Tel Aviv-Yafo: Interview with Yael Shemer #WomenCrushWednesday

This #WomenCrushWednesday we are celebrating Yael Shemer, a Women4Climate from Tel Aviv-Yafo and a co-founder of TULU (MIT DesignX and OGS collaboration), a smart solution platform that provides rentals of high-quality home amenities and household objects to reduce the cost of living, create energy efficiency and reduce emissions. TULU is now located in Tel Aviv-Yafo, New York and New Jersey with over 20 rooms installed and has more than 6,000 registered members.

Read about Yael's journey as an entrepreneur for good and find out what items are rented the most.

W4C - What's the story behind TULU and what inspired you to start it?

Yael - My co-founder, Yishai Lehavi (CEO), and I, we met at OGS and MIT, DesignX accelerator, back in 2018. We both came with very similar, yet different passions and interest areas. We wanted to do something revolutionary together.

I’ve been living a minimalist-inspired lifestyle for the past five years and that got me looking at the city and our consumption culture differently. Stemming from, and inspired by that lifestyle, we both came up with a strong passion on how we can better leverage spaces in an urban setup (city), and soon recognised there was so much unused spaces, whether it is houses, basements, or roads, so many of them are not optimally utilised. We spent an entire summertime trying to understand this in depth and we eventually came with an idea we wanted to work on - we wanted to create a marketplace for unutilised spaces. While brainstorming on that and executing it, we understood that the core of what we were aiming to create is different and that’s when the idea of TULU was incepted - which is sharing products for renting on demand within a building, a neighbourhood or an office. Soon after, we started setting up our foundation in Tel Aviv-Yafo, where we both lived at the time, through initiating a TULU Room in one of our friend's buildings.

Following which, we started working to achieve an in-depth understanding of who our market audiences were, and the rest is history! By now we had clearly realised, - the intention initially was different - but when you think about the spaces and resources already available in the building next to you, you do end up creating a circular economy model. This is where TULU is right at the centre - we purchase products of utility; people download the app and they get 24/7 access to renting stuff from the app!

W4C - How did you realise that there is a really big market?

Yael - We are firm believers that in order to really create a market and instigate a change in people’s behaviour, you have to create a product that's aligned with the target audience - a product that people can adapt to - and don't feel like they are sacrificing anything out of the ordinary. People are very particular about their lifestyle and don't like being criticised - so it was extremely essential for us to have products that are practical, branded, aesthetically pleasing and appealing to their likes, and simultaneously the rental experience has to have a shopping and a discovery feel to it. Having access rather than ownership is an idea that’s in its core more relatable to millennials and young professionals, but more thoroughly, anyone who shares these things in common might become an early adopter - 1) Living in a small apartment 2) Renting that apartment 3) High likelihood of moving in 2-3 years’ time - and that just makes their starting point very adaptive to our products. Urban dwellers are aware that buying household products, and then having to move locations is not always easy – as you spend twice the amount on the moving of the stuff, then what you spend on buying - so TULU comes in very handy.

We started only with residential buildings and then we moved on to a pilot with Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, catering to various kinds of buildings and creating a neighbourhood TULU, with the hope that it will expand to other cities. It is a lot of fun - rent communal stuff for families and for kids – and it also creates a lot of activities around the concept of sharing.

W4C - You intend to reshape the way urban dwellers use and consume household products. What is the impact you would like to have and how do you think this will better the urban society and way of living?

Yael - A lot of people think that climate change can only be solved through veganism and renewable energies which are indeed two huge contributing components to the bigger solution. However, we chose an additional path, where our solution is to create a platform that offers and enables people a better way of consuming stuff. When you think about your surroundings and think about how you and your neighbour can use the surroundings better and share resources, you're more likely to adopt other ideas around sustainability and perhaps even engage with your neighbours differently.
The impact we are aiming to create is to reshape the way the consumer moves from ownership to access by providing that access within the building, neighbourhood, office and doing that successfully so that the end consumer would feel that ownership is not a privilege but can also sometimes be a hassle; it’s not only bad for your pocket, but also for the environment.

Through a setup like TULU, you can access products and not necessarily own them but get the good use out of them regardless. Similarly, for manufacturers, TULU is a big source of knowledge. As we rent out products that are not meant to be aggressively used and we end up knowing exactly how much time people are actually using the products, what goes wrong in the products, and what needs improvement. This knowledge enables us to create partnerships with these companies because we know how their product can be improved by providing them the feedback we get from people.

We frequently hear about the “sharing economy”, TULU is actually implementing the access economy. We encourage sharing by first giving the access. Many companies that have tried to do it before, have done it in suburban areas where you need a car or a lorry to transport stuff. But once you implement this setup in dense cities like NYC and London, you save a lot of energy and help the environment.

W4C - How has the global pandemic, COVID-19, affected your work and has it had a significant impact?

Yael - Currently, we are based in 3 cities - NYC, New Jersey and Tel Aviv-Yafo. There are a few trends we are coming across – such as our demographics, where young professionals and millennials are a bit more cautious about sustainable stuff and the purchases they make online, and overall about spending money. Products that you buy online are not always reliable and take longer to arrive, and you realise that maybe your urban environment has to provide you with more stuff. When NYC started shutting down, our target audience (very “out and about'' audience) had no access to restaurants, no places to shop or hangout and TULU just became a very helpful service for them. Actually, the past few months have proven to be strongest for our company - as an amenity bank in the buildings.
Personally, I get the sense that sustainability is being pushed back - as people think it is not as important just now because there are much more urgent issues to combat at the moment, and we saw consumption go up, single plastic use go up, so we had a slight fear that people would conceptually be against “sharing” stuff with other people. We had to act fast and communicate to our members the steps were taking towards disinfection surfaces and spaces and creating more trust.

It has actually been a very accelerated time for growth for the company and a lot of our otherwise less common products were now being rented even more such as a projector, printers and mixers! Even the landlords expressed at this point they need TULU, as we helped people go through this quarantine situation in New York City.

W4C - What message do you have from your own journey of being a Women4Climate, for aspiring women leaders working towards a sustainable, greener and an ever-unpredictable future?

Yael - I think it's our time to show up and it's our time to bring forward our ideas. It is time to take action although it seems complicated and hard during this time as it's not a very stable time to be an entrepreneur because the market is sifting so frequently. But if you are passionate about sustainability, there is not going to be a better time to act about it because these are crucial years. To all my fellow Women4Climate mentees and mentors, I will say please don't stop advancing your amazing ideas, continue working on them and please do talk about sustainability because we just cannot let it be forgotten.

We are the ones who have to step forward to make this progression. Sometimes, when we have an idea, we want to feel like we may not have explored it enough or it may not be perfect yet - but remember you are never going to be ready and you are never really going to have a fully-cooked idea at the inception stage but you have to learn to get going and not give up. Learn from your target audience, talk to them and if there is something you want to change, create a prototype and interview people about it and get going. The more we keep inspiring each other, the more fuel we will have to survive and thrive in the coming years which are going to be long and challenging for so many reasons.
For me, being a part of W4C, and for the first-time being part of a community that shared so much of the same values and wanted to spend their time doing what mattered to them was truly inspiring. That really gave me the strength and motivation to keep going with my idea which was very raw when we started it and now it’s on the path to becoming a well-established company. It is crazy to think that in two years if you stick through, and if you find the right circles, anything is possible, and this is what W4C is to me.