Starting your own business is not always something you can plan. We interviewed alumna Ying-Ju Lin about her journey to building the JooSoap eco-soap studio in Helsinki and how her studies at Aalto University prepared the ground for her success.
What did you do before you came to Finland to study Collaborative and Industrial Design?
In 2009 I graduated as an Industrial Designer in Taiwan. After that I wanted to look out for a different place for my Master studies. I planned to start studying maybe 1-2 years after my Bachelor studies. I went to Alaska for Work and Travel near Denali National Park for almost 4 months. It was the first time that I went that far north, and I had been a bit afraid of the cold. Then I visited some schools in San Francisco, LA and surrounding, and also did some traveling into wild nature. Together with previous experiences visiting New York and UK in the past few years, I noticed that maybe these places don’t fit to where I would want to live for my master studies for a couple of years. These travels were a way to clarify for myself what I wanted as a graduate, and to see what design can do for real society and how to make a difference in life. At that time, I looked at the Nordic countries, as they are quite unique as well as in their education. And I felt that I should apply to the schools.
Before I came, I also spent one year in an NGO called Taichung Maple Cultural Association (TMCA). The NGO is the one that I have now also been collaborating with. They work a lot in cultural preservation and community development like rural areas but in urban city since 1996. They are probably the last land farm in the area and they have a good mindset about education, saying that education should be available to all people – everyone could be the teacher – this kind of mindset. And they also have some projects like Eco-soap and others related to air pollution, local farming, honesty store and such. In that year, I organized their projects and got a chance to learn more about nature and people around Taiwan. As that’s also the place where I grew up, I have done volunteer work for them for many years since I was a child. When I studied in another city during my Bachelor, I couldn’t visit them very often.
After that one year, I got accepted for the studies here in Finland and I was surprised! I was certain that I would have to try a second time because I was in a rush to submit. When I prepared the applications to many schools in countries like Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, I realized that Finland is the place where I would really want to go because it seems to have lots of freedom to explore a diversity of subjects. In the end, I only submitted the application to Aalto. When I got in, the school had not merged to Aalto University yet. It was still University of Art and Design Helsinki, also known as TaiK in Finnish. The second year that I was here it then merged into Aalto. I was somehow in the gap of transforming. That previous school had a history of 140 years! The atmosphere back then was also very different than it is now at Aalto.
How did JooSoap come to life?
The idea started in a Creative Sustainability course: “Sustainable Product Design” in my first winter here. I took my minor studies in Creative Sustainability. It was also the first year of the CS department. In one of the lectures, I asked if anyone had heard about the eco-soap production before, and nobody knew about it! I was very surprised, because I was assuming that people attending this Creative Sustainability course would have a very sustainable mindset and lots of knowledge around it. There were around 15 people from around the world. Then, in that Eco-campus project in the course, I was wondering if it was possible to make this kind of soap here, and I tried it for the first time. I remember that at that time we went a lot to Otaniemi for the course. There is a small Burger van close to school and that’s where I got the used cooking oil for the first time. I then also had to find out about lye, local scents and go to the wood studio to make molds. This was the first trial. And it worked. All the classmates were very surprised. Then I had ready eco-soap products to show.
The upcoming spring, I was asked to join a course called “How to Change the World”. I was invited by one of the lecturers who wanted me to introduce this as a project and develop it together with other students. There I met Otto Pekander from the Technology School and Katrina Talja from the Business School. That’s how and where we tackled practical resources and started the branding. Later we got a space in the Design Factory to develop the product further and do testing through holding workshops. That’s how the JooSoap Studio was created and came alive.
In that Summer 2011, we started to experiment in the Design Factory backyard. There was a Nordic Climate Festival going to be held in Otaniemi. They were looking for eco-gifts. And we got the budget to produce 120 eco-soaps, and because of the budget, we were able to buy the equipment. That was the first big order and we also had to think how to produce 120 soaps in time. That was quite interesting, because the packaging and everything around that production came from the classmates, from school friend’s friends, all related to Aalto. Everything just happened quickly, workshops, products, co-creation packaging. And after that I thought that was it. Just a project.
