Verghese V Joseph –
Little did a 33-year-old Singaporean Ting Mao know that her life would change forever after an accident that followed a Pilates workout malpractice, which caused permanent damage to her spine and lower back. She could not find a pair of shoes that would help ease the pain while walking at that time, which gave her the idea of creating her own shoes.
Soon after the incident, Ting went on to found Sunnystep, a footwear brand, which is best known for its comfortable walking shoes. In just three years, Ting grew Sunnystep into a multi-million business spanning 10 stores in Singapore. She started Sunnystep with her own savings of about S$30,000. Sunnystep achieved its first million dollars in revenue within just 18 months of inception, a feat made even more impressive given the pandemic’s disruptive impact on businesses worldwide.
Prior to founding Sunnystep, Ting was a 9-to-5 data scientist at Grab. Her life changed forever after that incident which made her feel vulnerable and downhearted both physically and mentally. It also made her look at life differently.
As the founder and CEO, Ting and her team initiated a monthly walkathon event open to the public, promoting active living and the health benefits of walking. These walkathons quickly gained popularity, with one event attracting over 600 attendees.
Walkathon Event at Jurong Point
In addition to walkathons, Sunnystep regularly organised online and in-person health and wellness talks, collaborating with doctors, physiotherapists, and medical experts to educate the public on self-care. This commitment to community engagement and well-being underscores Sunnystep’s dedication to making a positive impact beyond the realm of footwear.
AsiaBizToday walked down the memory path to reminisce about her journey of sheer grit, courage and endurance. Excerpts:
Sunnystep achieved its first million dollars in revenue within just 18 months of inception is indeed a milestone.
For Ting, nothing was more important than the product itself. Good products are at the heart of what they do at Sunnystep. Their shoes meeting an unmet need in the local market. They started out with no marketing budget during the first three years of business.
Their early customers kept telling them they had never seen shoes like theirs in the market – shoes that were feather-light, came with robust insoles that worked wonders, and surprisingly also looked good. Some customers claimed that they would only wear Sunnystep shoes for the rest of their lives from then onwards.
After the pandemic, people became not only more health-conscious but also increasingly prioritizing quality over quantity, focusing more on the present and treating themselves with better products. Ting believed that the change in consumer trends was aligned with what they were offering as a brand. Their sales grew organically based on word-of-mouth alone as customers raved about Sunnystep’s products to their family members and friends.
Their products differentiated because their design philosophy was based on what the body needs.
In refining the process of shoemaking, Ting applied design thinking principles which she utilized when she was working as a data scientist in the tech industry.
Innovation is the key
Sunnystep is constantly experimenting and innovating, and making improvements in every new batch of production. This iterative process helps them believe that their shoes will always be made better.
Every pair of Sunnystep shoes comes out with its proprietary insole technology that provides long-lasting support. Their signature insoles are made of material that does not sink over time and provides stable arch support. Their customers love the acupressure massage points on its insoles that help relieve muscle tension throughout their day.
Many Singaporeans have flat feet and need supportive insoles. The podiatrist team at one of the major local hospitals reached out to them earlier this year and invited them to give them a presentation about their shoes, because many of their patients have been recommending Sunnystep shoes.
Sunnystep design also incorporates many thoughtful details to maximise comfort. Sunnystep shoes also have a wider toe box with plenty of wriggle room for more relaxed toes. They explored multiple ways to achieve seamless stitching and cushioning to make sure its shoes are blister-free and skin-friendly. Many customers were pleasantly surprised as Sunnystep shoes require no break-in period. The shoes are also perfect for travel as they are water-resistant, anti-bacterial, and easy to clean with no maintenance required.
Last year, Sunnystep made more than 300 different design prototypes but launched only four new designs from that. Making a shoe is a very complex process. The quality of the shoes lies in the minutest details. Every small step that goes wrong can cause a large amount of discomfort. To make the shoes blister-free, we tested more than a dozen different materials for cushioning in the back of the heels. To smoothen out the stitches in the uppers so that the feel is seamless for the feet, Sunnystep even dived deep into the different methods of stitching. In doing its part for sustainability, they will soon launch a capsule collection in which the uppers of the shoes are made of wasted coffee grinds.
