LIANG SHI, Founder of Dessert Goals & Ma Matcha | Experience Designer at Square

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LIANG SHI

Hometown: Shanghai, China & Houston, TX
Occupation: Founder of Dessert Goals, Founder of Ma Matcha, Experience Designer at Square, and Product/UX Designer

We discussed how there are festivals for everything, literally everything, in New York from hot sauce to dumplings to pizza, but why was there no dessert festival? We googled it thinking that there must be one, but nothing came up so we realized we needed to do this.
— Liang Shi, on the beginning of Dessert Goals

I met Liang in the most random of ways - at a Ma Matcha pop-up shop in Bloomingdale's on the Upper East Side. My two friends and I had just so happened to be going to the Met and one of them had learned about the pop-up event where they would be giving away free matcha.

At the stand stood Liang giving out coconut matcha drinks and she stood out to be because she was so enthusiastic and friendly. After we finished our drinks, she gave us two more rounds of her high-quality matcha drinks. We were surprised when she told us more about her pop-up and said that she had a full-time job and this was her passion project.

After I followed Ma Matcha’s Instagram, Liang and I found out that we had lived in the same cities in the same order in our lives: Shanghai, Houston, Austin, and now New York. She also was an alum of UT Austin. In many ways, our connection was surprising and 1 in a million.

Liang and I met up again at a coffee shop in SoHo almost 8 months after our first meeting at Bloomingdale’s and we talked about her journey to New York and the challenges she overcame to become the entrepreneurial creative house she is today. From getting fired from her first job to starting up a mega-successful desserts festival with her co-founder, Liang has quite a unique story to tell.

MOVING TO NEW YORK FROM TEXAS

"I've been in New York six years now. I was working in Austin at the time and always wanted to move to New York, but didn't know what would be the catalyst for that. I was going through a break up at the time and I thought "Now is the time. If now is not the time, I'm never going to do it."

I looked for jobs online and decided to fly here for a startup job fair and scored two interviews for the next day. From those interviews, I received one offer which I accepted and then moved here immediately afterward.

I worked at that startup for two months before I got fired. I was freaking out at the time because I had a very expensive apartment, this East Village apartment that I ended up living in for five years, and I turned to freelancing as a way to make ends meet. I got my first freelance client through Craigslist and designed this iPad app called Docwise which is an app for physicians to stay up to date on their medical journal readings. They hired me for the job and I learned there that freelancing earned me so much more than a full-time job would have at the time. I strung together all these projects back to back for a year.

Getting fired was a good thing in retrospect. With my two weeks of severance, I would go to a coffee shop every day and work on my design portfolio.

ON BREAK-UPS

"Break-ups are a blessing. In terms of my career story, I've been going back and forth between full-time and freelance. My second full-time job was at Conde Nast and I ended up making a decision to leave. It wasn't as scary leaving this job, because I had already gone through leaving a job the first time. I went back to freelance and worked full-time at another company called Soma as their Creative Director. I went through a break-up and went through these life-coaching classes and realized that there are so many things I've been wanting to do that I have held back on for some reason, so I decided to just really go for it.

During that time I started FunFunFieldTrips where I take adults on field trips and make them feel like little kids again. I also started FunFunDinners where you get invited to a dinner where you show up and meet other people in New York. There's a menu on the table with coloring pencils and crayons and you color the characters. On the back, there are questions relating to the theme of the dinner. One of the themes was "storytellers" where everyone who was a guest was a storyteller of some sort (i.e. a journalist writing stories, an actress acting stories, a brand strategist telling stories of a brand). People would sign up to be on a waiting list and I would handpick and curate who would come to these dinners. At the end of the day, that was a really great way for me to make friends in New York City.

 Liang started FunFunDinners as a way to meet new people in NYC.

Liang started FunFunDinners as a way to meet new people in NYC.

 One of Liang’s designs for Soma.

One of Liang’s designs for Soma.

There was this success spiral where you build your momentum and you prove to yourself you can do these things. From those experiences, I have this mentality that I can do anything. Shortly afterward, I did a Matcha pop-up. Now I ask myself, what's the next thing I can do? What is the next fun project I can take on?

ON LIVING IN NEW YORK

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to move to Shanghai, because I've been there and I loved how there are so many people, so much life, so many things happening. When I visited New York for the first time, I felt that same energy whereas in Texas, it's so different. How I felt when I first moved to New York was that I am a plant that's finally in the right environment and now I can thrive and all of these opportunities, while some of them required me getting fired first, allow me to grow exponentially in ways that I never would have been able to do in Texas. As a designer in Texas, maybe 5 positions would be open whereas in New York there are more than 300 open positions at any given moment.

