Sunnystep, founded and created by 33-year-old Singaporean Ting Mao, by accident, literally, during the pandemic, after suffering from a 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.
Prior to founding Sunnstep, 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.
Over a span of just 3 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.
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.
In addition to walkathons, Sunnystep regularly organises 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.
Women Icons Network (WIN) walked down the memory lane to reminisce her journey of sheer grit, courage and endurance. Excerpts:
WIN: Achieving its first million dollars in revenue within just 18 months of inception is indeed a milestone, how did Sunnystep go about bagging this?
Ting: Nothing is more important than the product itself. Good products are at the heart of what we do in Sunnystep. Our shoes are meeting an unmet need in the local market. We started out with no marketing budget at all during the first 3 years of business.
Our early customers kept telling us they had never seen shoes like ours in the market – shoes that are feather-light, come with robust insoles that work wonders, and surprisingly also look good. Some customers claimed that they would only wear Sunnystep shoes for the rest of their lives from then onwards.
After the pandemic, people have also become not only more health-conscious, they are also increasingly prioritizing quality over quantity, focusing more on the present and treating themselves with better products. I believe the change in consumer trend is aligned with what we are offering as a brand. Our sales grew organically based on word-of-mouth alone as our customers raved about our products to their family members and friends.
Our products are very differentiated because our design philosophy is based on what the body needs.
In refining the process of shoemaking, I applied design thinking principles which I utilized when I was working as a data scientist in the tech industry.
At Sunnystep, we are constantly experimenting and innovating, and making improvements in every new batch of production. This iterative process will never stop and we believe our shoes will always be made better.
First and foremost, every pair of Sunnystep shoes comes with our proprietary insole technology that provides long-lasting support. Our signature insoles are made of material that does not sink over time and provides stable arch support. Our customers love the acupressure massage points on our 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 us earlier this year and invited us to give them a presentation about our shoes, because many of their patients have been recommending Sunnystep shoes.
Our 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. We explored multiple ways to achieve seamless stitching and cushioning to make sure our 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 we made more than 300 different design prototypes but launched only 4 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 our feet, we even dived deep into the different methods of stitching. In doing our part for sustainability, we will soon launch a capsule collection in which the uppers of the shoes are made of wasted coffee grinds.
We have to thank our enthusiastic customers for always providing us with a lot of helpful feedback on how to improve our shoes and ideas on what to design next. We take all feedback seriously. When some customers told us that they needed more heel support, we came out with another version of our classic Balance Runner called Balance Space Runner that comes with strengthened heel support.
We also co-design with our customers. One of our early customers requested us to make a pink model of our most popular Balance Runner design, and sent us many pictures of pink shades she likes. We took her idea on immediately, and worked closely with our factory to come up with a pastel pink shade that matches the color of cherry blossom and named it Sakura. It remains one of our top-selling colors.
We are fortunate to have amassed a loyal following of customers and fans since day one. Our team is very grateful for our customers who have believed in and supported us in our journey, hence service is always at our heart.
Many of our team members have gone above and beyond to provide the best service they can. Our team and I wanted to give back to our community and we began organizing a monthly walkathon event open to the public to encourage active living and spread the health benefits of walking.
Every month, our 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 our walkathon. At the same time, we regularly organize online and in-person health and wellness talks, partnering with doctors, physiotherapists and medical health experts, to educate the public about how to take better care of themselves. No matter how much we grow, at the heart of Sunnystep remains the steadfast desire to give back to our community.
A good product brought us this far, hence we need to double down on our product innovation. The formula for our outsole is a constant pursuit of the balance between lightweight and durability. We recently advanced the formula for our 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 on our end to make this investment because it is going to make our shoes better. We will not stop improving Sunnystep shoes.
Material science is the bread and butter of shoemaking. Hence we source around the globe for high-performance and sustainable materials. Lab tests show the microfibre material we use for uppers is 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 we test and prioritize as it enhances comfort and is highly requested from our customers.
We are also aware of the social responsibilities of any consumer brand in sustainability and climate change. No animals are harmed in the process of making our shoes. We 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.
WIN: More than a lifestyle product, Sunnystep has launched products that are a healthy and life-changing experience. How did this come about?
Ting: Five years ago, I had a traumatic spine injury in my postpartum and my life became paralyzed living with severe back pain.
After giving birth, I took a private Pilates class in order to regain my body strength. Little did I know the instructor had no experience with postpartum bodies and blindly pushed my limits. I felt intense back pain immediately after the first class, but I did not even suspect it was brought on by the class I just took with the instructor who seemed so confident.
To make matters worse, I underwent a second class with the same instructor trusting fully what she was doing. I could not stand straight right after that class and for many months after.
In the first year after this incident, I had many scary episodes where my body would go into a panic mode and my torso would freeze when my spine was triggered by physical stress. In the most severe episode, I was sent to the hospital on a stretcher in an emergency ambulance because half of my body was completely frozen and I could not move at all.
For more than two years, the simplest action like sitting down brought excruciating pain up my spine and my body could not take the slightest bit of stress. I was relegated to lying down most of the time.