Sunnystep is thankful to its enthusiastic customers for always providing them with a lot of helpful feedback on how to improve their shoes and ideas on what to design next. The firm takes all feedback seriously. When some customers told them that they needed more heel support, the company came out with another version of its classic Balance Runner called Balance Space Runner that comes with strengthened heel support.
The company also co-designs with its customers. One of its early customers requested it to make a pink model of its most popular Balance Runner design, and sent many pictures of pink shades she likes. The company took her idea on immediately, and worked closely to come up with a pastel pink shade that matched the colour of cherry blossom and named it Sakura. It remains one of our top-selling colours.
Sunnystep has amassed a loyal following of customers and fans since day one.
Many of its team members have gone beyond to provide the best service they can. They firm wanted to give back to the community and it began organizing a monthly walkathon event open to the public to encourage active living and spread the health benefits of walking.
Every month, its team leads a few hundred attendees to go on a walk for two hours in one of the national parks in Singapore. Many attendees, customers and non-customers alike, would travel across Singapore to participate in the walkathon. At the same time, the firm regularly organises online and in-person health and wellness talks, collaborating with doctors, physiotherapists and medical health experts, to educate the public about how to take better care of themselves. No matter how much it grows, at the heart of Sunnystep remains the steadfast desire to give back to the community.
A good product brought them this far, hence they needed to double down on its product innovation. The formula for its outsole is a constant pursuit of the balance between lightweight and durability. The company recently advanced the formula for its outsoles, which provides more cushioning and durability, while maintaining the anti-slip functionality and lightness of weight. A substantial investment in new equipment is required to produce the new formula. There was no hesitation from its end to make this investment because it was going to make their shoes better.
Material science is the bread and butter of shoemaking. Hence Sunnystep sourced around the globe for high-performance and sustainable materials. Lab tests showed the microfibre material it used for uppers was 61 per cent higher in breaking strength and 28 per cent higher in tensile strength than genuine cowhide leather. The resistance to wear is also twice as good compared to genuine cowhide leather. Breathability in material is something it tested and prioritised as it enhanced comfort and highly requested from its customers.
Ting is also aware of the social responsibilities of any consumer brand in sustainability and climate change. No animals are harmed in the process of making their shoes. The company only use microfibre materials certified by GRS (Global Recycling Standard). There is a new capsule collection launching soon, where the uppers of our shoes are made of recycled coffee grinds.
More than a lifestyle product, Sunnystep launched products that are a healthy and life-changing experience.
The traumatic spine injury in Tings postpartum led to Ting becoming paralyzed and living with severe back pain.
After giving birth, Ting took a private Pilates class in order to regain her body strength. Little did she know that the instructor had no experience with postpartum bodies and blindly pushed Ting’s limits. Ting felt intense back pain immediately after the first class, but she did not suspect the class she just took with the instructor who seemed so confident brought it on.
To make matters worse, Ting underwent a second class with the same instructor trusting fully what she was doing. Ting could not stand straight right after that class and for many months after.
In the first year after this incident, Ting had many scary episodes where her body would go into a panic mode and her torso would freeze when her spine was triggered by physical stress. In the most severe episode, she was sent to the hospital on a stretcher in an emergency ambulance because half of her body was completely frozen and she could not move at all.
For more than two years, the simplest action like sitting down brought excruciating pain up her spine and her body could not take the slightest bit of stress. She was relegated to lying down most of the time.
What she endured on a daily basis for years taught her what was the most important in life – a healthy body so that we can all pursue the lives we want, and love the people we love.
Ting created Sunnystep so that she could turn pain into a purpose, by helping everybody move freely and happily. Good shoes support feet and bodies. The right shoes help reduce body stress in every step and help people move better. When people can move freely and happily, they can then live the lives they want. That is why Ting believed good shoes have the power of changing the world.
Shoes are a fashion accessory that reflects a person’s identity and confidence, opening up possibilities and making them feel powerful. Shoes as the foundational support to the whole body play another vital role in balancing our bodies and minimizing the daily impact of our steps.