I lived in East Village for five years and have always been on the border of East Village and Union Square and I love it. It's alive at all times of the day and night. If you're an early bird there are coffee shops that are open super early. There's Veselka that's open 24 hours and restaurants are usually open late. I love that. To me, it's energy that's always available to you whereas in certain neighborhoods or cities after 10 pm, everything is dead, so you have to live in that pattern. I really enjoy the freedom to do work or go out anytime you want. Being so close to Union Square gives me access to almost every single train and if not, you can take the L train to the other trains. I feel like it's the heart of the city in so many different ways.

ON FOUNDING DESSERT GOALS

Editor’s note: Dessert Goals is a beast. Liang started the festival in New York with her co-founder two years ago and since then it’s blown up to expand to LA and has now sold out 7 times.

 Liang & her co-founder Miraya founded Dessert Goals after bonding over a love for desserts in the city.

Liang & her co-founder Miraya founded Dessert Goals after bonding over a love for desserts in the city.

I love desserts. I've always loved desserts. And finding the right target audience with them is tricky at times. I had a lot of Asians come to my matcha pop-ups and they wanted to taste more matcha whereas others found that to be too bitter. I had so many taste tests in order to perfect the right blend of matcha with other flavors.

  Liang spent weeks iterating new versions of her matcha drinks and holding taste tests in her apartment.    I met Liang at this pop-up at Bloomingdale’s!

Liang spent weeks iterating new versions of her matcha drinks and holding taste tests in her apartment.

I met Liang at this pop-up at Bloomingdale’s!

With Dessert Goals, we pulled from our savings for the very first event and hoped people would come. Luckily, people were very excited about the idea and did come. We also had amazing vendors who believed in us, who signed up even though we didn’t have a track record yet. It ended up working out really, really well.

Thinking back to that first event, there was so much we didn't know at that time. We learned about how to create the flow of things - making sure that when we advertised, people knew what the event was about - a lot of our experience was creating and setting expectations and figuring out logistical issues. As the events have gone on, certain things have gotten easier because they are more repetitive, like getting vendors or setting up the space. We know that pretty well now. Certain things have also gotten harder, though. For example, for every event, you keep growing in terms of number of festival days and number of tickets, so finding a way to sell all those tickets or communicating to people all of the new things that we have going on is harder. Growth is a blessing, but also a challenge as you continue expanding.

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What makes me really proud at the end of the day is what I’m creating.
— Liang Shi

We've done 6 festivals now and we're onto our 7th and we want to think about how we can expand it or grow it into a different format or go into new cities. We're not entirely sure what that looks like yet, but we want to grow it in fun ways that are interesting to us.

We love Dessert Goals, but we also love doing other things besides Dessert Goals. We're both very passionate about multiple things so it's nice that we get to do both.

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I think the good thing about our festival is that it's a very easy concept to understand and get excited about. You just see the words "dessert goals" and you get it and know what it is and either want to go or don't want to go. Being able to condense the concept of your business down to its simplest truth helps people get excited about it. For our Facebook events, we just call it "NYC Dessert Fest". We actually remove our branding from it just because it's easier to communicate that idea. If you see ‘dessert goals’, you might not know what that is, but if you see ‘NYC dessert fest’, you're like, "oh, yeah, I totally get it."

The tricky thing is that it's never good to rely too much on another platform because Facebook could change their algorithm tomorrow and you wouldn't know how to make your event viral. Luckily, we've been able to grow on Facebook and have all of our events go viral. Our Instagram now has 28K followers. We're growing our newsletters. We don't want to just depend on the Facebook Gods to bless us [laughs].

 Liang (left) with her co-founder Miraya (right)

Liang (left) with her co-founder Miraya (right)

ON FINDING THE RIGHT CO-FOUNDER

My co-founder and I met each other through my FunFunDinner series. She actually came to my first one and we became friends after that. Miraya’s background is in event production and my background is in design. After every time we hung out, we would get dessert. One day we were getting shaved snow and talking about events and potentially working on something together. We discussed how there are festivals for everything, literally everything, in New York from hot sauce to dumplings to pizza, but why was there no dessert festival? We googled it thinking surely there must be one, but nothing came up so we realized we needed to do this.

