Kathy Cheng and Thankful Registry: Giving with Heart

TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Managing Editor, Anna Wu, speaks with Thankful founder Kathy Cheng to find out more about her innovative start-up that is helping to personalize the gift-giving traditions around weddings, birthdays, and other events. Anna has also found success as a professional wedding photographer, so both she and Kathy have much in common when it comes to celebrating life’s special moments. Read on to find out more behind the motivation and success of Thankful.

Anna: Thank you for talking with us at TaiwaneseAmerican.org! Could you tell us a little about yourself or your background?

Kathy: Hi there! First of all, I should admit I’m actually Taiwanese-Australian. I was born in Taipei and grew up in Sydney. I didn’t leave until after college when I started working as a copywriter at design consultancies. (Like Peggy Olson in Mad Men.) My first job was in Taipei, then I moved to an agency in Chicago but I couldn’t handle the crazy winters, so ended up in New York at an innovation consultancy called Smart Design. Since September this year I’ve been full-time on thankfulregistry.com but I have to admit that my proudest achievement from these past few years in New York is that I’ve yet to sign an apartment lease!

A: What is Thankful?

K: Thankful is an online gift registry service that I’m hoping will change the way people think about wedding registries and gift registries altogether. The site launched in March 2013 and we have customers around the world thanks to some nice press in TechCrunch and Fast Company.

A: What inspired you to create Thankful?

K: It started when I was a bridesmaid for a close friend’s wedding. I arrived late to their registry and ended up buying a $200 blender. Six months later, I found out the blender was still in their storage locker! It made me wonder why wedding registries are ubiquitous and the social rules surrounding it all, so I started doing some research. I learned it’s a $10 billion industry that’s pretty much dominated by big-box retailers like Macy’s, Crate & Barrel and Bed, Bath & Beyond. I saw an opportunity to build something my friends in the design field would choose, and made the decision to trademark the name “Thankful” in 2010. It’s actually been a long road now that I think about it.

A: What sets Thankful apart from other wedding registry sites?

K: I think it comes down to two things: what we stand for, and how it works. In terms of what we stand for, the name “Thankful” plays a huge part in how I make decisions about everything from customer service to how we talk about ourselves. And in terms of how it works, we’re a completely open platform that lets people add just about anything — traditional gifts, experiences like language classes, charity contributions, honeymoon gifts and gift cards. Keeping things simple and flexible is really important.

A: What are the biggest challenges or surprises you’ve encountered since pursuing your own startup?

K: Wow, great question. I think the biggest surprise is just how much I can get done from my studio apartment with an Internet connection! It’s kind of amazing. All of the resources are out there for the taking, you just have to find it and go. Another surprise is the feeling of pride that comes from building something from scratch and hearing great feedback from customers — especially customers from overseas. It’s sappy but it’s true. It what keeps me going when things feel hard.

A: Has your Taiwanese heritage played a role in your journey so far?

K: I’d say yes and no. Weddings in Taiwan are totally different from weddings in the States, so the category isn’t something that translates. On the other hand, cash gifts are really common in Asia so I totally understand the practical side of gift-giving. As much as gifts are about generosity and important relationships, they’re also about being pragmatic and helpful. That kind of mentality plays a huge role in our approach.

A: If we were to ask your parents, what would they say about Thankful?

K: Neither of my parents have ever bought a wedding gift off a wedding registry! It’s a totally alien concept to them. But my dad is a business owner so he gives me useful advice on the business side of things.

A: What are your hopes for Thankful or your vision for your next projects beyond Thankful?

K: I think the opportunity is there to build a wedding brand for creative and tech-savvy people. But I also want to see Thankful grow beyond the wedding category and become a broader lifestyle brand. For starters, this Thanksgiving we announced our expansion into registries for other big life events like baby showers, birthdays, graduations, housewarmings and bar/bat mitzvahs. There are already a handful of baby registries on the site (they are so cute.) A friend of mine who’s an illustrator made this awesome video for me: thankfulregistry.com/thanksgiving.

A: Final question, what is your favorite Taiwanese food?

K: Hands-down my favorite meal when I go back to Taipei is minced pork noodles made by my mom. I eat it almost every day for lunch. Otherwise, I can’t resist fresh pork floss. It’s such a childhood favorite of mine I bought the domain name porkfloss.com. The problem is I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, so if anyone happens to make delicious pork floss, please get in touch. We can partner up and go on Shark Tank!

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