Salto Startups

The story of Woola: Sheep wool as a new normality?

Nov 30

Moonshot: Permacolony was the 5th Salto 100-hour ultra intense online global bootcamp for early-stage startups happening from 9th to 13th of November.
We selected 18 teams from 9 countries on four continents to take part on the crazy rollercoaster event.

Here’s a story about the 5th Salto Camp winner Woola.

Woola team

What does Woola do?

We use waste wool to replace bubble wrap.

Who do you have in the team?

We currently have three co-founders in the team:

Anna-Liisa Palatu - Founder & CEO
Jevgeni Širai - Co-founder & Head of Sales
Katrin Kabun - Co-founder & Head of Product

Please describe the birth of Woola?

I’ve been in the startup business now for more than three years. I’ve failed with all the previous startups I’ve founded, some even call me the “Queen of failures”. Before Woola I used to run an online store. I saw how much plastic waste is generated by e-commerce, the market is enormous. I didn’t want to lead a type of business that is so environmentally harmful. The problem was too urgent to ignore and I knew that we had to do something about it.

I contacted Omniva, the leader of e-commerce in the Baltic States. They stated that the biggest issue is bubble wrap which doesn’t have scalable and sustainable alternatives. The next day I accidentally stumbled across an article saying that 90% of sheep wool goes to waste. This connection immediately made sense to me as sheep wool is nice and “fluffy”. I called Omniva and offered them bubble wrap made from sheep wool and they placed their first order straight away. We agreed on a one month deadline for delivery.

Since I had actually no idea about the characteristics of sheep wool and where to get it, I contacted the author of the article about waste wool who is today Woola’s co-founder Katrin. At the same week I signed up for a Climathon hackathon, gathered together a team and generated our first prototype at 2AM in the Tallinn Technical University classroom by sewing the first piece of wool wrap with my own hands. 

How did you end up at LIFT99?

We applied to Salto Growth Camp with my previous ideas, but weren’t approved. LIFT99 co-founder Ragnar Sass contacted me personally afterwards and offered to a workspace in LIFT99. I realized that this is the place to meet the right people, and I wasn’t mistaken! We’ve received the necessary contacts through LIFT99 to raise our first funding round and after joining the space everything started to move ahead much faster for us.

Why did you decide to apply to Salto Growth Camp with Woola?

We got a push from the LIFT99 team. We are very focused on product, clients and sales at the moment and try to avoid all other distractions. The Moonshot Growth Camp (took place on November 9-13th, 2020) seemed to fit us perfectly, so we decided to apply. 

How has Salto Growth Camp changed your business and everyday life?

After Salto Growth Camp we reached a momentum. We managed to impress the right people and the connections we made during the Salto Camp were game changers for us. We had specific goals and were determined to reach these goals even if it meant sleeping under the table for some nights. Our core business didn’t change. We had a possibility to show our product and explain the product logic and market potential. This opportunity was really important for us, as usually most investors run away if you start talking about physical products.

What are Woola’s future plans? Do you plan hiring more team members in near future? Will Woola stay as Estonian company or are you planning to expand to other countries as well?

Long-term plans are pointless. Life has shown that long-term plans usually don’t work out as you expected and planning a long time ahead doesn't have any point. We have a saying in Woola: “Let’s deal with the problems when they occur.” Prioritize your work and start by dealing with the most important fires first.

We are very ambitious. We don’t want to become a manufacturing company in Paldiski (small city in Estonia). We want to become lead manufacturers of sustainable packaging. We want Woola to become “the new normality” - that packaging is not just an ugly piece of plastic but can instead be a beautiful, branded and sustainable material.

Woola is an Estonian company and we’re planning to stay that way. The management team will definitely stay in Estonia. There’s no better place in the world (for us) to build a startup. Nevertheless, we are planning to build factories outside of Estonia. The raw materials resources in Estonia give us the necessary means to produce around 7 mln sheep wool envelopes per year, but it’s definitely not enough for a wider market since the e-commerce market is growing rapidly.

What would you suggest to other starting startuppers?

If someone tells you that you should never quit on your dreams, then believe it, seriously! The road to success is not just a two-way street - it’s also neither succeeding or failing. Being a founder can happen by choice, accident or a lucky chance. You can fail many times and also succeed many times. Every step you take leads to another opportunity, which eventually could lead to success. Failing once doesn’t mean that you’ve reached the end of the road. Failing is something that has happened to most of us.

Is it more difficult or easy to succeed as a female founder and why?

If you are determined and goal-oriented then it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, man or a dog. If you think that 80% of the founders are men, then maybe it will instead inspire you to work harder as a woman.

Was Woola hit by COVID-19 crisis?

We have been very lucky. COVID didn’t affect us at all. Since we’re in e-commerce and packaging business then luckily some of the end users realized that they’re drowning in plastic bubble wrap. COVID was the momentum for us to take determined action.

A funny story about your life as an entrepreneur?

As an entrepreneur you’re either at -100 or +100. There is no “in between” - no time for just casual chill or walking to work and drinking coffee behind the table. My life includes being at a cold factory with mice and rats. Then there’s me - an “important CEO” - cutting the wool with a disc-cutter with one hand, and at the same time having calls with investors in parallel, thinking how the hell am I going to close the investment round. This is my everyday life - buying rat poison in the morning and closing investment rounds in the evening.

Things that you did in the past, that you definitely wouldn’t do today? 

I would definitely focus on fast validation. When I was 19, I founded an e-commerce shop that sold natural cosmetics. I ordered and bought all the products, built a website from scratch without knowing anything about building websites. My main idea was that everything needed to be perfect and only after that I would launch the webpage. Of course what happened is that by the time I finally launched, nobody was interested in the products. So here’s a lesson learned - validate your idea quick and cheap, and only after that start investing more time and money in it.

Will Woola be the next Estonian unicorn?

My biggest dream is that we would produce a good, high quality, sustainable product that is going to be used globally. A product that is not going to be simply a niche product, but a new normality.

What drives you?

When someone tells me that something is impossible.

Anna-Liisa Palatu during Saltto Camp Moonshot Permacolony, November 2020

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