Working together with a co-founder is like a marriage. Communication is super key. It's so important to share your frustration to clear any misunderstandings. It's going to be hard at times because you're learning about each other's communication and working styles, but one thing that I'm really really appreciative and grateful for is that we both decided that our friendship is the most important thing. If we aren't good friends or if we aren't enjoying this with each other, then it's not worth doing it together. When we put that as what we're really focused on and that this is what we're going to put energy and time into, we can overcome any difficulty together.


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ON LOVE & BALANCE

During Dessert Goals season, I wake up around 7 am and work on DG for three hours until I have to go to work. Then I go to work and put my time there and leave around 6 and work on DG again until I'm ready to go to sleep. Those are 12+ hour days, which can get exhausting. I'm trying to figure out areas where I can outsource and where I can be more efficient.

My fiance and I try to have thirty minutes a day where we don't have phones and just spend time with each other and communicate with each other during that time. Spending quality time with him is one of my top priorities, if not the top priority. We were long distance for 1 year and a half. I was fortunate enough to have a job where I could work remotely so I would fly out to Italy for three weeks at a time. He quit his job and decided to move here and it solidified what we already knew about each other. He proposed last June and at that time we had been dating for about 2.5 years. I feel so lucky that he was really open-minded about moving here and has found opportunities here.

 Liang works at Square, where she focuses on Experiential Design for the Cash app.

Liang works at Square, where she focuses on Experiential Design for the Cash app.

ON PERSONAL GROWTH

I feel like a completely different person now compared to who I was in college. I don't know if you get this vibe now, but I was a very negative person in college. I had very few friends and I think it was because I was very, very insecure. When you feel that way, you tend to push people away because you're afraid of being judged. I felt very much more lonely back then, but I wasn't self-aware enough to even realize that. I used to think that "people aren't cool enough for me; they don't get me" but now I realize the importance of being vulnerable and making connections with people and how that actually empowers you. I feel like I have a completely different mindset from what I had in college.

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I took these life coaching classes called Landmark and it showed me the blind spots in my life that were holding me back. One of the key things was my parents getting divorced when I was very young and my dad leaving our family. I had not been in touch with him for twenty years. It took going back to that and realizing how holding onto that story of him abandoning me was not serving me in multiple areas of my life. What I actually had to do was forgive him. I ended up doing what was the hardest thing I had done in my life: calling him after not speaking to him for twenty years and telling him that I forgave him.

I called him and I think he was shocked. He didn't know how to react, but he thanked me. It was more than what both of us expected at the moment.

In this class that I took, it told me that I needed to do this. It told me that I needed to forgive him and not just in my mind, but to take action to make it real. To be honest, I think it took me two years to arrive at what true forgiveness really meant, which was getting to a point where it was more about "this isn't about how this makes me feel, but about how you feel," so I actually tried reaching out to him two years later, but was not able to get in touch with him. But at that time, I was doing it from a place where I truly was trying to make sure he was okay and that's when I knew I had really forgiven him.

I think after that, I continued taking these courses and I went into a deep dive into how I can be a better person and realizing what areas I could improve in and be what I really want to be. I wanted to find which areas of my life are led by fear rather than by my true self. Going through that journey where I uncovered all of those things has been my thing to do in the last few years.

STEPHANIE: Do you still feel insecure about things?

LS: Totally. I often feel like "Oh, I still don't have friends." Even though I do have friends, I have this fear that is quite irrational that friends could leave me at any time, which ties back to the story of abandonment that I've created for myself. It is so deeply ingrained which makes it hard to walk away from that. I think what has helped has been thinking about where to separate my reality from fears.

The last breakup I went through was a huge catalyst for personal growth. It forced me to look at how much I was building and depending upon another person as opposed to myself and so from there I started focusing more on myself. That allowed me to blossom.

I learned that you have to be someone who is happy and pursuing what makes you happy in a relationship otherwise you start looking for it in the relationship itself which becomes a huge burden for the other person.

ON THE FUTURE

The biggest challenge in my life right now is trying to balance all of these current things that I'm doing with the new things that I want to do, but don’t have the time to. Right now, I'm finishing up planning for my wedding, which is happening in two weeks. After that, there's another dessert festival (#7!). Once that’s done, I'm planning a space of nothingness and taking it pretty easy for a couple of months after that.

Overall, I'm definitely really proud of how far I’ve come and how I'm still continuing to grow. I'm happy with the progress, but it's going to be a life-long journey.