Hobbies serve a host of purposes—a means of unwinding at the end of the day, a way to connect and build community, a stress reducer during lockdown, and often the creation of handmade items for ourselves or loved ones. Justine Tiu, co-founder of The Woobles, learn-to-crochet kits for beginners, believes in the power of hobbies like crochet to touch something even deeper in us, that is, to boost our self-confidence.
In creating The Woobles, her mission was to “spread the joy and confidence that comes from learning something new.” She says, “I’ve experienced first-hand how learning something new, even something completely outside of the realm of what you typically spend your time on, sparks a self-confidence that spills into other parts of your life.” Tiu and her husband had a whole bundle of new skills to learn as they launched their business. Her positive perspective on what they learned on the journey is something we can all take to heart.
Tiu’s story is an encouraging picture of the myriad benefits of self-care, tactile work, and being not only willing but excited to try something new. In this interview, she breathes life into the time-tested conviction that “there’s joy in the process of learning, not just in the outcome.”
Lindsay Schlegel: Did you always dream of starting a business, or did The Woobles come about because you were in a certain place and time in your life?
Justine Tiu: I never thought I’d start a business. I just knew I wanted to create products that helped people, which is why for a long time, my dream was actually to be a great User Experience (UX) Designer. I was fortunate enough to achieve that dream—I spent 7 years at Google as a UX Designer, where I led design for products that helped teachers and students, like Google Classroom.
The Woobles started off as just a side hobby. I’m a maker at heart and I love all things crafty, so I designed a few crochet patterns for stuffed animals. I started selling kits because people would “aaaaw” at the finished Woobles, but then say they could never make it themselves. Challenge accepted. After getting more and more messages from people thanking me for creating these kits and unlocking the awesome hobby known as crochet, I decided to pursue The Woobles as a proper business venture.
LS: What challenges did the pandemic bring to launching a business and what did you learn from your experience?
JT: The Woobles, as a business that focuses on how to teach crochet at scale, is all about figuring out how to do things when you can’t interact with someone in person. It seems only fitting then that we launched during pandemic times.
To be honest, because I’m a first-time business owner, the extra challenges that the pandemic brought are lumped in my mind as just another one of the challenges of launching a small business. You always need to be scrappy, think of workarounds and fallbacks in case plan A or B falls through, and make the most of what you’ve got.
For example, we’ve been forced to use technology in ways that we probably wouldn’t have thought about if we were able to do certain activities in person—like private group workshops. Pre-pandemic times, I would’ve piloted these workshops in-person. But because that’s not an option, we figured out what setup we needed to successfully teach crochet live online.
Another example of how COVID has affected our business is how we run user research. We regularly watch people learn to crochet with our kits. We’d have access to a more diverse group of people in terms of tech savviness, if we could do those user studies in-person. But because of COVID, we do them over Zoom and only watch people who can stream everything we need to see in order to have a successful study. On the flip side, this means we have access to an overall more diverse group of people learning crochet for the first time.
LS: On your website, you write, "It’s about proving to yourself that you can always learn something new. Changing how you see yourself and your potential to grow. And building the confidence that you can take on whatever comes your way." Can you tell me more about why that message is important to you? What power do you see in it?
JT: This message is super important to me because I’ve experienced firsthand how learning a new skill can really boost your self-confidence.
When I first started managing people at Google, I had a tough time. It had been five years since I last picked up a major new skill, and I forgot what it felt like to be inexperienced on the job while trying to meet the expectations around you. I felt like I was disappointing my team for not being that great, seasoned manager they’d much rather have. My self-confidence was at an all-time low, to the point that I found myself thinking for the first time in my life that I’d never get better at this.
One thing I did to get out of my funk was tackle crafting projects each weekend. I started off with small projects, like putting together copper pipe plant stands and crocheting chair socks. It started off as just something to take my mind off of work. But as my apartment slowly filled with handmade wood tables, Japanese pottery, and crochet baskets, I realized that these crafting projects were key to restoring my self-confidence. They reminded me that I still had it in myself to figure out something new and follow through with it. That it’s okay not to be perfect and that in fact, that’s what makes it interesting.
LS: What else can you tell us about The Woobles?
JT: Even though we make kits that teach complete beginners how to crochet, we actually don't think of ourselves as a crochet kit company. We think of ourselves as an education company. We spend the bulk of our time on improving the learning experience. With my background as a UX Designer for educational products, we apply learning science and user experience design principles to create an easy first-timer experience. We do this for more than just the physical products—each kit comes with an online learning experience that’s been just as thoughtfully researched and designed.
Also fun fact: we’re a (newly minted!) wife-and-husband team. Adrian and I are college sweethearts, who went to Duke University, studied engineering, and did jobs in big tech and finance (he was a Wall Street trader; his last job was a Director at Deutsche Bank). The Woobles is very different from what we used to do as day jobs. :)