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‘Getting the deal was a pleasant bonus’: Duke alumni receive $450,000 investment on Shark Tank for crochet startup

Two Duke grads just scored big for their startup on the hit ABC show Shark Tank.

Justine Tiu, Pratt ‘11, promoted her crochet-kit startup The Woobles last month on the show. She left with a $450,000 investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner for 6% equity. 

Accompanied by her husband and co-founder Adrian Zhang, Pratt ‘11, Tiu presented the $3.1 million in revenue gained in the previous year. At the time of filming, The Woobles was estimated to make $7 million in annual revenue. 

“It was surreal. It was cool enough to be able to go on the show, let alone get a deal,” Tiu wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “Before going on the show we thought this would be a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience no matter the outcome — getting the deal was a pleasant bonus.” 

Tiu and Zhang created the company in 2020 during the pandemic. Soon, a hobby became a $200 investment in yarn and a website domain name.

Tiu says her inspiration for the business is attributed to her former career as a leader for User Experience for Google Classroom. In the role, she constantly saw both students and teachers engage with new material and learn. 

“As we get older, people, including myself, forget that we can learn new things at any age,” Tiu wrote. “This realization is what made me want to start The Woobles—to show people that they can always learn something new, and they can get a cute plushie out of it too!”

Tiu’s interest in entrepreneurship can be traced back to her time studying electrical engineering at Duke.

In addition to meeting her future husband, she gained valuable skills through her time living in the Smart Home LLC, found a creative outlet to technology inspiration and was able to execute plans and build projects. Tiu said that she found these skills to be transferable to her work as an entrepreneur now.

However, Tiu said she didn’t know she wanted to work as a product designer until her junior year. A strong interest in creating led her to major in engineering, and she initially wanted to focus on building robots and consumer electronics.

Later, though, she realized a preference for being closer with the consumer end of product development and seeing people interact with her products. With The Woobles, she creates cute crochet packs, while also connecting with customers in this way. 

For Tiu, the journey wasn’t always easy, as she faced a significant level of self-doubt on whether the company would prosper. 

“The highs are really high, and the lows are really low,” Tiu wrote. “Although I thought I was creating a great product, you never know how the public will view it.”

Eeventually, The Woobles outgrew both Tiu’s and Zhang’s parents’ basements and gained enough attention that a Shark Tank casting director decided to reach out to the couple.

Looking back, Tiu wished that she could have known how successful her business would be. 

“The most rewarding part of this journey has certainly been that The Woobles has been able to teach over 100,000 people how to crochet,” Tiu wrote. “And more importantly, help people build confidence through learning a new skill.”

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