Lesson #1: Does the idea matter?

My journey to $15K on Etsy in 10 months

At the beginning of 2015, I publicly committed to 365 days of making things that matter. Each month, I planned to undertake a new design project, making my way through a long list of ideas I’ve nurtured, some for years. For my third project, I created Wonton In A Million:

I did not make it to the next 9 projects.

Wonton is an Etsy store that started off selling punny greeting cards featuring everyone’s favorite weekend meal: dimsum. I launched on a Thursday, April 9, 2015 — to a much more enthusiastic response than I anticipated. So I poured the rest of my 365 days into it, and ended up with:

Along the way, I feel like I’ve gotten a mini MBA. WIAM has been the perfect petri dish for wrestling with the issues that all businesses encounter, but on a low-pressure scale: Finding product-market fit. Finding customers. Getting them to buy stuff. Scaling operations. Handling customer complaints. Etc.

I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve contended with in a series of short posts in the hopes that this will be helpful for you if:

  • you are looking to start a business or an Etsy store and are wondering what to expect
  • you want to undertake a long-term creative project and are not sure where to start
  • or, you are a member of the Wonton fam and are merely curious about how it came to be.

This is how I did it. And these are the things I learned.

Where did the idea come from?

Unsurprisingly, I get asked this a lot. I usually explain with an exclamation of how much I love to eat dimsum. (Which is true.) But I think what people really want to know when they ask me this is — “does the idea matter?”

Yes. Of course it does.

But maybe not in the way you think.

A good idea is not magic. Neither is an idea that the world has never seen before. Does this sound familiar? “Wouldn’t this be a great idea for a startup? But — oh, someone’s already done it. Damn.”

If I had a dollar every time I’ve had this thought…

Now, almost a year into competing in a crowded, commoditized space (stationery), I’m not so sure novelty matters as much as I used to think. Same goes for the objective quality of an idea.

Sure, you probably can’t have a terrible idea. But, like with IQ, it merely needs to reach a certain threshold of “good.” It’s nice when it’s something that’s never been done before. But you’d be happy being Google, right — the 15th search engine to hit the market? Dropbox —the who-knows-what-numbered cloud storage company?

So if how good and how novel an idea is aren’t what matter most… what is?

Well, it turns out — what is magic is an idea that you love. An idea that you’ll turn down parties for. That you’ll lose sleep for. That you’ll protect your weekends for.

See, I’ve started and stopped tons and tons of projects. I keep a list of things that I want to build — someday. I like shiny things. I like the new idea, the new project, the new startup.

If you’re like me, you’ll need a really good reason to spend all of your free time on this, and only this. So for me, the reason I’ve been able to work on a personal project with no discernible consequence for quitting for nearly a year is because I really, really love it, and I really, really love that people love it.

Because at the end of the day, most of what it takes to build something is to build it. Day after day. Night after night. Weekend after weekend.

Especially when there are so many other ideas out there that might be newer, better, bigger, shinier.

Punny dimsum greeting cards for all occasions (www.wontoninamillion.com)

Thanks for reading — and for joining me on this journey to see where Wonton In A Million goes! Follow me on Instagram for daily dimsum goodness. Shop Etsy for products inspired by your favorite meal of the weekend. Get in touch at cynthia@wontoninamillion.com. Check out my Skillshare class on doing your own 365 day project for how I built the business by doing just a little bit each day. And stay tuned for more mini MBA lessons from my year of building my Etsy business.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Lesson #1: Does the idea matter? (This post)
    Yes. Of course it does. But maybe not in the way you think.
  2. Lesson #2: How do you find the time? 
    Every week, I spend at least 20 hours on Wonton In A Million. This is 20 hours outside of the work I do full-time as a designer at a fintech startup. I get asked “How do you find the time?” — a lot. Here’s how.
  3. Lesson #3: What do you have to believe?
    In May 2015, I went to Iceland with a group of 8 beautiful, creative souls, and I learned from my travel companions the most important lesson I’ve learned about being a creator to date.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy…

  1. 7 rules for being more productive
    I’m design-hacking my life
  2. How to design a 365 day project
    In 2014, I undertook a project to learn how to draw in 365 days. These are the rules and parameters that helped me to stay consistent, accountable, and committed. Also check out my Skillshare class on the same topic: “How To Start (And Finish!) Your Very Own 365 Day Project
  3. Lessons learned from founding 2 startups
    Why I left the life of a founder, and joined a team to build out someone else’s vision instead of one of my own.
  4. What you get when you learn how to code
    I learned from AOL profiles (who remembers those?). The internet is very different now, but one thing that I’m sure remains the same: it is still just as thrilling as it has always been to write that first line of working code.
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