. It looks amazing, I love it. 

It was such a fun project to do, thank you for allowing me to do that. There are so many amazing things we could continue to talk about, but before we wrap things up, I just want to ask one more question. When you think about branding your passion and building your personal brand, what is one piece of advice or lesson you’ve learned that you think that would be helpful for creatives to know? 

My advice would be to be your authentic self. I feel like this is something I’m still not perfect at. I have to continue reminding myself of this because it’s really easy to get hung up on what other people are doing and their success and different strategies. It can make you feel like you have to do those things too, but you don’t want to try and force something that just doesn’t feel right or doesn’t feel authentically you. 

Be your authentic self.

As long as you’re being authentic, your audience is going to like you for you and that’s ultimately what you want at the end of the day, because that’s going to be a more engaging, kind and thoughtful audience and will lead to more success. 

As long as you’re being authentic, your audience is going to like you for you.

And it will be a lot more sustainable for you to just be yourself the whole time rather than trying to be somebody else forever. I love that, that’s beautiful advice to wrap up on. 

Do you want to tell the people where they can find you and what you’ve got going on right now? 

You can go to my website femke.design, which has links to my Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channel. 

If you want to check out the podcast, it’s designlife.fm. We have 220 episodes, which is kind of crazy, but there’s a lot of good stuff on there. I highly recommend checking that out if you’re interested in side projects and your design career. 

Awesome. Well thank you so much Fem, this has been super, super awesome. I’m sure everybody listening is going to learn heaps from you! 

Thank you so much for having me and good luck to all the people listening. Keep doing your thing. I know that sometimes it’s a grind and you might wonder if anyone’s listening or if any of this is worth it - but it is. Keep going. 

Keep doing your thing. I know that sometimes it’s a grind and you might wonder if anyone’s listening or if any of this is worth it - but it is. Keep going.


Thank you so much to Femke for joining me on this episode of Brand Your Passion - I LOVED this conversation and I hope you did too. It’s been fascinating to hear her take on creativity, developing a career as well as helping others to develop theirs! 

You can find Femke on her website femke.design, her YouTube channel or her podcast at designlife.fm.

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by hollie arnett

The brand coach for creatives, hand-lettering artist for herself, and cup of tea lover forever.

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