How to Turn a Passion Project Into a National Business

  • What started out as a batch of greeting cards on Etsy is now a stationery brand available at Michael’s craft stores across the U.S.
  • The characters featured in Cynthia Koo’s Wonton In A Million product line, which are based on dim sum foods like shu mai and dumplings, have attracted an enthusiastic fanbase.
  • Koo’s mission is to use her brand’s platform to promote Asian culture and encourage other women to become entrepreneurs.

Even though she studied East Asian languages and culture with a minor in computer science at Columbia University, Cynthia Koo says she’s always been a designer at heart. Growing up in New York City’s Chinatown, she enjoyed making custom greeting cards for her family, carefully rearranging stickers in her sticker books and emblazoning her planners with Hello Kitty characters.

Now, Koo is a 31-year-old entrepreneur that shares her heritage through Wonton In A Million, a unique stationery business that makes dim-sum-inspired washi tape, stickers and stationery.

“I think this company is a way to introduce Chinese culture and food to people who may not know what it is yet,” said Koo. “Wonton In A Million is a way for me to promote cultural understanding during a time when immigrants are kind of vilified.”

Turning a passion project into a small business

Koo’s journey with Wonton In A Million began in 2015 when she was waiting for dim sum takeout at the Oriental Garden where her father has worked for the last 30 years. As she waited for her order, she took in the sights and smells of the restaurant and wondered if her love of Chinese culture and cuisine would lend itself to “punny dim sum greeting cards” as a project for a 365 Days of Design challenge she was participating in.

At the time, Koo was a full-time designer at a financial technology startup. The design challenge was a “passion project” that originally only served as a way to check things off on a to-do list. “I’ve always had ideas for businesses and art project ideas. I started [doing the design challenge] to get some of those things done, because I was always starting things and then stopping,” she said.

“I set about designing 20 cards. That was my goal for the month, and once I put them up on Etsy, I would move on to the next design project,” she said. “The reception I got was incredible and surprising.”

Shortly after posting her initial designs on Etsy, Koo said her friends and family began sharing them online. Soon, sales grew, and people started making product suggestions. “Before I knew it, I had been working on this project for six months and hadn’t moved on to my next project.”

Other businesses began reaching out about collaborating, and Koo said it wasn’t long until she worked with Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

For the first two years, Wonton In A Million was Koo’s side gig while she worked at her full-time design job. Though she’d occasionally considered devoting all of her time to her fledgling online business, she had reservations. “I hadn’t intended to do that because I was worried that it would stop being fun and stop being a source of joy … if it became my main source of income,” she said.

However, those concerns went out the window when her weekly sales numbers exceeded the weekly paycheck from her full-time gig. “That gave me confidence to start thinking about [making it full time], and it still took me six months to disengage from my job,” she said. She ultimately left her job in April 2017.

Transitioning from an Etsy shop to an e-commerce business

Wonton In A Million began as an Etsy shop. For the uninitiated, Etsy is an online storefront that allows people to sell handmade, vintage and custom items, as well as craft supplies like the stationery items Koo sold. “The phenomenon of being able to be a sticker shop is a new option made possible by marketplaces like Etsy,” she said.

Without Etsy, Koo firmly believes Wonton In A Million wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. Koo says its “platform, audience and instruction on how to get yourself found [by customers]” were instrumental in starting her business. “Etsy is a great platform, especially if you’re not technical, to get started and see if your ideas have traction,” Koo said. “The fees are a little bit higher once you start doing a lot of volume, but starting off there is a good idea, because you at least have one built-in source of traffic to bolster your sales.”

When Koo outgrew Etsy, she used her coding and design knowledge to create an online store using Shopify’s e-commerce platform to better serve Wonton In A Million’s customers.

While she’s proud of where Wonton In A Million is today, she said there were some things she wishes she knew as a new entrepreneur. “I wish I had asked for help more often and earlier. I have always been the kind of person to want to figure things out for myself,” she said. “If I had extra help earlier, I would have grown faster and struggled less.”

As a creative entrepreneur, she said the business’s operational needs often got less attention than the need to create new designs. Given the chance to start over, she said she would swap those priorities. “I’d get that side of the business buttoned up properly from the beginning, and I’d ask for help for that stuff earlier,” she said. “I’m having to deal with that now as I’m preparing to scale up. Having that figured out allows you to grow faster and make better decisions.”

Finding a community in stickers and paper

From the beginning, Koo said her designs took on a life of their own online. Her cute dim-sum-based characters resonated with consumers, and Wonton In A Million’s products became an easily shareable product via social media. The company now has more than 7,500 members on its Facebook page and nearly 30,000 followers on the accompanying Instagram account.

