Remember the Dose of Inspiration post earlier this week? Here’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. My interview with Winky Wu, the founder, the designer, and the brains behind Winky Designs, enlightens us with her journey.
Me: Did you always know you would eventually want to go into design and fashion? If not, when did you realize that design and fashion is where your passion lies?
Winky: Actually no! I had a typical Asian upbringing where it was really only acceptable to be an accountant, engineer, or doctor! So I picked accounting, finance and business and did my CPA, CFA and MBA and worked on wall street in New York City. I’ve always been creative though and enjoyed doing arts and crafts in my spare time as a hobby, but if you told me 5 years ago that I would one day be running a fashion and design business I would’ve laughed in disbelief! I started this company mostly because I saw an untapped opportunity to bring affordable quality watch designs to the market (which didn’t exist a few years ago – watches were either bad quality and cheap, or good quality and expensive!). I would say however, that I think my background in business and accounting has given me an edge over some other designers out there. Knowing how to market my products through the right channels, run my financial analysis on excel, manage my cash flow and do my own taxes etc… has certainly come in handy!
Me: Was it difficult to act on your ideas when you initially wanted to produce your first 1,000 watches? How did you find a factory to do small batch orders?
Winky: I have an impulsive personality and when I get excited about something I don’t really hesitate, so I don’t think it was too difficult to make my first order. I had showed a lot of my friends my design ideas and everyone loved it, so I felt very optimistic at the time. One reason I picked watches over other products (and I recommend this to any other aspiring entrepreneur out there) is to start with a SMALL item that’s easy to design (e.g. watches are essentially only two components, the face and strap, which is easy to customize relative to other products), easy to ship and easy to store. 1000 watches fit in 10 boxes and can be shipped via DHL (arrives in 3 days) and then stacked in your living room corner pretty easily. If the business didn’t work out, I figured I could sell it on eBay over time and recuperate my investment and so the initial risk seemed quite low.
Finding the right factory was super tough…I talked to dozens of factories before I found one who would do only 1000 pieces (normally it’s like 3000 – 5000 before they’ll talk to you!). Here’s a small tip for working with new factories: tell them that you’re testing them out because this is your first time working with them and you want to start with a small first order. If the quality is good and the products sell well, then you’ll order in bigger quantities in the future. A factory who’s desperate to earn your business with the promise of big future potential will normally oblige and try to work with you to do smaller batches. Quality is also super important – I contacted a number of factories through Alibaba.com and I actually went to visit each of the factories in China before picking the right one to work with. Your relationship with the factories is a long term one and more important than any contract that you’ll sign together, so it’s important to go see the factories in person before picking one you want to work with.
Me: Was it smooth selling or did it take some time selling your first batch of products?
Winky: Haha this is a funny question, because the answer is neither! I think that starting a business is more like a roller coaster ride. You have ups and you have downs, sometimes you catch a break and it’s exhilarating, and then all of a sudden you’ll hit an obstacle and be very discouraged. After I ordered my first batch of watches, I signed up to do a trade show to launch them. But then closer to the date I had to cancel the show because someone in the shipping company stole a truck of goods and although he was caught, all the inventory was confiscated by the police and we had to wait for them to be released. So we waited for the next trade show, and we did very well and got a lot of orders and was super excited! But then some of the orders were cancelled after the show for one reason or another. It’s really just a roller coaster ride, but if you’re lucky (like we have been), the general trend has been up!
Me: How did you communicate to your colleagues, friends, and families when you decided to leave your stable high paying job for this path?
Winky: My friends were super supportive but my family was definitely a harder sell! I sat my parents down and told them that I wanted to do my own thing and explained my idea to them. They were very skeptical and wanted to me to stick with my stable job and told me that I would be wasting my education if I did this. Then, I showed them my financial projections (picture a hardcore excel spreadsheet) and a 28 page business plan (this is where a business background comes in handy!). I showed them that the risk was manageable, that the initial capital investment wasn’t too much and that I could cover it with my savings. At the end of the day, what convinced my parents was that I seemed very serious and had obviously put a lot of thought into the startup. It wasn’t just something I was doing impulsively on a whim! I also told them that I would try it for 6 months and if it didn’t work out that I would find another stable job, and giving them a reasonable time frame to try my idea out also calmed them down and made them more accepting of my decision.
Me: What obstacles did you have to overcome when developing your brand? your store?
Winky: There are so many different obstacles in the path of an entrepreneur and we continue to deal with new obstacles every day as we grow. In the beginning, finding the right factories to make our designs at the quality that we expect was really difficult. Our first batch of watches had a 50% defective rate and we had to throw a lot of it out. It wasn’t major defects, for example, some of the watches might have really small dust specks inside the watch face that may have been barely noticeable to the average person. Maybe it might’ve been acceptable to some companies, but for us, we had much a much higher threshold for the quality that we wanted to be associated with our brand. I think I went through 4-5 different factories before settling on the one that we use now.
