The crochet kit that’s really an ed-tech startup

December 5, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

While working as a senior user-experience designer at Google, specializing in education products, Justine Tiu set out to teach herself how to crochet. She sifted through YouTube videos and blog tutorials in the attempt to handcraft a gift for a friend and found the process to be difficult and frustrating.

The experience prompted Tiu and now-husband Adrian Zhang, a former Wall Street trader, to start The Woobles. Founded in July 2020, the company sells amigurumi crochet kits—complete with all the materials, plus meticulously designed, step-by-step guides and an already started piece—that teach customers how to make adorable plush animals.

The duo not only develop new kits that aim to help beginners pick up a skill commonly thought could only be learned in person, they’re also trying to improve how people master new skills more broadly.

Fortune recently spoke with cofounder Justine Tiu about The Woobles’ first year in business, how it’s secretly an ed-tech company, and plans for its future.

Adrian Zhang and Justine Tiu, cofounders of The Woobles.
Courtesy of The Woobles

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: I’d love to hear about the inspiration for The Woobles. It seems like a vastly different path from what you were both working on.

Tiu: The Woobles actually isn’t so different from what I used to work on [as a senior user-experience designer at Google, leading UX for Google Classroom]. During my time working on education products at Google, I spent a lot of time with teachers and students, and I saw how much learning changes people. But I also noticed as we get older, we don’t have a formalized structure that regularly exposes us to new things anymore, and so we forget that we still can learn new things.

That’s why we make crochet kits that teach complete beginners how to crochet. To prove to people that they can always learn something new.

Outwardly, The Woobles looks like a crochet kit company. But secretly we’re an education company. Most of our work is focused on how to make the learning process as easy as possible.

We’ve seen that when people figure out a new skill, they become more confident, positive, and open-minded. And that’s what The Woobles is really about—it’s not really about crochet, it’s about spreading the joy and self-confidence that comes from learning something new.

Can you tell me about how you made the decision to leave your job as a UX designer? What prompted the move? And were there skills you used in that role that transferred to what you’re doing now?

I left my job as a UX designer because I felt like I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted to anymore, in the areas that I cared most about. As someone who loves trying new things, which is a mindset we also encourage with our customers, I wanted more variety in my day-to-day.

One hundred percent the skills I used in my role as a UX designer have been transferable to what I do now. My background as a UX designer is the reason why we’ve been able to create the first kit that successfully teaches complete beginners to crochet at scale.

But aside from the product design itself, I’ve been surprised that running a business is so similar to the user-centered design process which is, to sum it up: research, prototype, test, tweak. Everything we’ve done at The Woobles has been our first time doing that thing, so we’re always gathering information, taking our best guess, getting feedback, and then modifying from there.

At first glance, the product is seemingly low-tech—traditional crochet kits—but how are you leveraging technology? And how does that enhance the user experience?

Our kits come across as very simple and intuitive, but in reality, a ton of research goes into creating the experience. Every detail is carefully crafted, from figuring out the best yarn for beginners, to the exact words we use in each tutorial video. And that’s the secret to why our kits work—we spend a lot of time understanding how to pair a physical kit with a digital learning experience.

Each kit comes with an accompanying digital learning platform. The main thing we think about with this digital learning platform is how to minimize cognitive load. People learn better when presented with small bits of information. That’s why we chunk the learning process into bite-size steps that usually come with videos that are five minutes long or less. It’s also why the actual UI design is important. We keep the UI minimal and employ progressive disclosure—an interaction design pattern of sequencing information across multiple screens to keep users from feeling overwhelmed, so that learners can stay focused on only what they need to know right now.

And because the learning experience is digital, we can constantly do research and launch improvements without disrupting the customer experience.

As for the physical kit, we pre-start it so that the first challenge a complete beginner is faced with better matches their current skill level. Starting a crochet project is one of the trickiest things to do—to the point that it can completely discourage a complete beginner. Because we are pre-starting the project for them, learners can jump into mastering the basics before attempting higher level skills.

Pre-starting the kit also creates the endowed progress effect. It’s the reason why customer loyalty cards usually come with at least one free stamp. Providing people with a head start encourages them to complete a goal—in our case, learning to crochet.

On top of that, this pre-started piece is set up in a way that’s impossible to unravel. This makes for a safe space to fail. In the event that the learner makes a mistake and needs to start from the beginning, they won’t have to start from zero—they’ll always have a head start.

We’re constantly improving even the physical aspect of our kits. Our latest innovation is custom-made no-fray yarn that makes learning to crochet so easy. We call it Easy Peasy yarn.

How did COVID impact your business? I read that about six in 10 Americans adopted a new hobby during the pandemic—were you able to tap into that audience, and if so, how?

We launched our business during COVID, and it’s really taken off. With all this extra at-home time, our customers came to us looking to pick up a new, active hobby. (After all, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch.)

We were able to tap into that audience through word of mouth. Once someone learns to crochet and has a cute li’l Wooble of their own, they experience this feeling of “fiero”the feeling of accomplishing something you once thought was impossible. It makes them want to share with all of their family, friends, and really any community that will appreciate what they made.

Your goal is to simplify how people learn physical skills. What skills are you considering tackling next, and how are you prioritizing the skills you can teach?

We’ve been testing a new iteration of the digital learning platform. Based on the initial tests, we think it has the potential to work for a wide variety of physical skills beyond the obvious expansion into other crafts and hobbies—for example, furniture assembly manuals. Since the magic behind a Woobles kit is the pairing of the intentionally designed physical kit and digital experience, we’re interested in teaching skills where we could also innovate on the physical setup to make for a smoother, controlled first-time experience.

Where do you see the company in the next year? How do you hope it will evolve in the next five years?

In the next year, we hope to have launched this next big iteration of our digital learning platform, and developed more products so that we can grow with our customers as they continue on their crochet journeys. With our redesigned kits featuring Easy Peasy yarn, we also plan to be in retail stores so that we can share the joy and confidence of learning a new skill with more potential learners.

In the next five years, we hope to expand our teaching method to more physical skills. It’s hard to say exactly which ones or what formation that’ll be in, but we’re sure the user-centered design process will lead us down the right path.

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.