Justine Tiu is the co-founder of The Woobles and author of Crochet Amigurumi for Every Occasion, as well as Roger Shaw, the president and publisher at Weldon Owen, to discuss Tiu’s recent success, including receiving an investment deal from the popular TV show, “Shark Tank.”
Tell me about how The Woobles got started. I understand you were a user experience designer at Google before founding the company. How did that background lend itself to this new venture?
Justine Tiu (JT): While working at Google, a big chunk of my time was spent with teachers and students, so, inevitably, I saw a lot of learning being done. I realized that, as we get older, we no longer have something that forces us to learn new things, and that people (including myself) forget that we can learn new things at any age. That was the main inspiration behind creating The Woobles—not just to teach complete beginners the new skill of crochet but, more importantly, to show people that they can always learn something new.
At what point during did you decide to write Crochet Amigurumi for Every Occasion? What role does book publishing play in your business?
JT: I decided to write the book to give Wooblers the opportunity to create even more Woobles projects on their own. To date, we’ve helped over 100,000 people learn to crochet through our kits. Over the last year, many of them have reached back out to ask for more patterns. We’re flattered they want us to continue to be a part of their crocheting journey, so this book is our answer to their call and a way for people to continue to make more Woobles while building on the introductory skills our beginner kits offer.
What was your approach to how to write/structure the book?
JT: A common reason why people want to learn to crochet is to make a unique handmade gift for their loved ones. With this book, I wanted to make it easy for people to decide on what to make for any celebration in life, from birthdays and engagements to housewarming parties and more. The most important thing I had in mind when making this book was to make sure it was clear and beginner-friendly. The patterns are written in our signature detailed style, tutorials include high-quality photos featuring our Easy Peasy Yarn, and we even have videos for some of the trickier techniques in the book. Every aspect of the book is carefully tailored to give crocheters of all levels a frustration-free, start-to-finish experience so that they’ll have completed amigurumi that they’d be proud to gift—or keep for themselves!
The book was released on October 11; it’s early, but how are sales, and how has the response been?
JT: The book has been super well-received, and we’re pleased with sales. With the book only being out for a little over a week, we’re really happy to see we’ve already received 55 reviews and are rated at a 4.8 out of 5. We’re seeing a lot of people sharing that they’ve asked for the book for the holidays, so we anticipate sales (and ratings!) to continue to grow throughout Q4.
Can you talk to me about the ed tech aspect of The Woobles offerings?
JT: Most of our business is focused on how to make learning a new skill as easy as possible. With every Woobles Beginner Kit comes a step-by-step guide with video tutorials, all less than five minutes, that show everything from how to hold a hook and yarn, to getting through the first few stitches in the kit. Our digital learning experience minimizes cognitive load by presenting users with small bits of information at a time. We also keep our user interface minimal and employ the principle of progressive disclosure to keep users from feeling overwhelmed, and allow them to focus on one thing at a time.
Congratulations on your “Shark Tank” deal. How was that experience? What do you plan on using the $450,000 investment?
JT: The experience of going on the show was surreal. Being on set was exactly what is shown on TV. Although we were hesitant about going on at first (we typically don’t like being in the spotlight), we thought going on the show aligned perfectly with our brand goals—to learn a new skill and build confidence—so we decided to go for it. Sharing our brand with the Sharks on national television was a great way to share our mission with viewers.
We plan on using the $450,000 investment to improve The Woobles’s online learning experience and expand our emerging licensing program. We’re also looking to hire people as our business continues to grow.
Our audience is made up of small, independent publishers and author-publishers. Do you have any advice, business or otherwise, for publishers/authors looking to innovate/use technology better?
JT: My main advice for those looking to innovate/use technology better would be to actually look at it the other way. Don’t think about how to apply tech to a certain space. Instead, think about ideal solutions to the problem you have at hand, and then see if there’s simple ways tech can help solve any of those problems.
How did you get connected with Justine Tiu?
Roger Shaw (RS): At Weldon Owen, we actively encourage our team of editors to leverage their personal passions and aspirations in determining our publishing plans. One of our enterprising editors at the time, Claire Yee, was an enthusiastic novice crafter who had learned to crochet by using a Woobles crochet kit, which was starting to be promoted on Instagram and other social platforms. We were greatly impressed with The Woobles’ easy-to-use products, their bright branding, and clean aesthetics, which we believed would translate well to the printed page.
Seeing a growing trend for amigurumi (cute crocheted stuffed toys) but very little that was easy to use, we approached Justine to suggest we collaborate on an initial title as part of a larger book program. We saw the book as an opportunity for The Woobles to get their name out to more potential customers in book trade and beyond to drive their core business and generate additional revenue.
What was Weldon Owen’s role in Crochet Amigurumi for Every Occasion?
RS: We helped develop the concept in partnership with Justine and wanted the focus of the book to be on year-round gift-giving, inspiring the beginning crafter to create adorable gifts for different party themes, such as baby showers, birthdays, housewarmings, and engagement parties. We’ll typically create structure and a book map and then design, edit, proof, print the books, and sell them both domestically and internationally with co-edition partners.
Did the book idea come to you fully formed?
RS: Because of our background as a creative book packager, we typically conceive the book ourselves and then approach an author or brand partner. We rarely receive book-ready proposals or manuscripts from authors or agents and usually take on more of the creative development work ourselves, which is perhaps what we enjoy doing the most. Having said that, we couldn’t have had a better partner than Justine, who helped produce the pitch with some wonderful early sketches of the toy designs, which enabled us to get our sales and marketing teams as excited as we were about the book project.
What is Weldon Owen’s philosophy toward publishing and the books it publishes?
RS: In general, we specialize in illustrated, high-quality lifestyle titles that have high gift potential, backlist durability, and the ability to appeal internationally. As far as mission, we try to produce books that do some good in the world, even if only drawing on our own passions to open reader’s minds to fresh possibilities—everything from cooking, crafts, and camping to self-help, spirituality, and environmental activism. Hopefully some of our books will entertain, educate, and encourage people enough to pursue their own passions and sources of happiness.
What is it about The Woobles that makes it appealing/ripe for book publishing?
RS: Weldon Owen has been something of a pioneer of branded book publishing over the past 40 years, and most of what we publish is in partnership with a brand, whether a retailer, manufacturer, movie or TV property, museum, or magazine. We’ve had the privilege of developing book programs for founders of companies, such as Chuck Williams at Williams Sonoma and Anita Roddick at The Body Shop.
We try to work with best-in-class brands in whatever category, and The Woobles certainly excels in its business, delivering great experiences and a sense of accomplishment to its fans. What we look for in a new partner is a brand that has reliable and novel content offering, strong personality, incremental sales channels beyond the regular book trade, and a growing and engaged audience, all of which The Woobles clearly has.
But, more importantly perhaps, we relish working alongside smart and entrepreneurial founders like Justine so we can grow our businesses in parallel and explore new ways of producing things that people will enjoy. Anyone who saw Justine’s recent appearance on “Shark Tank” witnessed the enthusiasm and vision that she brings to any undertaking. We only published Crochet Amigurumi for Every Occasion in the past month, but we’re already enjoying solid sales results and have reprints underway, which bodes well for other titles in the program. But beyond the sales success, it’s always gratifying to read the reviews and see that the passion we originally had for the book project has been passed on to readers.