Business Owner Profiles

How Serial Entrepreneur and Chef Cindy Pao Grew Her Personal Shopping Business Around a Passion for Helping People

5 Mins read

Cindy Pao has always been drawn to art. She studied graphic design in school and landed a great job with a publishing company where she worked for more than 13 years. But when the economy and housing market crashed in the mid 2000s, Cindy found herself at a crossroads. 

“Art kind of became a luxury item,” Cindy said. “No one wanted to spend money on it anymore.” 

Around the same time, Cindy was planning a trip to Taiwan. But she could have never guessed that the holiday overseas would begin a journey that would change her career. 

“My best friend Anne, who’s also Taiwaneese, wanted to come along,” Cindy said. “We had a great time eating all of the street food, but when we came back, we missed it so much. So we started having parties every Sunday where we’d make dumplings and experiment with different recipes.”

Anne began taking some of the dumplings to work with her. And they were a hit. Anne’s coworkers raved about the delicious dim sum and wanted more. 

“So we got the idea to make these dumpling lunch boxes,” Cindy said. “And that’s when we opened a company and I became a dumpling chef.”

The venture into the culinary arts was an almost instant success. Cindy and her partner were interviewed on TV, their dumplings were featured in the movie “Eat With Me,” and they became one of the top two food vendors at Coachella. 

“People just loved my food. We never advertised—it was all word of mouth,” she said. “But then the pandemic hit. No more Coachella. Live music festivals and the like were just completely done.”

Cindy again found herself wondering what direction to take. So she, like so many others in the modern world, entered the gig economy. 

Building a Client Base and Growing a Business in the Gig Economy

Cindy’s passion for art translated well into her work as a chef. And the transition to becoming a personal shopper was no different. As Cindy noted, it takes some finesse and a lot of creativity. 

“I signed up for Instacart because I’m a chef, and I really enjoyed shopping,” she said. “I was dedicated to buying the freshest and best ingredients for my catering business, and it was the same shopping for someone else.”

Though, as someone who prides herself on the customer experience, Cindy soon found Instacart’s platform to be somewhat limiting. Back-and-forth communication between her and her customers was a bit difficult in the app, as there’s just a small window in which a conversation could take place. And because of her bubbly personality and stellar service, Cindy was getting a lot of requests from customers for repeat business.

“But that’s not how the Instacart app works,” she said. “If they really like my service, I’d have to say no. It’s kind of the luck of the draw who they get.”

Because she is a chef, Cindy has a keen eye for the highest quality products, much to the benefit of her customers.

That’s when Cindy stumbled upon an article about the personal shopping app Dumpling. And it wasn’t just the name of the company that caught Cindy’s attention. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great. I can have my own customers and I can actually spend my time getting to know them,’” she said. 

Cindy told us that starting up her business and onboarding were simple with Dumpling. Immediately after signing up, Cindy began getting requests based on her zip code and shopping area. And, now that she could take repeat customers and grow her business through word-of-mouth advertising, Cindy could see the potential. 

Dumpling gave Cindy access to an initial set of customers, the flexibility to name her business, and the freedom to market herself as she saw fit. Cindy Shops™ was off and running. And Cindy found her personal shopping business blossoming.    

Best Practices to Ensure Success and Customer Satisfaction

So what does it take to differentiate oneself in the competitive personal shopping space? Cindy would say a commitment to customers and the willingness to invest in a growing business. 

As with most businesses, developing effective branding is also an integral component to success in the personal shopping space.  And, with Dumpling’s flexibility, Cindy found that she could create the image that most represented what she was all about as a business owner. She could now pass out business cards with the Cindy Shops logo, and she even had t-shirts printed embossed with her branding. 

“I learned branding from my previous business,” Cindy said. “One thing I do is make postcards for new customers and attach them to their groceries. If they like my service, they can give the postcard to their neighbors.” 

“I’m not just making money. I’m making friends!”

– Cindy Pao

White-gloved customer service is a foundational component of her approach to personal shopping. And, as Cindy noted, much of this goes back to investing in the business. 

“You have to make yourself different,” she said. “I invested in commercial insulated bags to keep groceries nice and cold. Nobody likes warm ice cream!” 

Cindy also bought a wagon to make her trips to and from customer homes more efficient. This also helps keep her from going back-and-forth from her car to a front door multiple times, which can be tiring and, ultimately, affect customer service. 

Another item Cindy suggests shoppers should add to their toolbox is store memberships. Many retailers offer rewards programs that give discounts to participants. And personal shoppers can really rack up points in these programs. Cindy signs up for these to earn discounts, which she can then pass along to her customers. 

“Many customers think that the Dumpling app is just limited to grocery shopping,” she said. “But that’s not the case at all. I can buy anything, and I can offer discounts on items from, say, Bed, Bath, and Beyond and vacuums from Dyson. You can join these memberships and receive, like, 20% off.” 

Cindy also noted that she applies senior discounts to eligible orders and really goes out of her way to ensure her clients not only get the best bang for their buck, but also the best quality items available. 

“My customers know they’re going to get the best ingredients when I shop for them,” she said. “I take my time, send them photos. My experience as a chef also helps.” 

Cindy also visits local farmers markets for some of her clients. And she regularly chats with the farmers about what’s fresh or in season and makes suggestions to clients to add these items to their shopping lists. 

The True Returns on Investment

Unarguably, Cindy’s success is largely due to her commitment to her customers. She has grown Cindy Shops into a thriving business and now focuses on it full time. 

“I stopped doing Instacart, and Cindy Shops through the Dumpling app is my main income,” she said. “I reach my monetary goals every month.” 

Customer care is Cindy’s primary focus when shopping.

Running her own business also allowed Cindy to tailor her schedule to fit her needs. Cindy noted that it’s important for people to take a day off every now and then. She once found herself working seven days a week and not really scheduling much downtime, which Cindy said wasn’t really healthy.

“I try to commit to taking personal time,” she said.  “Before, I think I was too busy, and I kind of burned myself out. You need to look out for your own health and mental state. You need that time.”

But, while the money and schedule flexibility is nice, the true returns for Cindy take a much different form.

“I’m not just making money; I’m making friends,” she said. “I don’t have family in the United States, so my customers really mean a lot to me.” 

Cindy’s goal is to get to know and really understand what her clients need. And part of that means adjusting to how the world is changing. 

“I have a lot of senior customers, and many of them are getting the vaccine,” she said. “They’ve missed the grocery store, and some are starting to go shopping again. I let them know I’m there to help them with the transition however they need me to.” 

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