One of Sunnystep’s taglines is ‘Comfort First. Anything possible next.’, which epitomizes the firm’s belief that anything, is possible once you have your foundation and your comfort taken care of.
Both style and function are important and Sunnystep believes that one does not need to compromise the other. That being said, it takes a lot of expertise and technical knowhow to make sure that the shoes are truly comfortable without compromising on style.
When Ting was in severe back pain, she was reluctant to resort to the traditional orthotic shoes because the style was outdated and she couldn’t identify with it. She went through countless pairs of shoes that purported comfort and support. None of them worked. Frustrated and driven by her first-hand experience, Ting want to create the most comfortable and supportive shoes that not only feel good but also look good. She believes good shoes should be accessible to everybody.
Sunnystep plans to keep investing heavily in its R&D to make styles that are more relevant and can cater to a dynamic lifestyle with many social scenarios, as well as to make our shoes more comfortable and stress-free so that they can provide more balance to bodies and benefit health in the long run.
As a self-made entrepreneur, Tings faced many challenges. First, she had to struggle with her own personal health. Dealing with a severe spine injury in her postpartum was single-handedly the most difficult and challenging episode in her life to date.
Ting could not sit down for more than a few seconds without the pain gripping her whole back through the spine. The pain was so severe that it would freeze her brain. At mealtimes, she ate standing up propping her plate on a box on her dining table. She could not fall asleep because of the pain and she would be easily woken up by sheer pain. She barely slept and cried every single night for over a year. She could not carry her newborn baby. She was in pain all the time.
She consulted many physiotherapists, orthopedic doctors, sports trainers. Her recovery was difficult. She was incapacitated by severe back pain every day and she could not sleep well at night. She could not even leave my house very often as she could not move about for too long.
Ting’s first pop-up store was a great challenge. Her dad helped her set up the booth, but she had to quickly go home and lie down and rest because she could not stand for too long. She hired a student part-timer to do the sales. On the first day, they only sold one pair. It could have been more if she was there to support the sales. But she had no options.
Slowly but surely, after making small improvements with a lot of rehab exercises, she’s now equipped with vast knowledge on muscles, joints, mobility, and exercises. This knowledge has built the foundation of her product design philosophy and set her brand direction for helping everybody move freely and happily. She still struggles with back pain daily, but thankfully, it is not dominating her life anymore.
As a mother of three young kids, Ting also has to balance between family and career. She gave birth to her youngest daughter last Christmas and she discovered early this year that a small group of her retail staff who knew each other before they joined the company had been stealing shoes and cash from their retail stores in her late pregnancy and while her was recovering during her postpartum.
Ting has come to learn that in order to succeed she will need to build a strong and stable organizational structure with proper processes and procedures in place. This costly lesson has taught her that people can make or break the brand. It motivated her to revamp Sunnystep’s hiring practices, team structure and staff training programmes, and more importantly the culture.
Building a business is the most humbling endeavour, as it required Ting to accept her weaknesses and learn fast in areas she was not familiar with.
Building a successful business is a team sport. She has to constantly upgrade and uplift everyone in the team. All team members need to work closely together, focus on the common goals and constantly push the boundaries.
She took her product team to Milan during the Milan Fashion Week recently so that they could all get inspired by the most creative forces in fashion. They worked with biophysicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she graduated from, to conduct the pressure points and joint flexibility experiments so that our team can push the scientific boundaries of shoe design. The business can only survive if the team has the right culture and the right people. It is a constant challenge.
On her next go-to-market strategy, Ting believes in planning to expand both online and offline in other Asian markets. Hence, they are hiring the right talent we need who can help them expand successfully.
Finally, speaking of footwear, what should one look for in selecting the right shoe to match well with the outfit? Ting believes that it is important to buy shoes with arch support. The misconception of arch support being only meant for people with foot problems is not true. Everyone’s feet have an arch. Any movement of the body, walking, standing and running add stress to the arch, which is essential for supporting the entire body. Arch support helps distribute pressure across the entire feet, relieves body stress, and helps with balance and posture, and hence it is important for our long-term health.