In step as one family
Father-and-son duo run shop to educate and bring affordable orthopaedic footwear to the community.
Owen Oo ‘bootstrapped’ his footwear start-up in 2018, but he is no ordinary wet-behind-the-ears fresh graduate with the lofty dreams of being the next Elon Musk. In fact, he was over 60, when he sunk in the bulk of his retirement savings to set up a small shop in Katong selling orthopaedic footwear. A trained pedorthist – a professional who modifies footwear and employs supportive devices to address foot conditions – Owen’s unhappiness at the high prices of most good-fitting footwear sprung his step towards entrepreneurship.
Five years on, Footkaki is thriving as a family business run by Owen and his two children, Clarence and his younger sister Clarice. This is in spite of the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 which severely shook up retail and forced many brick-and-mortar businesses to pivot online, or in the worst case, shutter. Other than a website which does not have an online shopping module, Footkaki is hardly what you would call a digital business.
“I know e-commerce is very popular now, but it is not the right way to sell shoes. The actual experience of real shoe fitting cannot be replicated in a virtual store. Many people actually get their foot sizes and foot conditions wrong, and end up buying the wrong pair of shoes and risk damaging their feet further.
“This is why my son designed our website to be focused on awareness and public education, and not for selling footwear. We do not want people to buy footwear without first understanding their foot problems and what they may need,” said Owen, 67, who was certified as a pedorthist by the American Board of Certification in Pedorthics in 2006, and is today, one of the few qualified members of The Society of Shoe Fitters (UK) practising in Singapore.
He speaks with more than 18 years of experience. Born in Malaysia, he worked as an engineer in Singapore before switching stride to help his brother manage the first Foot Solutions store in Malaysia. Foot Solutions – a franchised American orthopaedic footwear company – was the first orthopaedic footwear store in Malaysia when Owen’s brother set up its maiden store there in 2004. Owen helped establish the business in Malaysia, but left a few years later to spend more time with his family in Singapore.
“I am not a businessman, and the experience [of running the footwear business away from home] left me tired. So, I took a break from pedorthics and Foot Solutions Malaysia, and returned to Singapore in 2008 as I had been away from my children for too long,” said Owen.
Upon his return to Singapore, he resumed his career in an engineering company. But engineering was only a second option for Owen, whose passion in pedorthics remained strong. Four years later, he decided to pursue his passion in pedorthics again, by joining another reputable comfort shoe company as a pedorthist and retail operations manager.
He admitted it was a “difficult decision” to set up his own shop in his 60s, but with his children having grown up and his unhappiness at the paucity of affordable orthopaedic footwear, he decided to take the plunge and start his own pedorthic footwear business. He set up a physical store in 2018 after having experimented with a few “operating models” such as roadshows and home visits. However, it made the most sense to establish a shopfront which would be more accessible and enabled him to serve a larger group of people.
Following in dad’s footsteps
Owen’s elder child, Clarence, who is in his mid-30s and has a day job with a start-up company, thought he was just helping his dad out in the early days of Footkaki to make sure “he didn’t lose all his retirement money”. He thought that once the business had become sustainable, he would step back and focus on his own interests. But then the pandemic struck Singapore in January 2020.
“During the pandemic, Footkaki, like many small businesses, was badly affected when the Circuit Breaker forced people to stay home. I couldn’t bear to watch dad’s shop close down and his efforts go down the drain. I literally and metaphorically picked up a brannock (a device for measuring feet), got more involved and worked with him to make sure Footkaki survived.
“Working with my dad, I have seen the positive difference he is making in the lives of people with serious pain and mobility issues. It’s hard and honest work. I thought it’ll be a huge loss to the community if dad’s vision and values didn’t work out,” Clarence shared.
The “positive difference” is demonstrated by the fact that some of the older Oo’s customers from his days in running Foot Solutions had actually come over to Singapore from Malaysia to visit him at Footkaki. He also has appreciative regular customers who bring him kueh and homemade snacks.
While his father’s dedication inspired Clarence to join and help run the family business, Clarence – who was certified as a professional shoe fitter with The Society of Shoe Fitters (UK) in 2021 – admits that father and son do get into disagreements over how to run the business.
“We used to have some very heated arguments. They probably stemmed from balancing the change in roles. It’s no longer a parent-child relationship. For Owen (or any parent), it must be hard to put that aside and work in partnership with your child. And for me (or any child), it’s tough to convince your parent that you’re your own person and that things aren’t the same as during their times,” said Clarence, who still helps out in the shop in the evenings and on weekends.
The elder Oo chimed in: “There are many challenges in running a business, and we need to accept that there will always be disagreements. The best way to overcome disagreements is to know that the person who disagrees with you, and who is actually your own son, is honestly trying to do things better for you and the company. So, disagreements are actually a blessing in disguise. My daughter has recently joined the business too. I think her being closer in age, it is easier for Clarence and her to discuss and overcome disagreements.”
High-touch, not high-tech
One thing father and son are in concord is the way Footkaki conducts its business. In a time when technology and digital transformation are trendy buzzwords, the Oos believe that the nature of their service must continue to be high-touch. Clarence’s previous experience of working for a social enterprise start-up that provides support to young caregivers through technology opened his eyes to how tech could be a double-edged sword.
