Cynthia Koo of Wonton in a Million: Making a Childhood Dream Come True
Dim sum-inspired keychains, stickers, and enamel pins. What could be cuter? Not much. That’s why featuring Cynthia Koo’s Wonton in a Million collection at our new Chelsea Market location was a no-brainer.
We had the chance to speak to the lifelong New Yorker about how she started her business, her love of puns, and how she made her 10-year old self’s dream come true.
I know you’re from New York. Where did you grow up exactly?
I was born in downtown Manhattan and lived in Chinatown until the third grade. I went to P.S. 124. My parents both worked in Chinatown. My dad has remained in Chinatown this whole time at Oriental Garden. My mom worked as a seamstress and now works at the restaurant helping my dad.
I went to junior high in Brooklyn and came back to Manhattan for high school [Stuyvesant High School]. That’s when I discovered Pearl River Mart. My friends and I would stop by the SoHo store and pick up Christmas presents. I was so sad when you guys closed, and so happy when you opened again.
How did your interest in art and design start?
It started in middle school. I was interested in web design and web development and would spend hours decking out my AOL profile with colors and ASCII art. Then Xanga and Geocities started and I would stay up all night making my blog look pretty. My mom would constantly be yelling at me to go to bed. [Laughs] That's where I picked up my bad habit of staying up designing until 3 a.m.
I didn’t realize web design could be a real profession until I graduated from college. I always considered it a side hustle and throughout college wanted to do marketing. I’ve realized now that design and marketing stem from the same interest. They both affect people, whether it’s buying things or changing their behavior.
My first job out of college was as a strategist for a marketing agency. Then I worked for a real estate startup, redoing their website. But I was always interested in eventually doing my own thing, running my own business.
So when a classmate from Stuyvesant reached out to me about starting a company together, I jumped at it. We worked on two different ideas: a job application management system and an education startup that developed project kits to teach kids engineering. After exploring both ideas for a few months, I realized I wanted to move from digital design into a medium where I could hold things with my hands and actually give those things to people.
How did you start Wonton in a Million?
It started as a greeting card store. I personally love punny greeting cards. One day I was waiting for takeout at my dad’s restaurant when I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have punny dim sum greeting cards? I looked to see if they already existed, and there was nothing for specific dim sum items.
During that time I was doing a 365-day design project for which I’d do a design project every month. Wonton in a Million started as one of those 12 design projects. Initially I launched with just six cards on Etsy. The response was entirely unexpected. The enthusiasm and excitement among my own personal network and friends of my friends. Customers started suggesting new products and puns, and before I knew it, I'd been working on Wonton in a Million for a year. Needless to say, I put aside the rest of the months of my 365-day design project.
How did you parents react to your running your own business full time?
I was running Wonton in a Million part-time while I was working full-time at a technology startup. I quit my job two years in, which was less risky from my parents’ perspective.
But they weren’t exactly sure what I was doing. It was only when I vended at a craft fair that they understood. They’ve always been incredibly supportive and have trusted me to make my own decisions about my career. My mom in particular will sometimes tell her friends about the little dim sum characters, and ask for little stickers to give out.
How about the planning world? Did you already have an interest in that?
I had no idea there was this huge community around planning and stationery collecting online. I discovered it through Station Stickers by Christy Dee. We did a collaboration on a dim sum sticker that sold out really quickly.
That sent me down the rabbit hole of stickers, washi tape, stationery, you name it. The planning community has been incredibly supportive, warm, and welcoming. Every shop owner I've encountered is about giving back and paying it forward. It’s a community consisting of mostly women and we’re very supportive of each other, which I love.
Do people actually use these planners to plan their days? Or is it more about the design?
Some people do. A lot of people also use it like scrapbooking, where it’s about capturing memories and nostalgia. Remember the Sanrio planners, stationery, and stickers we had as kids? When I realized I could make my own stickers, it was like a dream come true for 10-year old me.
What would be the ultimate collaboration for you?
