Geek of the Week: Seattle entrepreneur Mina Yoo invents products that provide an ‘extra hand’
Like many entrepreneurs and inventors, Mina Yoo was inspired to launch her current venture, Lulabop, to solve a problem that she experienced herself. As a mom who summited Mt. Rainier only months after the birth of her first child, she found herself constantly wishing she had extra hands to hold things, whether at home or on the mountainside. The result was her first hardware product, the Qlipter, a modified caribiner that serves as a rotating, folding hook. It launched last year with a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Today, the Seattle resident launched a new crowdfunding campaign for a follow-up product, the Qliplet. This time, she’s throwing in a charitable twist, giving 20 percent of the proceeds from a special green version of the Qliplet to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington.
Yoo, previously a professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business and a faculty fellow at Stanford University, was born in Korea. She grew up in Dubai and Jakarta and arrived on the east coast of the U.S. for college. Since then, she has been gradually making her way west with stops in Albuquerque, N.M. and Ann Arbor, Mich. She is married to Mark Whitmore, a hedge fund manager with Whitmore Capital Management, and is mom to two children, Kai and Mila.
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire — including tips for others doing crowdfunding campaigns.
What do you do, and why do you do it? I started my company, Lulabop, soon after leaving my work as a professor and having my first baby. I discovered that toting around a baby was really hard! Add to that starting to train to summit Mt. Rainier 5 months later, I began to realize that many of the things I love to do require lugging around a lot of stuff! What I really needed was another hand (or several), but since that wasn’t possible (as far I know), I created an all-purpose tool that would essentially act as my extra hand. Now, I have several other products in development. I still wear many hats – I come up with product ideas that are viable in the market, work with my design and manufacturing team, as well as with retailers and distributors to make the resulting products accessible to everyone.
I’ve been involved with other start-ups before, but have never been so professionally satisfied in my life. I’m working more than I ever have, but I love every minute of it, seeing my ideas turn into THINGS that you can touch and feel. It really makes my day when I get pictures from customers with new ways to use my product. And I get to work with machines, which I apparently have a thing for.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I don’t think people really know how much work and money it really takes to bring a product to market. I pretty much worked full time on my first product for two years before I launched it. I am somewhat of a perfectionist, so we worked on many, many iterations of the design and prototypes before sending out the design for manufacturing. There is also the issue of cash flow management – you have to pay to get your inventory before you can sell it, obviously, but even after selling, there could be delays of several months before you are actually paid.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone considering a crowdfunding campaign? My biggest piece of advice for anyone considering a crowdfunding campaign would be to treat their backers like investors. You have to be accountable to them and update them with the good and the bad, rather than communicating with them like any other customer or donor. You must remember that, without them, your product would not exist, so treat them like the VIPs they are.
How did you end up doing two crowdfunding campaigns for what’s essentially the same product? Actually, the two products have similar functionality, but they are far from being the same product. Since the initial product, the Qlipter, is so versatile, we were reaching customers from all markets – outdoors enthusiasts, parents, travelers, hipsters, hardware stores and even medical supply stores. What we realized was that people may want similar functions, but they don’t necessarily want the same design and size. With our second product, we wanted to give people options. We spent about a year designing the second product, the Qliplet, to make it both smaller and different in design and feel. We also use a completely different manufacturing method. Although my business has been very successful with its first product, in order to be able to get the product to a price point where everyone can afford it, we need to produce in high volume. And this would be impossible without a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Why did you decide to support the Girl Scouts of Western Washington with this campaign? Of course, I knew about their overall mission of empowering girls, but what really caught my eye is the Girl Scouts of Western Washington’s #forEVERYgirl campaign. They returned a donation of $100,000, because the donor made a demand that their funds could not go to transgendered girls. As an owner of a cash-strapped start-up myself, I can completely sympathize with what a difference that donation would have made and what an admirable stance this was for their beliefs. The places where I grew up – Dubai and Jakarta – did not have a Girl Scouts presence, so I was never a Girl Scout myself. However, learning more about the organization made me realize that they are about so much more than just camping and selling cookies. They stand for forming community, empowerment, entrepreneurship and turning girls into future leaders. As a mom of a two-and-a-half year old girl, I am fully onboard with these endeavors.
Where do you find your inspiration? I’m kind of an impatient person whose main pet peeve is inefficiency. I feel like there is so much waste – time, resources, energy – that can be utilized in a far better way. When I see something that doesn’t work efficiently or people who seem to be really inefficient, I get inspired to think about what can be done about it. Sadly, I am inspired on a daily basis.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? A 3-D printer! Our design and development process would be so much slower if we didn’t have ready access to a 3D printer so we can decide quickly whether a concept is worth pursuing further or should be scrapped. And I love the sound it makes.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I recently moved to a space that has a small warehouse on the lower floor and a mezzanine for an office floor on top. I used to keep my inventory at a very generous friend’s warehouse separate from my office, but I found that I was spending a lot of time driving back and forth and not doing the best job of keeping track of inventory. My workspace is colorful and casual, and workout clothes at work is the norm (I love having my own business!).
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Try not dwell on the negative. We all get bad news or have negative interactions on occasion related to work and life, and it is easy to get into a negative spiral that can be paralyzing. I try to make mental notes to prevent these things from happening again (if they are in my control) and move on.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter, hands down. I hate spending time getting to places, hate sitting in traffic, hate waiting for the plane to take off. Can someone PLEASE send me a transporter right now?
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Put my really awesome business idea for maximizing moms’ intellectual property into action.
I once waited in line for … Bungee jumping in New Zealand. It was a really good thing I was in a line because had there not been a ton of people waiting behind me for their jump, I may have turned around and not done it.
Your role models: My role model for a consumer company is the founder of Lego, Ole Kirk Christiansen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ole_Kirk_Christiansen
He not only created a product and a brand that supports creativity and engineering for all ages, he overcame some enormous obstacles (such as fire during the Nazi occupation etc.). He built a company that has adapted to the times and evolving technology and cleverly formed partnerships. The impact of the company has been such that there is now a Professor of Lego at Cambridge University
Greatest Game in History Terra Mystica. (It’s a strategic planning board game where you have to expand your land by developing your territory’s skills and resources and making trades to fit your strategy).
Best Gadget Ever: The Rabbit wine opener
First Computer: An IBM
Current Phone: iPhone 6 Plus
Favorite App: Sanebox. It takes organizes your emails into several categories and creates a digest of less important emails twice a day so that you can read them all at once. It is trainable, and you can also send emails into a “black hole” and the app will automatically unsubscribe you.
Favorite Cause: Recently, I’ve come to be a big admirer of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington, especially with their #forEVERYgirl campaign, and my company has since decided to create a Go Girl Green product in their honor and to give a percentage of sales of this model to them. I am also volunteering as a content developer for their Cookie CEO program.
Most important technology of 2015: Micro Drone 3.0: Flight in the palm of your hand.
Most important technology of 2017: Transporter? I guess the closest thing would be an autonomous vehicle.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: A speaker at a women’s retreat I was at once said, “Don’t try to live a balanced life. Live a fulfilled life.” This really rang true for me. Prior to her verbalizing this, I was really trying to achieve a “balanced life” since this what all the gurus said, but I don’t think I really knew what this meant (I still don’t). Striving for fulfillment makes much more sense to me.
You can see the full interview with Mina at : http://www.geekwire.com/2015/mina-yoo/