Interview with Cynthia Koo, all abao making things that matter (in business and life)

If you follow me on instagram, you already know how much I love asian bakeries/snacks, ESPECIALLY buns (pineapple buns and char siu bao to be exact).

So when I saw what my friend Cynthia was working on lately, I had to learn more. Combine my love for buns with an appreciation for puns, stationery, thoughtfulness and things made with love, and you have Wonton In a Million, the creation of Cynthia Koo (aka the project i wish I did myself but one she did better than I ever could).

It’s one of her many projects that involves learning how to make things that matter. Things that matter to her. Things that matter to the people who matter to her. Things that matter to the world.

I recently I caught up with the girl behind the irresistibly cute handmade cards:

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really cute right?

Where did this idea of making dumpling greeting cards come from?

This question reminds me of this quote by Steve Jobs that goes, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

I can’t seem to pinpoint the inspiration for these cards, because the idea actually grew out of a few things that came together:

  1. My best friend really, really, really likes puns.
  2. I really, really, really like dimsum… For a period of three months last year I spent every weekend at a different top-rated dimsum restaurant in Chinatown conducting “market research” for the purpose of figuring out how to better promote the Chinese restaurant my dad manages.
  3. Around the same time, I had some friends who started working on a dimsum project of their own. They wanted to use dimsum as a gateway into allowing others to learn about Chinese culture, art, and history.
  4. Finally, when it came time to figure out what I wanted to do for my third project of my 365 day project this year, I gave myself the task of figuring out something to make and sell that would be relatively low-cost and easy for me to do on my own. Coincidentally, as I was brainstorming, my friend sent me a link to this adorable greeting card site that I fell in love with –
  5. From there, I think my brain was primed for this thought that occurred to me one Sunday afternoon while standing in Oriental Garden waiting for some dimsum takeout, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were punny dimsum greeting cards? I would buy them…”

What is your favorite bun?

This is definitely the hardest question of this interview. Recently I’ve been really craving bo lo bao (pineapple buns). My dad manages Oriental Garden in Chinatown and the way they do it there, it has a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth custard filling. The top is perfectly round and crispy. And when it’s right out of the steamer – heaven.

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You’ve done and worked on a lot of things. What are some things you have done that didn’t work out? (Both in business or life)

The first startup I founded failed. I was naive and idealistic, and learned a great amount from the experience. Around that time, I read a stat that said something like 9 out of 10 startups fail, and I remember thinking, I guess that means I’m 1/10th of the way to a success.

What success habits do you do to keep creative and motivated?

Two years ago, I came across a few things simultaneously that culminated in an absolute epiphany for me:

  1. This Lifehacker article on Jerry Seinfeld’s famous productivity trick, “Don’t Break The Chain,” which stipulates that you do a desired activity for a certain period of time every single day.
  2. And Karen Cheng’s “Girl Learns to Dance in a Year” video, where she documented her progress learning how to dance over the course of 365 days

Seeing these, I became fascinated with what I could accomplish by doing a little bit of something everyday. Since then, I’ve broken down every goal, every habit I want to build into chunks of daily (or sometimes weekly) actions. Last year, I committed to learning how to draw by drawing one thing every day. This year, I’m making my way through a longstanding backlog of design projects by doing a little bit of work (nearly) every day. “Build a better relationship with my parents” has become “Go out to dinner with them at least once a week.” “Learn how to do a headstand” is “practice getting into a headstand 5 times every day.” I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the range of things that can be broken down into daily or weekly chunks of action.

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Advice you wish you knew when you were 23/newly graduated?

There are a lot of benefits to not knowing any better. Sara Blakely, billionaire founder of Spanx said, “If you do things without knowing how they have always been done, you’re guaranteed to do them differently.” Leverage your naivette and starry-eyed idealism while you can.

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Currently reading/inspired by/intrigued by/On your radar?

Most recently I’ve been trying to figure out how I can grow my career to a place where I can work on products like this one — a shoe that will grow with a poverty-stricken child and protect him/her from soil-transmitted parasites and diseases throughout their entire school career. The kind of brilliant and socially impactful product that makes one think, “Why hadn’t I thought of this? Duh.”

Life hack that you’ve learned that you want to share?

When I want to accomplish something, I put the simplest first action I need to take on my to do list. When I need to write a newsletter, I put down “Start a new Google Doc.” And then I check it off right after I do it. This tricks me into overcoming the inertia that stems from thinking about how daunting the entire task is, and I usually end up doing a bit more than intended.

What’s something about you most people wouldn’t know but should?

As I was growing up, I wanted to be a writer. That impulse to document, to dissect both myself and the world, to create meaning out of seemingly nothing is still a huge part of me.

Fave restaurant/place in NYC?

Ooh, torn! I want to say my favorite roast pork place because they’ve got the best cha siu in the city but sometimes they run out so I don’t know if I want to say. Maybe I should say, hit me up if you love roast pork as much as I do and want to check out the best place in the city to get it? 😉

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In business I am ____ in life____

In both business and in life, I am — or I try to be — very intentional. In the 5 years since I’ve graduated, I’ve hopped around a lot in my career. I spent 1 year at a marketing agency as a data analyst, 4 months at a real estate startup, 4 months founding my first startup, then 2 months traveling and trying to figure out what problem I wanted to work on (education). I came back from traveling and then spent 4 months trying out three different education roles to see which one was right for me (in front of a classroom, at an education startup, or in government). I decided to join my ex-cofounder’s education startup and worked on that for a little less than a year, when I realized that founding a startup was not right for me at that point in my life. I wanted to design. I wanted to master design. So I started looking for a company that was working on a big problem in an industry with high growth potential where I’d get to work on a consumer-facing product with complex interaction design problems, and I found it.

So to the outside it might seem like I’ve been flailing around. And to be honest, sometimes it felt that way. But I’ve actually been learning what I want to do for the rest of my life — which is to make things that people love, things that people find useful, things that matter both to me and to the world.

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Question you would ask yourself at the end of this interview?

What’s one scary thing you’ve done recently?

Someone you’d wanna interview?

The late Alexander McQueen. One time, I saw this stunning asymmetrical peacoat on this girl in the streets. I went home and spent 3 hours attempting to find it online. I finally started googling designer names and it turned out to be a McQueen. A year or so later, I went to the Met exhibit of his work and realized why I must have loved that peacoat so much: the exhibit featured one of his famous quotes, “I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.” I love that.

What’s next on your to do list?

So, this year, I’ve committed to spending 365 days making things that matter — things that matter to me, things that matter to the people who matter to me, things that matter to the world. I’m just wrapping up my current project, designing punny dimsum greeting cards for Wonton In A Million, and for my next project I will be spending the month asking my mom one interview question everyday. Then in June, I will do the same for my dad. I’ve wanted to do this for a while. I have a subtle but ever-present fear of one day realizing I did not spend enough of my life getting to know my parents. So this is my way of alleviating that fear.

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Cynthia, you never cease to amaze me with your creativity and you continue to inspire me by how you challenge expectations and personal goals. Thank you for sharing your amazing work!


P.S. Obsessed with these cards as much as I am?

You can use the code BUY5GET1 to get one card for free after you buy 5.  They’re handmade, includes the card and envelope in a plastic sleeve, is printed on linen paper and ships anywhere in the US in 3-5 business days.

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 To see all of her cards, take a peek at her etsy shop and be sure to follow her on instagram for new cards and peeks of her creative process!
To see what I’m up to, catch me here or subscribe to the right!
Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.” -Joss Whedon
*photos courtesy of wontoninamillion instagram/cynthia koo*
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