As we started to grow and develop new and more complicated designs, the sourcing process got a lot harder. For example, one of our latest collections (the Sweet Dreams watches) is made by many different factories: one that specializes in leather, another that specializes in stone, another who makes the metal chains and plates them in 14k gold, another factory that makes the face….and so on! Once you add up the watch hands, the movement, the battery, the tin packaging and even the foam inside the packaging, you’re looking at dealing with about 15 different factories to make 1 watch. Coordinating between them to make sure that all the pieces fit together and the colors match is really tough!
Currently, the issues we’re running into are more legal in nature. For example, our factory told us that someone was sending around a picture of our watch and asking for quotes from factories to replicate it. We’re dealing with the beginnings of copycat designs (which is validation in a way because it means our designs are popular enough to be worth copying!), but also really worrisome because it’s hard to protect watch designs and we don’t have the resources to go after the people who are trying to copy us. On the other side of the spectrum, we also have some other designers send us some cease and desist letters because they feel that our designs are too similar to theirs. We definitely don’t copy anyone else’s designs, but in the world of watches and jewelry where similar materials (leather/chain/stones/clasps) are used, it is inevitable to run into these issues as competitors feel threatened. It can be quite stressful!
Me: Did you ever have moments of doubt or despair on this path to design and fashion?
Winky: Always! Like I said earlier, having a very thick skin is important because this business can be like an emotional roller coaster. When things are going well, I literally jump up and down and clap in excitement! When things are not going well, I admit that I’ve had thoughts of closing it down and cutting my losses. My business is like my baby, and it’s a part of me…I live, breathe, dream about it constantly, and it’s hard not to be completely sucked into it and take everything that happens to your business personally. If you ever start a business yourself, my advice is to believe in yourself, and get a good support system of friends and family to prop you up when you need it. My husband is my #1 fan and his support and encouragement is a big part of what’s kept me going.
Me: Why did you pick Las Vegas? Why not somewhere else?
Winky: I originally picked Las Vegas for a few key reasons. Firstly, we do a lot of wholesale business (selling our designs to retailers) and there are huge fashion trade shows in Vegas including Magic Fashion Show, Accessories the Show, JCK jewelry show etc. Being in the same city as these conventions makes it a lot easier to show our products to potential and existing customers. Secondly, Las Vegas is probably the most small-business friendly state in the whole country. Incorporation is easy and affordable, commercial rents are low ($1 per sq ft rent in Las Vegas, $10 per sq ft rent in New York), there’s no State income tax for businesses or individuals….just to name a few! I don’t think I knew what to expect when I first moved here (because I had never been outside the strip before) and my friends and family were like “you’re moving where?!!!!”. But I honestly love it now and wish I had moved here sooner! Las Vegas is very misunderstood, because outside of the strip there’s actually a fast growing entrepreneurship community, and people are very nice and normal just like any other suburban American town. There’s also a big airport here, 40 million tourists each year, and it’s one of the best cities for shopping, dining and entertainment. It’s like having big city perks with small town prices which is awesome!
Me: What tips or suggestions do you have for others who would like to follow your path?
Winky: One of the things I hear a lot from people who want to start a business but are afraid to is “I don’t have enough knowledge/experience to do it”. My key piece of advice is that if you’re determined, hardworking and willing to learn, you can figure it out. When I first started my fashion business I had no fashion, retail or design experience… I was an accountant who had worked with financial instruments for 5 years! But I’m stubborn and I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I learned the adobe creative suite (illustrator, photoshop) on my own (through Youtube and Google!). It was slow and painful at first but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually really fun and I use it every day now. I also learned how to do fashion and product photography on my own, in fact all the photography you see on the website are largely taken and edited by me (using friends or customers as models). I even made my own website! My bootstrapping “I can do it!” attitude is a huge contributing factor to Winky Designs’ success because we do everything in-house and thereby keep our costs low! The fear that you don’t know enough is mostly in your mind, because you CAN do it if you want to, it’s more about heart, passion and determination and the rest you can pick up along the way.
Me: If you could start over, what would you do differently?
Winky: I’ve been staring at this question for a few minutes now, and honestly this is a hard one! If you ask me if I had made some mistakes along the way, I would say “yes of course”! But I don’t know if I would’ve done anything differently, because I think I actually learned a lot more from my mistakes than I did from my successes. It’s funny but sometimes you make a mistake or come across an obstacle that forces you to change direction, and that new path ends up opening more doors for you in the end. It’s partly luck and timing, and when you’re in it, you just have to follow your gut and make the best decision that you can at that time. Have faith that it will all work out in the end!
Me: Any last words?
Winky: Life is short and you spend a big part of your life working so… Do what you love and love what you do 🙂
At $40 a pop, Winky’s Winky Designs overcame the stereotype that inexpensive watches equal cheap watch and she overcame her own Asian stereotype. These colorful, fun watches make for the perfect accessory, fashion statement, gift, or whatever you can think of.
Are you inspired? Did you always wanted to do what you are doing now? Or did you have aspirations elsewhere? What was your reason for not pursuing it?
Just like Winky said, life is short and we should do what we love and love what we do or else it is painful and stressful. Not all of us are lucky enough to be in her shoes, but we all have the power to eventually reach there if we dare to try and not afraid to fail.
Do you have a story of your own? If you would like to share it with us, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for reading,
Further read | Winky’s 5 Tips for Opening a Successful Store