“We had many visitors who struggle with special needs, disabilities, old age-related illnesses, caregiving and chronic health conditions. Some also turned to us because they couldn’t afford expensive medical treatments. From this, I learnt that technology isn’t the panacea that many people think. If applied blindly or with the wrong intentions, technology can devalue human interactions and alienate others. It’s a tricky balance. Some things may appear inefficient and slow, but you’ll remove all human value from them if they were digitised,” Clarence said.
The Oos experimented with video consultations during the COVID-19 lockdowns, but realised that these were not effective with the nature of their service. Customers often had complex foot conditions that needed physical consultation and advice. As the majority of Footkaki’s customers were referred by hospitals, the Oos also felt they had to sell their shoes responsibly.
Explained Clarence: “We work with a lot of empathy and human problem-solving at Footkaki, which technology cannot replace. There are many shops with high-tech foot scanning machines that generate reports diagnosing foot problems. Anyone who uses such a machine will definitely be told they have a serious foot condition as those machines are designed to sell products.
“At Footkaki, we don’t over-rely on machines. We have an old foot scanner (that still runs on Windows XP), but it’s mainly used as a teaching aid for educating people on their feet. From there, we advise them like a personalised information and referral service on top of professionally fitting them for footwear. But we first need to understand them as fellow humans before providing the right recommendations. That takes intention.”
Clarence explained further that a pedorthist has to find out the socio-emotional and lifestyle aspects of an individual prior to recommending the appropriate pair of footwear. For example, those with long-term chronic pain and illness, such as cancer survivors, might require a bit of psyching up before they overcome their fear of pain and start learning to walk properly again.
Notwithstanding, as the techie and general manager, the younger Oo has deployed automation to help with repetitive tasks and admin processes in the backend, which has helped Footkaki to keep prices affordable for customers.
Footkaki may be on solid footing now, but the elder Oo is not getting complacent. He shared that many of his customers have actually asked him to open another outlet in the West or to consider a franchise model. However, he believes that Footkaki is where it is today because the Oos run a small and friendly family business that enables them to provide more personalised services.
“Opening another outlet or franchising the business will force us to raise prices and work with people who might only be interested in making a profit. My children and I believe we should only expand Footkaki if it helps to support a worthy community cause or need. Otherwise, we are very happy running a small and friendly business. I am very happy to have my children working with me every day,” shared Owen.
Clarence quipped: “My sis and I have spoken to dad about slowing down and getting more rest at his age. However, he still insists on devoting all his time and energy to Footkaki. Either way, my mom will have him repairing something in the kitchen if he was at home. So, might as well siam (Hokkien for “escape”) and work in the shop!”
A father-and-son pair who work and wisecrack together? Why, it is so fitting. Just like a pair of orthopaedic shoes.
SIDEBOX: Get the right fit
Most common foot problems such as bunions and arch pain are caused by poor shoe fitting. For seniors, their foot issues such as arthritis could be exacerbated by the prolonged use of ill-fitting footwear. Owen shared with Ageless Online some pointers that may just help you find your right solemate:
- Shoe size must conform to foot size
For comfort, the shoe size should fit the feet size. Although this may seem commonsensical, it is advisable to have your feet measured by professional shoe fitters to determine the commensurate size of shoes.
- Shape of foot
There should be a reasonable match between the shape of the shoes to the shape of your feet. A person with broad and fleshy feet should look for shoes with enough girth and width to accommodate the feet. Likewise, a person with narrow feet should look for narrower shoes that are more fitting for narrower feet.
- Try shoes when standing and walking
Most people do not know that their foot size can vary when sitting and standing. In most cases, our feet become bigger while standing. Ensure that the shoes are comfortable when you stand and walk in them.
The upper materials of the shoes contribute a lot to foot comfort. Leather is preferred because of their breathability, conformity and suppleness. Some materials which are stretchable can be very accommodating particularly for bunions and broad feet. If you are Muslim, always check with the shop assistant if the shoes contain any pigskin (it’s often not indicated).
Shoes should have structural integrity to maintain their shape, stability and functionality. Features like good arch support and cushioning pads at strategic locations can distribute pressure under the foot and contribute to comfort. Shoes with strong heel counters can also help to control highly flexible feet, which make for better motion control while walking.
- Underfoot resilience
On the average, a person walks about 8,000 steps a day. Therefore, it is important to have good insoles and outsoles to help absorb shocks between your feet and the hard ground. The insole is part of the shoe that is located at the bottom of the inside of the shoe, while the piece of hard material on the bottom of the shoe is called an outsole.
- Wear the right shoes for the right occasion
Not all good-looking shoes are always comfortable. Likewise, not all comfortable shoes are perfectly good looking, too. So, on occasions when we need to look good, we may wear good-looking shoes which are less comfortable, but for a short duration only. For occasions when we need to walk and stand the whole day, we should wear shoes that are more accommodating and comfortable
- For custom insoles – make sure they’re prescribed by a qualified medical professional.
Custom-made insoles are expensive, and not everybody needs them. Before committing to a pair, it’s important to make sure that the provider is a bona fide podiatrist registered with the Podiatry Association of Singapore. Custom insoles designed by unqualified professionals can actually worsen existing foot problems.
(** This article was written by Tan Boon Leng, our volunteer writer)
(** PHOTO CREDIT: Tan Boon Leng)