But then in 2012, I went with the NGO-TMCA in Taiwan to the United Nations in New York, for the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). We went to present (in side panels) how the projects of TMCA empower rural women and especially the eco-soap project got lots of attention. At that time, as Taiwan is not considered a country in the United Nations, we were a bit sad, but you could notice that many audiences from around the world like countries in Africa or South America wanted to learn how to make the eco-soap. They were asking us a lot. At this point, I noticed that although we had translated instructions in English, it would no longer be enough. I wondered how to develop the system and a whole package transfer to other places. That was one issue we needed to solve, if there was a need to spread the knowledge.
It was around that time that I was looking for a thesis topic. I had been so close to this topic for a long time, but I also didn’t come to Finland to develop this. Nokia was quite good at the time and it was also one of reasons that attracted me to Finland. I appreciated the user-friendliness and the user research that was invested into developing their products. That’s what I wanted to do in the beginning, or something sustainable in consumer products. I was looking for those kinds of projects. But at some time, I thought that it might be faith, that I need to do this. Following several invitations to workshops and exhibitions in Finland and abroad, like Finnish high schools, Siivouspäivä festival, Polish Zamek Cieszyn Design Center, pilot collaboration with Aalto Global Impact Summer project to Uganda, I noticed the energy coming from people. And that somehow changed my mind to go with this topic as my thesis. There, I investigated how to develop this topic or product in a more concrete way and the sustainability of knowledge sharing, including making use of service design, collaborative design. The thesis was not very research based, which is a weakness, but the foundation was there after all. But the implementation and the workshops and design strategy, they are very thought through, and also well implemented. So, I believe it was good progress. It took me one and a half, or almost two years, to complete it. It was quite a long time and surely Aila wasn’t happy [laughing], but so many things were happening at that time. At least for half a year I couldn’t focus on writing, and it was a bit of a struggle for me to set the boundary to stop. Through that work though I also visited the original Japanese pioneer organization, everything was just very coincidental. It’s very interesting and common to have very different thesis’ in our CoID department, and I am quite happy that I was able to do this. It took quite some time, but I think the result and how it developed was worth it. And the feedback from the classmates, teachers and stakeholders was great. It was a quite unique project, very much hands-on.
What influenced you most during your studies and time here?
I would say, the diversity of people at Aalto University and the freedom of being yourself. This is very different than in my home country. If I had stayed in Taiwan, this project and business would never have happened. The society here and the people in Finland are quite open-minded to these kinds of things and give much support for try outs. In Taiwan, they would rather stop you.
Multidisciplinary courses and projects were challenging experience to me. The course “how to change the world” was also organized by a different department. The Creative Sustainable department is so diverse as well. You meet so many professionals during the courses here, and there is always someone who knows someone who is an expert in any field, anything from perfume to comics. I met workshop participants from over 40 countries around the world, just being here in Finland. And the culture makes the difference, I believe. That’s how I have also developed a lot of my communication skills and how to work with others. In the CoID department most projects are collaborative and teamwork-based. And that’s difficult. When I did the Industrial Design Bachelor studies, there were maybe 2-3 people in a group for one whole semester whereas here it’s very quick, maybe 10 weeks, very intense. I was very stressed about it in the beginning. But I learned a lot about how to use different language, not only design language but also business language.
Another good thing is that you meet so many stakeholders through Aalto, AVP, Research Groups and similar. That is also a big difference. And I was quite pleased and happy that for most of the projects that we did in our department, we were able to receive resources from our department or the companies and NGOs, and they were very happy as well because we were from Aalto. The reputation of our school is quite good. When I talked to others about where I study, in the past that would be TaiK, everyone would be impressed. The history of the school and the reputation brings so many opportunities and it connects people. When I set up the JooSoap company I then met so many small businesses and designers that graduated from our school. They share their experiences a lot. These are all hidden values of studying here, meeting people and networking.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
In the beginning of JooSoap, I spent quite some time helping and answering many questions from foreign organizations, and it was a bit of a struggle. In the end, some sell the products and earn money, but they don’t give anything back to me. And the culture is also different. In Finland, people will credit you nicely, but perhaps rarely outside of here. Besides, there are so many grassroots communities, but I don’t know how to negotiate with them, and sometimes English is not working for them. That’s a challenge. But nevertheless, at least there is lots of interest into this.
Also, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do much design in the past years, it was more about strategy and lots of emails and presentations and workshops, business models, accounting, organizing and even human resources. There is not a lot of time left. Once JooSoap gets stable, I want to use more time to work with design studios and design companies, working on design projects. I could imagine project connected to transportation or Service Design. And I would love to be part of a team like that.