Since its inception, Wonton In A Million has steadily cultivated a following in the stationery and planning communities that share designs and planner layouts online. Koo said she was initially unaware that the hobby had such a huge following online. “We have a very specific, nerdy hobby, and there probably aren’t a lot of people in our life that understand, so to meet other people who are similarly obsessed with this hobby is amazing,” she said. “I’ve built lifelong friendships in this community.”

The online planning and stationery community also serves as a unique platform for sellers to collaborate with each other. Rather than fostering a feeling of competition, Koo said Facebook groups and Instagram posts are used to create a stronger bond between creators.

“We collaborate with each other to help with giveaways, and I think that’s something that sets our businesses apart – we have potential competitors supporting each other. What’s amazing in this community is that shop owners are themselves customers, so they’re excited to discover and work with new shops,” she said. “The overarching mindset of collaboration over competition within this community has been incredible for me.”

Scaling up a small business

After years of collaborating and partnering with small local retailers, Koo signed a nationwide partnership with Michaels Arts and Crafts stores to sell an exclusive line of products. Koo said this opportunity has opened her eyes to “the world of licensing and having bigger distribution partners,” though she still struggles with where she wants to see Wonton In A Million go and just how big it will get.

“I love working from home and determining my schedule, but to reach the heights of where I want to take the brand and the business, it will need to take on a bigger organizational structure,” she said. “I think my impulse is to keep this small as long as I can while working with partners to help spread the characters.”

Now that her products are available across the country, Koo says her business has seen an influx of new customers. “People saw my items in-store, thought they were incredibly cute and wanted more. I’m also hearing from Asians who see their own culture reflected in a mainstream store and were excited to have found me,” she said.

Today, Wonton In A Million has four full-time workers, including Koo, her boyfriend and two employees. While such a small team can handle the company’s current business, with all the newfound attention, the company will need new ways to meet customer demand. The only way to keep up, Koo said, may be to find larger manufacturing and distribution partners. For now, Koo said she’s considering hiring more designers, licensing experts and other possible hires.

Regardless of where the business ultimately lands, Koo hopes the Wonton In A Million brand will help make people curious, empathetic and happy. “It’s still to be determined where this opportunity leads, because I think it might open more doors that I haven’t walked through yet,” she said. “I’m excited to see where this goes.”

Sharing culture and fostering entrepreneurship for women and Asians

When a group of customers reached out on Facebook asking fellow community members what dim sum was, Koo realized how much cultural outreach her brand could do. She estimates that about 60% of her customers don’t know what Chinese cuisine is. As a result, Koo said she’s been drawing on the cute factor of her characters to help people learn about dim sum and Chinese culture. She thinks one of the reasons Michaels was interested in Wonton In A Million was because of her brand’s mission to share Chinese culture and “having the ‘why’ be front-and-center in all of my branding and packaging.”

Koo is also passionate about fostering entrepreneurship among Asians and women. Growing up, Koo said she doesn’t remember a time where her parents weren’t working. Whether her father was at the restaurant or her mother was working as a seamstress, she says her parents always struggled to make sure things were fine for the family.

It wasn’t until she got older, Koo said, that she realized how hard so many Asian immigrants worked to give their families a better life. Despite how hard her parents worked, Koo said she was never pressured to pursue a career just for the salary. It was a luxury that she understands not many children of immigrant parents get. “As a child of immigrants, I understand that is rare and not every immigrant child has that freedom … I was lucky that my parents always told me to do what [made me] happy,” she said.

Koo has written numerous blog posts on her Medium account aimed at helping Asians and women become entrepreneurs themselves. “It occurred to me that I know so many kind and generous women. If they were able to fulfill their potential and take the leadership positions that they deserve, the world would be much kinder and better off,” she said. “I think I’m uniquely positioned to work on that cause on behalf of Asian women.”

She’s also conducted a “How to Design Your Own Design 365 Project” class on Skillshare and taught workshops at planner community conferences. “I’m still figuring out a more systematic way to do it, but doing things like partnering with The Cosmos … helps address unique challenges for Asian women, both socially and internally,” she said. “As a business that has resources, I love figuring out how to tie that into specific social causes to support them.”

Koo said the most important thing a new entrepreneur can do is to “find your tribe.” For her, a tribe consists of an audience and other shops to collaborate with. “For every idea, for every product, there are people who are going to love what you do,” she said. “The trick is to find those people and serve them.”


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