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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Energizers: Two Duke University grads craft a surprising success story

Energizers is a new Business North Carolina feature spotlighting enterprising young Tar Heel entrepreneurs.


The rush of learning something new, something that seemed impossible, has taken Justine Tiu and Adrian Zhang from a modest $200 investment to a $5 million business in just two years. 

They describe Cary-based Woobles as an ed-tech company that teaches the art of crocheting miniature plushies, while combining physical crafting kits with online education. Using the Japanese art of amigurumi simplified into an easy step-by-step process, customers create colorful penguins, dinosaurs and assorted cute critters. The crafting inspires renewed confidence in one’s ability to tackle unknowns. 

The couple, who got married in 2021, use a term popular among some gaming enthusiasts, “fiero,” to describe the adrenaline rush of conquering the challenges of starting and now scaling their entrepreneurial venture. 

They mainly sell direct to consumers through the company website and Amazon and by wholesale channels to boutique stores and chain retailers. It’s a big shift from their former New York jobs on Wall Street (Zhang at Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan) and in technology (Tiu at Google) before the Duke University graduates returned to North Carolina in 2020.

Amid filling orders for the 2022 holiday rush, Zhang says, “We’re 10 times busier this year. Last year we were packing orders from a single bedroom in my parents’ basement. Now we’re in four warehouses [in Apex.]”

Their fulfillment team has grown from one to eight associates, shipping six, sometimes seven, days a week. As for the business partners-newlyweds, they live, breathe and dream Woobles.

“I don’t even think about how many hours we’re working; pretty much if we’re not cooking, eating, or walking our dog, we’re working,” Tiu says. 

While the first two years were a whirlwind, the last six months have accelerated even more dramatically, punctuated with a winning Sept. 30 appearance on the ABC TV network’s “Shark Tank,” publication of a crafting book that became an Amazon bestseller and the launch of Shortcake, their proprietary online learning platform that simplifies the craft process.

The couple were surprised by the opportunity to compete on “Shark Tank,” but even more astounded when business tycoons Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner agreed to invest $450,000 for a 6% stake in Woobles — well above their pitch for $250,000. (The transaction was never completed. “It simply wasn’t the right fit for us,” Tiu says.)

“It was a fantastic experience. We didn’t know what to expect but what you see on TV is exactly what happens there,” Zhang says. They are thrilled with how the prime-time moment catapulted awareness of their company.

In July, Woobles had 14,000 Facebook followers and 34,500 followers on Instagram. By December, their Facebook following topped 37,000 and Instagram, 97,000.

The book has also raised awareness. Launched in mid-October, “Crochet Amigurumi for Every Occasion: 21 Easy Projects to Celebrate Life’s Happy Moments” became Amazon’s No. 1 book in toy making, No. 1 in stuffed-animal crafts and No. 3 in crochet — all within one month. 

Popi Makris, owner of After School Brilliance in Madison in Rockingham County, was hooked by the “Shark Tank” episode. She ordered a kit for her 10-year-old and liked it so much she began selling Woobles at her store, which is about 30 miles north of Greensboro. The kits typically sell for about $30.

“They flew off the shelves,” Makris says. “I ordered two more shipments and then Woobles told me they couldn’t ship more wholesale orders until January. I’ll resume selling them as soon as they’re available.” 

Woobles are for sale at a variety of retail settings, including the gift shop at the N.C. Museum of Art and Durham’s Crafts and Drafts N.C. bar. Next on the to-do list is growing the wholesale business through national chains. Canadian retailer Loblaws was the first chain to stock Woobles, while a U.S.–based retailer is expected to soon offer the product.

The biggest challenge for Zhang and Tiu is scaling to meet demand. They see huge growth  potential for businesses that effectively combine physical products with online learning. In their case, Shortcake is a series of videos that walks Wooblers through the learning process as simply as possible. Shortcake’s videos never last more than 60 seconds, which is critical, Tiu says.

“When people try to learn something on YouTube, inevitably what happens is they try to follow along, mess up somewhere, but the video keeps going and suddenly it’s at 10 minutes and they’re still stuck at 30 seconds, so that’s like an impossible place,” she says. 

Problem-solving is second nature to the couple, whose engineering backgrounds led them to design their Easy Peasy yarn that effectively eliminates the pesky habit of traditional yarn to fray, snag and undermine every stitch. It’s a hassle that frustrates many would-be knitters. Every Woobles kit utilizes the Chinese-made yarn, while individual skeins can be bought on Amazon.  

Now the challenge is finding a textile manufacturer closer to home to speed delivery and support growth.

“Because our yarn is not like regular yarn, we don’t know how to find the right manufacturer in North Carolina,” Zhang says. The complicated aspect is the specialized process to make the yarn, which isn’t adaptable to traditional industry machinery.

“We’d like to talk with anyone interested in doing this because we’d love to bring some of the production to North Carolina,” he says.

Other goals for 2023 and beyond include adding licensed characters, such as Harry Potter or Pokemon, expanding into international markets and, ideally, replacing multiple warehouses with one large one.

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