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How design thinking and continuous iteration help drive Sunnystep's growth

Nurdianah Md Nur
Nurdianah Md Nur • 5 min read
How design thinking and continuous iteration help drive Sunnystep's growth
Mao: We develop more than 300 prototypes annually through constant iteration and experimentation, and less than five pass their stringent tests for launch. Photo: Sunnystep
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Since customer demands are always changing, how can organisations continue to become customer-centric? Sunnystep relies on design thinking and continuous iteration to achieve that.

Sunnystep is a Singapore-based modern footwear brand that delivers shoes designed to minimise stress on the feet and body. “Shoes are critical to health as they support the body so they should be considered a basic need. But most shoes in the market neglect this idea. They usually focus more on fashion [instead of support], while traditional orthopaedic shoes offer limited designs, are expensive and tend to be clunky and heavy,” the company’s founder, Mao Ting, tells DigitalEdge.

Mao was speaking based on her experience of finding suitable shoes to support her recovery from a Pilates misadventure that caused a traumatic spine injury. Half a year after her injury, Mao decided to embark on a mission to make walking shoes that allow people to “move freely and happily”. She believes the right shoes can help improve posture, provide balance and stability, and enable functional fitness, which she explains is the ability to unlock one’s full fitness potential without over-exerting the body or compromising health in the long run.

Designing and delivering functional, supportive and stylish shoes, however, is no easy feat. It called for Mao to apply concepts of design thinking and iterative improvements, which were key in her past work as a data scientist at Grab.

Her team works with medical experts, doctors and industry leaders on every shoe design before testing their aerodynamic range at labs for high-performance functionality. Internal team trials and tests are then held for weeks before a product is launched. But the process does not end there. Feedback from customers, medical experts, podiatrists and biophysicists will be used to refine the next batch of shoes.

A focus on foot health and comfort

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Almost every aspect of a shoe developed by Sunnystep is the result of the company’s heavy focus and investment in research and development (R&D).

“R&D is the core of our business. We look at research literature pertaining to footwear comfort and support, shoe orthotics, material science and more, as well as conduct many simulations and experiments. We also take in feedback from our community. We develop more than 300 prototypes annually through constant iteration and experimentation, and less than five pass their stringent tests for launch,” says Mao.

To protect the company’s competitive edge, she has patented Sunnystep’s insoles, outsoles and uppers (or the exterior part of the shoe that covers the foot).

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Among the unique features of Sunnystep’s insole is the acupressure massage-points, which Mao claims are able to help elevate muscle strength and relieve muscle tension throughout the user’s daily activities. The insole also features a 6mm polyurethane cloud cushioning that provides suitable arch support and will not sink despite long-term use, unlike other memory foam-based insoles. It also absorbs shock naturally through the gel cushioning at the forefront and heel, while providing stability to prevent uneven bone structure over time via a deep heel cradle.

Beyond insoles, Sunnystep ensures its shoes are lightweight, durable, water-resistant or quick-drying, and anti-slip; require low maintenance and do not cause blisters. One way it did so is by finding the right balance of rubber content and trying different injection methods for the outsole. The company also experimented with various materials for the uppers before settling on premium microfibre that is soft, skin-friendly and certified by the Global Recycling Standard.

Continuing its success journey

Encouraging feedback and co-creating with customers and experts have helped Sunnystep grow its business through word-of-mouth recommendations. It generated $1 million in revenue over three years and has sold at least 150,000 pairs of shoes despite the disruption brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunnystep has 12 brick-and-mortar stores in Singapore, and 40 employees spanning across customer service, user testing and supply chain teams. Building on its success, Mao plans to expand the company’s presence to Asia and the US.

“Tourists have heard about our shoes from word-of-mouth, and we get customers from neighbouring Asian countries all the way to the US buying half a dozen pairs of shoes and our insoles at a go when they visit Singapore. This is part of the reason why we have received many enquiries from other countries about distributing our shoes and setting up franchises in their home countries,” says Mao in an interview with Vulcan Post.

In preparation for this expansion, Sunnystep has upgraded its back-end tech stack. Its enterprise resource planning and point-of-sale systems are now on a single platform.

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Mao explains: “Scaling up our business will lead to a more complex supply chain. So, we need to centralise data for operational efficiency such as shortening lead-time to deliver products, ensuring timely restocks, reducing the time to generate sales and inventory reports, and more. The new tech platform is also customisable, enabling us to adapt to market or customer changes quickly.”

Product innovation, continuous iteration and customer-centricity will continue to be the company’s top priorities even as it grows. In line with that, Sunnystep is developing more environmentally-friendly shoes with uppers made from coffee grinds and outsoles that use algae-blended foam rubber. It is also looking at offering other types of footwear such as sneakers, golf shoes and slippers.

“We’ll remain focused on delivering footwear with classic, timeless styles that cater to a dynamic lifestyle,” states Mao.

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