Hobbies serve a variety of purposes – a means to unwind at the end of the day, a way to connect and build a community, a stress reliever during lockdown, and often making handmade items for ourselves or loved ones. Justine Tiu, co-founder of The WobblesCrochet Learning Kits for Beginners, believes in the power of hobbies like crocheting to touch something even deeper within us, which is to boost our confidence.
When founding The Woobles, their mission was to “spread the joy and confidence that comes from learning something new”. She says, “I’ve seen firsthand how learning something new, even something completely outside the realm of what you typically spend your time doing, sparks a confidence that ripples through to other areas of your life.” Tiu and her husband had to learn a whole new set of skills to start their business. We can all take heart from their positive perspective on what they learned on the journey.
Tius’ story is an encouraging picture of the myriad benefits of self-care, tactile work, and not just a willingness but enthusiasm to try something new. In this interview, she breathes life into the well-established belief “enjoy learning, not just the result”.
Lindsay Schlegel: Did you always dream of starting a business, or did The Woobles come about because you were in a specific place and time in your life?
Justin Tiu: I never thought I would start a business. I just knew I wanted to create products that help people, which is why becoming a great User Experience (UX) Designer has been my dream for a long time. I was fortunate enough to make this dream come true – I spent 7 years at Google as a UX designer, leading design for products that helped teachers and students, like Google Classroom.
The Woobles started out as just a side hobby. I’m a maker at heart and I love all things crafts so I designed some crochet patterns for stuffed animals. I started selling kits because people would say “aaaaw” at the finished Woobles but then said they could never do it themselves. Challenge accepted. After getting more and more messages from people thanking me for making these kits and unlocking the amazing hobby known as crocheting, I decided to pursue The Woobles as a proper business venture.
LS: What challenges has the pandemic brought to starting a business and what have you learned from your experience?
JT: A company focused on how to teach crochet at scale, The Woobles is all about figuring out how to do things when you can’t personally interact with someone. It therefore seems only fitting that we started during the pandemic period.
To be honest, being a first-time business owner, the added challenges brought on by the pandemic are just another of the challenges of starting a small business. You always have to be frantic, think of workarounds and fallbacks in case plan A or B fails, and make the best of what you have.
For example, we’ve been forced to use technology in ways we probably wouldn’t have thought of if we’d been able to conduct certain activities in person – like private group workshops. In times before the pandemic, I would have conducted these workshops personally. But because that’s not an option, we figured out what setup we need to successfully teach crochet live online.
Another example of how COVID has impacted our business is the way we conduct user research. We regularly watch people learn to crochet with our kits. If we could conduct these user studies in person, we would have access to a more diverse group of people in terms of technical expertise. But because of COVID we’re doing them via Zoom and only watching people who can stream everything we need to watch to have a successful degree. 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 yours website, write, “It’s about proving to yourself that there’s always something new to learn. Changing the way you see yourself and your potential for growth. And build the confidence to take on anything that comes your way.” Can you tell me more about why this message is important to you? What power do you see in it?
JT: This message is very important to me because I’ve seen firsthand how learning a new skill can really boost your confidence.
When I first started managing people at Google, I had a tough time. It’s been five years since I last learned an important new skill, and I forgot what it feels like to be inexperienced on the job as I try to meet the expectations around you. I felt like I was letting my team down by not having such a great, experienced manager that they would much rather have. My confidence was at an all-time low, to the point where, for the first time in my life, I thought I was never going to get any better at it.
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. At first it was just something to take my mind off 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 confidence. They reminded me that I still had it in me to find something new and do it. That it’s okay not to be perfect, and that’s actually what makes it interesting.
LS: What else can you tell us about The Woobles?
JT: Although we make kits that teach beginners how to crochet, we don’t really see ourselves as a crochet kit manufacturer. We see ourselves as an educational company. We spend most of our time 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 a simple, entry-level experience. We don’t just do this for the physical products – each kit includes an online learning experience that’s just as carefully researched and designed.
Also, a fun fact: We’re a (newly minted!) married couple. Adrian and I are college buddies who went to Duke University, majored in engineering, and had jobs in big tech and finance (he was a Wall Street trader; his most recent job was a director at Deutsche Bank). The Woobles is very different from what we used to do as a day job. 🙂