I would love to do something with Pixar! I want to spend the next year thinking about doing different things entirely outside my comfort zone: a comic series or animated shorts with the Steam Team (which is what I call my dim sum characters). The characters have taken on a life of their own with distinct personalities and life stories so it seems like those would be a natural progression. Plus I'd be able to really push my creative limits and learn new skills that I've always wanted to learn.
My ultimate dream is that Wonton in a Million will become an umbrella brand like Sanrio or Pusheen. I would love to transition from being product focused to more being more character and story focused.
What’s your creative process?
My process has changed over time depending on what products I'm working on. The first time I sat down and tried coming up with puns was incredibly stressful. It was hard finding English puns using the Cantonese names of dim sum. I was sitting there for three hours before I came up with my first pun.
In general what I do is take the dim sum name and look for things that rhyme with it. Then I’ll search the internet for sayings. I’ll look up pick up lines and replace words with dim sum puns until something clicks. I’m always worried that I’ll run out of puns but it seems that hasn't happened yet.
As for where ideas for products come from, those tend to be based on the holiday schedule. Christmas of course, and I’ll be doing a lot of stuff for Chinese New Year. I just did a "Steamie Dumpling Loves Dessert" series because I personally love desserts.
I also get a lot of product suggestions from customers. I try to regularly integrate those into my release schedule. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. It’s a fine balance between listening to the market and making sure you're producing something you love.
Do you find it difficult to balance devoting time to the creative process versus marketing yourself?
Yes, I find myself falling into the trap of spending more time on design and allocating less time than I should for marketing. I used to do marketing and I love all the things that it entails, but I left the agency world because I was trying to solve problems via marketing that should have been solved at the product stage.
What I’m doing now brings together all the things I learned doing product design and marketing. The best marketing is when the product drives the marketing, rather than vice versa. So it's actually great that both are under the same roof (in my head).
What are the biggest challenges you face running your own business?
I have a tendency to want to do everything myself. Up until two months ago I was doing my own design, production, marketing, and packaging. But I finally hired someone to take over the packaging and that’s helped a lot. I realize I need to focus on other things, like building the brand and becoming better at product photography.
What’s your favorite part of the whole process?
I enjoy the design the most. It’s the most fun mentally. Packaging is also fun but in a different way. It’s very zen. When I don’t do enough design, I get really anxious.
Is it hard to take a break?
It is. A lot of shop owners I know get into this place where they just work all the time because the release cycle is really short. When I’m not working, I feel like I should be. Because I work out of my home, it’s hard to separate work and life. Sometimes I don’t actively make plans because I feel like that’s time I should be spending on my business.
I took vacations this year, and every time I came back, I felt rejuvenated. I’ve realized that’s something I should schedule and make a necessary part of my creative process. But even traveling domestically, it’s hard to take a mental break. The only times I can is when there’s no service. I went to Burning Man and there was no internet. So I couldn’t do anything!
International vacations also force me out of the online bubble. Last year I went to the South of France with a friend who creates these magical travel experiences. It was seven girls. It was incredibly inspiring and very different from some of my other trips, and I came back ready to dive back into work.
What’s something you find inspiring right now?
I’m currently really obsessed with Hamilton. As an artist, I’m in awe of the production and what a piece of art it is. An entire story told through song with no spoken dialogue. That [Hamilton creator and star] Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to tell such a compelling story of a historical time period through rap and make it accessible and fun is just amazing.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to start their own business?
Ask for help. That’s something I didn’t do enough of. I underestimated how much people want to help and mentor and share their knowledge. Someone reached out to recently me as she was starting her Etsy shop, and I was really excited and wanted to answer all her questions. I saw her doing the same thing with a lot of Etsy shop owners, and she grew five times as fast because she was so open and friendly and engaging, and willing to ask people how they did it. I think it’s a personal thing. I feel bad asking for help. But I love when people ask me. That’s something I have to remind myself.Visit our Chelsea Market location or our website to see Ms. Koo’s Wonton in a Milion collection. You can also learn more about one of our other featured designers, Patricia Chang.