What I endured on a daily basis for years taught me 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.
I created Sunnystep so that I can turn my pain into a purpose, by helping every body move freely and happily. Good shoes support our feet and our bodies. The right shoes help reduce our body stress in every step and help us move better. When our bodies can move freely and happily, we can then live the lives we want. That’s why I believe 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 our whole body plays another vital role in balancing our bodies and minimizing the daily impact of our steps.
One of our taglines is ‘Comfort First. Anything possible next.’ which epitomizes our belief that anything is possible once you have your foundation and your comfort taken care of. Our shoes, the brand, our people are here to support you in your step towards possibilities – all without compromising on style.
Both style and function are important and we believe 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 I was in severe back pain, I was reluctant to resort to the traditional orthotic shoes because the style was outdated and I didn’t identify with it. I went through countless pairs of shoes that purported comfort and support. None of them worked. Frustrated and driven by my first-hand experience, I want to create the most comfortable and supportive shoes that not only feel good but also look good. I believe good shoes should be accessible to everybody.
We will keep investing heavily in our 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 our bodies and benefit our health in the long run.
How Sunnystep began felt very purposeful in retrospect. I could not move physically so I spent a lot of time lying down and thinking about why Sunnystep needed to exist and what kind of difference it could make to the world. My passion for Sunnystep kept me motivated and mentally healthy, and that was what drove me forward while I was struggling with severe pain on a daily basis.
WIN:. As a self-made entrepreneur, what challenges did you overcome in your journey?
Ting: First of all, I have to struggle with my own personal health. Dealing with a severe spine injury in my postpartum was single-handedly the most difficult and challenging episode in my life to date.
I couldn’t sit down for more than a few seconds without the pain gripping my whole back through my spine. The pain was so severe that it would freeze my brain. At mealtimes, I ate standing up propping my plate on a box on my dining table. I could not fall asleep because of the pain and I would be easily woken up by sheer pain. I barely slept and cried every single night for over a year. I could not carry my newborn baby. I was in pain all the time.
I consulted many physiotherapists, orthopedic doctors, sports trainers, you name it. My recovery had been difficult. I was incapacitated by severe back pain everyday and I could not sleep well at night. I could not even leave my house very often as I could not move about for too long.
My first pop-up store was a great challenge. My dad helped me set up the booth, but I had to quickly go home and lie down and rest because I could not stand for too long. I hired a student part-timer to do the sales. On the first day, we only sold one pair. It could have been more if I were there to support the sales. But I had no options. My recovery had been difficult.
Slowly but surely, I am making small improvements with a lot of rehab exercises. I thank myself for not giving up and my positivity in trying to get better. I researched everything I could that was related to my pain. I am now equipped with vast knowledge on muscles, joints, mobility, and exercises. This knowledge has built the foundation of our product design philosophy and set our brand direction for helping everybody move freely and happily. I still struggle with back pain daily, but thankfully it’s not dominating my life anymore.
As a mother of three young kids, I also have to balance between family and career. I gave birth to my youngest daughter last Christmas and I discovered early this year that a small group of our retail staff who knew each other before they joined the company had been stealing shoes and cash from our retail stores in my late pregnancy and while I was recovering in my postpartum.
I have come to learn that in order to succeed I will need to build a strong and stable organizational structure with proper processes and procedures in place. This costly lesson has taught me that people can make or break the brand. It motivated me to revamp our hiring practices, our team structure and staff training programmes, and more importantly our culture. We can see our team is more united and performing much better now.
Building a business is the most humbling endeavor as it requires me to accept my weaknesses and learn fast in areas I am not familiar with. It’s also the most fulfilling experience as I know I am making an impact in the lives of our customers and also our team members. I enjoy the challenge of juggling between the big picture and the granular details. I need to solve the problems at hand on a daily basis and I also have to keep a long-term perspective.
Building a successful business is a team sport. I have 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.
I brought our product team to visit Milan during the Milan Fashion Week recently so that we could all get inspired by the most creative forces in fashion. We worked with biophysicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where I graduated from, to conduct the pressure points and joint flexibility experiments so that our team can push the scientific boundaries of shoe design. Our business can only survive if our team has the right culture and the right people. It’s a constant challenge.
WIN: Within a span of just 3 years, you grew Sunnystep into a multi-million business spanning 10 stores in Singapore. What is your next go-to-market strategy?
Ting: We are planning to expand both online and offline in other Asian markets. Hence we are hiring the right talent we need who can help us expand successfully. I hope anyone who is interested in helping change how the world thinks about shoes and making a difference in people’s lives applies to our job openings.
WIN: Finally, speaking of footwear, what should one look for in selecting the right shoe to match well with the outfit?
Ting: 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.
Always make sure there is a fingertip distance between your longest toe and the tip of the shoes. This is because your feet move around as you walk, and as you switch positions from sitting to standing, our feet will be relaxed if there is some space to move around.
Many people have asymmetric feet. Do try both sides of the shoes when you buy a new pair of shoes. And always make sure the longer foot is comfortable with enough wriggle room for the toes.