Hobbies serve a host of purposes: a way to unwind 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. hand for ourselves or our loved ones. Justine Tiu, co-founder of The Woobles, crochet learning kits for beginners, believes in the power of hobbies like crochet to touch something even deeper within us, that is, to build our confidence in we.
In creating The Woobles, his mission was to “spread the joy and confidence that comes from learning something new”. She says, “I have seen firsthand how learning something new, even something completely outside of the area you normally spend your time on, instills a confidence in you that spills over into other aspects of your life. Tiu and her husband had a lot of new skills to learn when they started their business. His positive take on what they learned on their journey is something we can all take to heart.
Tiu’s story is an encouraging picture of the countless benefits of self-care, tactile work, and being not only eager but excited to try something new. In this interview, she brings to life the time-tested belief that “there is joy in the process of learning, not just in the outcome.”
Lindsay Schlegel: Did you always dream of starting a business, or was The Woobles born because you were at a certain point in your life?
Justine Tiou: I never thought I would start a business. I just knew that 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 had the chance to realize this dream: I spent 7 years at Google as a UX designer, where I led the design of products that helped teachers and students, like Google Classroom.
Woobles started out as a side hobby. I’m a designer at heart and love all things crafty, so I designed some crochet patterns for stuffed animals. I started selling kits because people would go “aaaaw” when Woobles ended, but then say they could never do 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 crocheting, I decided to pursue The Woobles as a real business venture.
LS: What challenges has the pandemic brought to starting a business and what have you learned from your experience?
JT: The Woobles, as a company that focuses on how to teach crochet on a large scale, is all about figuring out how to do things when you can’t interact with someone in person. It therefore seems entirely appropriate that we embark on a pandemic.
To be honest, because I’m a first-time business owner, the additional challenges that the pandemic has brought are lumped together in my mind as another one of the challenges of starting a small business. You should always be scrappy, think of workarounds and fallbacks in case plan A or B fails, and make the most of what you have.
For example, we were forced to use technology in ways we probably wouldn’t have thought of had we been able to do certain activities in person, like private group workshops. Before the pandemic, I would have piloted these workshops in person. But since that’s not an option, we figured out the setup we needed to successfully teach live crochet online.
Another example of how COVID has affected our business is how we conduct user research. We regularly watch people learn to crochet with our kits. We would have access to a more diverse group of people in terms of technology literacy, if we could do these user studies in person. But because of COVID, we’re doing them on Zoom and only looking at people who can stream whatever we need to see to have a successful study. On the other hand, it means we have access to an overall more diverse group of people learning to 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 the way you see yourself and your growth potential. And building the confidence you can face, whatever happens.” Can you tell me more about why this message is important to you? What power do you see there?
JT: This post is very important to me because I have seen firsthand how much learning a new skill can really boost your confidence.
When I first started managing people at Google, I struggled. It had been five years since I had learned a major new skill, and I had forgotten what it was like to be inexperienced at work while trying to meet the expectations around you. I felt like I was disappointing my team for not being that great, seasoned manager they would have preferred to have. My self-confidence was at an all-time low, to the point that I told myself for the first time in my life that I would never improve in this area.
One thing I did to get out of my funk was tackle craft projects every weekend. I started with small projects, like assembling copper pipe plant stands and crocheting chair socks. It started out as something to distract me from work. But as my apartment slowly filled with handmade wooden tables, Japanese pottery and crocheted baskets, I realized that these craft projects were key to restoring my self-confidence. They reminded me that I still had the capacity within me to discover something new and pursue it. That it’s okay not to be perfect and in fact that’s what makes it interesting.
LS: What else can you tell us about the Woobles?
JT: Although we make kits that teach complete beginners how to crochet, we do not consider ourselves a crochet kit company. We see ourselves as an education company. We spend most of our time improving the learning experience. With my background as a UX designer for educational products, we apply the principles of learning science and user experience design to create an easy experience for beginners. We do this for more than physical products – each kit comes with an e-learning experience that has been equally carefully researched and designed.
Another fun fact: we are a (newly created!) wife and husband team. Adrian and I are college sweethearts, who went to Duke University, studied engineering, and held positions in big tech and finance (he was a Wall Street trader; his last job was a manager at Deutsche Bank). The Woobles are very different from what we used to do as a day job. 🙂