What’s next for JooSoap and your personal future?
For the JooSoap studio it’s going slowly. I am not doing JooSoap 100%, nowadays it’s maybe 1/3 of my time. I am also looking for other design projects. But JooSoap is still growing and many good happenings push me forward, because I receive so many invitations and letters and emails that I have to reply to from South America or so many other countries around the world. People are asking how to start a workshop or how to open a studio and how to make this locally. That’s how I started to think about how to adjust the business model of the JooSoap network and build a stronger team. I cannot travel to everywhere so we have the concept of a JooSoap ambassador program. We now have one ambassador traveling to eco-villages in South America and who will give some eco-soap workshops on his way. We are also developing this package now and how to make this a product, or consultancy. In Iceland, they want to have a studio to produce their eco-soap locally. In the thesis, I also talked about the JooSoap network but it’s always more complex when doing it in real life. The idea is that we give our logo and background knowledge in certain collaboration condition, and then in the future, if they start selling this product, they can tag us; it should work similar like TedX. We will also promote everything on our website. Thus, if people want to purchase the eco-soap for example, they can look for the closest location to them. That’s our big goal. We want people to do this locally but connected globally. That’s the best way – you shouldn’t have to buy it from abroad.
I am trying to balance my life by traveling between Finland and Taiwan. Another project I am working on is to connect JooSoap back to Taiwan. Since I have done this here in Finland for three years now, it seems very exciting to them. They don’t have much ideas about branding or the value of this knowledge and their treasured 20 years of experience. I want to pick some communities’ case and document their story. So if one new case from abroad is closer to their context, these communities could provide experiences of what works and what needs to be avoided. For that I will set up another company in Taiwan, perhaps a social enterprise. But this time I will need to manage well with other business partners to do that.
Right now, I am also involve in an “Architecture for People” project. Two architects from Taiwan are touring with their exhibition and seminars in Europe for three years and I am now working on that with them as well. Both architects and their teams are working closely with either sustainable mindsets or local human-connection focus. But Architecture and exhibitions are still not that close to the design projects that I would like to do [laughing], even though Architecture is of interest to me as well.
How can students make best use of all the possibilities at Aalto?
Setting up a company, or being an entrepreneur, in Finland is even easier here than in Taiwan. It’s quite surprising to me. It’s very open-minded here and everyone gets the chance to be an entrepreneur. It’s low risk and the entrance is quite okay to give it a try. Since I started, everything is a new learning, especially in the first and second year. Everything is new but I learned a lot about these topics and how to negotiate with others. These are very valuable experiences.
And the other part of that is probably the network of the school and all the hidden resources. For the students, it’s maybe difficult to look for that in the beginning. So I would encourage people to talk with others and try. Try to use the opportunities, courses, initiate your own projects, look for help from the industry in Finland. They are usually very happy to receive these student projects, especially from Aalto. Many professors and researchers are hidden, but they are there and ready to help. You just need to find them. [laughing]. So maybe that could be opened up a bit more. When I did my thesis, I didn’t know my supervisor, I didn’t know her at all but someone else recommended her to me. And it was really suitable. In general, that’s maybe something that students struggle with in the beginning of their thesis.
For foreign, non-EU, students, the visa is one big issue that students may be concerned with who want to stay in Finland. The school or government should consider to take better care of the talented people coming to Finland to study, supporting them with visa issues. So many people are really frustrated because it takes a long time to get the visa. And when you graduate from school, you get one year of extension for looking for a job, which is nice, but regarding the mental state of these people, the waiting, that’s quite critical. It should be more transparent and there should be a nicer way to help people settle down. I know so many people that have left after 6 months, or even less than two months. It’s difficult for foreigners. I was quite lucky because I have this project JooSoap. It got attention in the Finnish society and that’s how there was a possibility for me to set up a company. If I would not have had this project, I don’t know if I could have gotten a job in Finland right after I graduated. This project made me somewhat known and people connected me to some other smaller projects that helped me with living costs. This is very important as well.
It’s very nice to be here in Finland and I never thought that I would stay that long [laughing]. I really appreciate what Finland gave to me. And the nature of Finland and education environment at Aalto has given me lots of resources and space to let me be myself and go exploring. When I came here I didn’t have to pay the tuition fee and there weren’t so many international students. Finland has changed as well, but it was and is a really unique chance to be connected with this country. I hope that the JooSoap project has also contributed some good spirits to here.