I first discovered Cindy Hsu Zell on Instagram while browsing the #DSlooking hashtag one afternoon and spent that evening ogling over — and getting inspired by — her work. Her business WKNDLA (which stands for Weekend L.A., Cindy’s favorite time and place) combines a minimalist mindset, the romance of raw materials, the playfulness of fringes and tassels, and her modern-art aesthetic to create beautiful, handmade wall hangings and accessories. Before Cindy pursued her business full-time, it was just a weekend hobby (hence the name of her business). After studying sculpture and animation at USC, she worked for a large company as a retail-display artist, and while she loved her work and took pride in it, it weighed on her that she couldn’t fully call it her own. This past March, she took the scary leap to quit her job and focus on her shop full-time, and has been happily creating with her hands ever since. Today, Cindy is letting us behind the curtain to learn more about her business, why self-promotion shouldn’t be a dirty word, appreciating relationships, and learning to let go of control in favor of trusting your instincts. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business?
For the last three and a half years I was a retail display artist and it was my dream job! It was creative and I got to spend every day working with my hands, building installations with other like-minded people. However, the downside of working for a large corporation is that as proud as I was of my work and of the teamwork that went into it, it never felt like mine. During the week I had all of these ideas in my head of projects I wanted to make, but after a day of work I was so mentally and physically exhausted that I couldn’t do anything. It was only on weekends that I could experiment and play with materials. WKNDLA was named after my favorite time and place, the only time I had to work on my own pieces. In March I decided that I needed to give my ideas a chance and gave myself permission to pursue them full-time!
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
The only plan I had when I officially started my business was to dedicate as much time as possible to making things. I winged it, which was a scary thing to do, but it was what felt right for me. I split my time between filling orders and experimenting with new ideas. I’m still figuring it all out and for now, I’m taking it a day at a time.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
The best advice I got was from my friend Kate, who told me not to be afraid of self-promotion. Posting about your work and accomplishments online doesn’t have to be this horrible thing, it’s just a great way to share your successes with your friends and family and everyone who supports you. Promoting my work still doesn’t come naturally, but I realized that I have to be my own advocate and communicate the value of my work or else no one else will! I still hesitate every time I hit the “share” button on Instagram because it’s hard putting myself out there, but it’s all about trusting yourself as well as the support and kindness of others.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
It gets very lonely! I was surprised by how isolating it can feel to work alone in a studio every day; it was such a drastic change from working in retail and constantly being surrounded by people. It really made me appreciate my relationships and I now put in more of an effort to maintain them.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I’m always worrying about whether I’m making the right decisions. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to internalize, but I keep learning the hard way over and over again that I have to trust my instincts. I’m learning that I can’t control everything and that it’s okay that I don’t know how things will turn out.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
My moments of failure are usually internal and happen when I let my insecurities get to me. For example, I had to learn to call myself self-employed instead of unemployed when I first quit my day job. I was impatient, comparing myself to people who were much more successful and beating myself up about it. It also took me a while to introduce myself as an artist instead of awkwardly mumbling something along the lines of how “I make things.” That kind of confidence is something I’m still working on!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Giving up a steady paycheck was such a big sacrifice. It’s hard not knowing how much money I’ll make at any given time, and worrying about that is an anxiety that I will always have in the back of my mind.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I can’t single out a moment of great success in my business yet, I’m still just happy I took the leap and decided to pursue this full-time. With every order that comes in and each new person I connect with in the community, I feel extremely lucky that I get to call this my job. I did recently receive an order from a dream retailer and that was pretty cool!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I listen to a ton of podcasts! I love them not just for advice and inspiration, but also for the company while I work. Most of these aren’t specially related to business but my favorites are StartUp, Pop Culture Happy Hour, All Songs Considered, Planet Money, Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project, and of course, After the Jump with Grace Bonney.
Creative Block by Danielle Krysa is a great book filled with interviews that I find myself referring to all the time. The struggle with one’s inner critic and feelings of self-doubt are truly universal and I love that artists that I admire share ways to overcome them.
My husband and I read the book I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi four years ago when we had no idea how to get our finances in order. It was difficult, but we eventually paid off our credit cards, started saving up for retirement, and put money away every month towards our goals. When I quit my job this year, we didn’t have to worry about saving money for the transition since I already had an emergency fund set up that would get me through tougher times if needed.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Evaluate your work: Thoroughly research what’s out there, and make sure the products or services you’re selling are original and something you’re proud of putting out into the world. Continue to learn from and assess your industry while developing your skills and brand, so that it stands out from everything else that already exists.
2. Evaluate yourself: Are you willing to put yourself out there and get uncomfortable networking and promoting your work to grow your business? Is being your own boss and running your own business something that will make you happy?
3. You don’t need a lot of money or a business plan to start your own business. Think things through and really develop your brand and identity, but don’t over-think it and get stuck in the planning phase. Go for it and get started! See what happens and adjust accordingly. Being flexible is much more valuable than having a good plan on paper. It’s okay to jump into it and learn as you go.