Modern Maker: Meet Ann Sun, the small business owner, artist, and toy designer
Ann Sun is a toy designer turned product designer who runs a shop full of treat-themed pins, stickers, and cards reminding you to get this bread.
This story is part of the Modern Maker series, which focuses on womxn-owned businesses in Seattle and beyond.
Ann Sun lived in Taiwan until the age of 7, and then she moved to California. Growing up, one thing was clear: Ann didn’t want to grow up. As a child, Ann was particularly fond of her Barbies and Polly Pockets.
Toys have always had a special place in my heart, and I want to create and replicate the positive experiences I’ve had for other people.
“As a kid, you’re not always able to pick your own outfits or dress in glamorous ball gowns, but Barbie could,” Ann said. “She could have any career, and I could use my imagination to play out all these stories.
Ann also has fond memories of her playroom at her childhood home in Taiwan.
“That playroom became a time capsule, and I’d reminisce whenever I’d go back to Taiwan to visit my grandparents,” Ann says. “Toys have always had a special place in my heart, and I want to create and replicate the positive experiences I’ve had for other people.”
From a young age, Ann knew that she wanted to study toy design. There are only 2 undergraduate Toy Design programs in the U.S. Ann chose to study toy design at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. The entire school fit into one building where each floor was dedicated to a different design major.
“On the walls, you could find student art ranging from fine art to digital and product design,” Ann said. “It made me think about all the things I could make.”
When working for a company, you have to get things approved by your manager or a higher up. I saw my small business as a way to have creative freedom and make something myself.
She went on to work at Mattel, the toy company that created classic childhood toys ranging from Uno and Hot Wheels to the Barbies that Ann loved so dearly as a child. She primarily worked on DC Superhero Girls, which included Batgirl and other female superheroes. As a toy designer, she was required to transform Wonder Woman from the animated series into a 3D doll with rooted hair and superhero outfits.
Although she loved being a toy designer, Ann wanted to have something creative that was her own.
“When working for a company, you have to get things approved by your manager or a higher up,” Ann said. “I saw my small business as a way to have creative freedom and make something myself.”
And so began her journey to build her small business, which was a product of her nostalgia for toys and love of design. She started by designing her debut pins: the soju pin and yakult pin. The yakult pin was inspired by her childhood, and she remembers drinking soju in Koreatown with college friends.
“The theme of food is so nostalgic, and I want to help people reminisce and honor those memories,” Ann said.
As a Taiwanese American woman, she hopes to share a bit of her identity in her work, and invite others to reflect on their own memories.
“Whenever I’d visit Taiwan, I’d return with snacks and stationery to share with her friends,” Ann said. “I want to encapsulate that experience for other Asian Americans with a pin that they can wear, and others can recognize it and share their own story. It’s a way that I can build community with my products.”
In particular, Ann remembers talking to a customer whose yakult pin had a very special place in her heart.
“The yakult pin reminded her of her grandma who had passed away recently, and she would wear it proudly,” Ann said. “Little things like that bring me so much joy.”
From toy design to a small business
As a toy designer, Ann is well-versed in creating 3-D products like pins. At Mattel, Ann said that she had to communicate with the manufacturer about everything down to the shade of red that would be used in a doll’s outfit.
The clearer you can be up front, the more others can help you. Everyone appreciates clarity.
She applied the same attention to detail when creating her pins, often anticipating the questions that manufacturers would have.
One trait that’s helped her run a successful business? Communicating clearly.
“Sometimes, I feel picky when I’m listing out all the details,” Ann said. “I’ve learned that the clearer you can be up front, the more others can help you. Everyone appreciates clarity.”
Building confidence — and your business — over time
Ann acknowledges that putting your work out there can be scary. She’s experienced moments of imposter syndrome, the feeling that you don’t belong in your own field.
“Sometimes, I’m afraid to call my shop a small business because it’s something I do to feed my creative hunger,” Ann said. “It can be hard to share because I don’t feel like I’m ‘there’ yet. I continue to remind myself that I’m always making progress and building my business piece by piece.”
One moment that helped her build confidence? The first time she sold out of her first batch of pins.
“I used to order 50 pins at a time, but now I can buy 100 at a time,” Ann says. “When people support my work and start asking when a certain product will come back, it affirms my work.”
Another surprising moment was when she discovered that someone had made a counterfeit of one of her soju pin.
I don’t [always] feel like I’m ‘there’ yet. I continue to remind myself that I’m always making progress and building my business piece by piece.”
“Other creators in the pin world told me that counterfeit pins were really common,” Ann said. “When it happened to me, my first thought was, ‘dang, I made it.’”
This led to the broader conversation about what it means to get inspiration from other artists versus copying it.
“Nothing is original, but you have to put your own spin on it,” Ann said. “Also, inspiration can come from lots of different places. It can be a combination of colors from one thing, textures from another, and packaging from something else. It’s all part of stealing like an artist.”
Like anyone, Ann is always growing into her confidence and ownership of her identity as a small business owner. She’s a one-woman show who takes product photos, posts on Instagram, and packs and sends out orders. She recently ran an Instagram poll to ask her followers what they wanted to do, and there was interest in seeing the behind-the-scenes of her process. She’s also learning to share bits and pieces of her own identity.
Learning by doing is the fastest way to learn something new, and the same goes for running a small business.
“The more I share, the more people will be invested into my brand,” Ann said. “One of my long-term goals is to do wholesale one day and be able to come off Etsy and have my own website.”
If you’re on the verge of creating your business, Ann encourages you to follow folks in the same industry who inspire you.
“I like to buy products from people I admire so I can support them and see what their products are like,” Ann said. “How do they package it? What’s the unboxing experience? Learn from others, and try a few things out for yourself.”
If you’re on the brink of building your confidence, and small business, Ann will leave you this.
“Learning by doing is the fastest way to learn something new, and the same goes for running a small business,” Ann said. “I also learned that I need to be brave and put things out there and make progress.”
Like this story? Check out the other founder stories in our series:
Modern Maker: Meet Rita Manalastas, the Filipino artist behind Mahalin Studio
Clay earrings inspired by queer love, phases of life, and Filipino culture
Modern Maker: How Jessica Chan planted the seeds of Sowing Ground, a nature-inspired small business
Cultivating joy, celebrating the creative process , and sharing nature-inspired art