Author's blurb: When I was in college I did a bit of ballroom dancing. I only danced in my Converse, as did most of my colleagues in their normal shoes. Since so few of us did it professionally, we didn't think it was terribly important that we buy proper dance shoes.
I went for more walks than dancing, of course, which initially led me to buy a decent pair of walking shoes to commute from my dorm to class.
Then I realized that it was no wonder that active ballroom dancers needed proper dance shoes when I needed comfortable walking shoes.
Thirty years ago, when dancing became popular in Malaysia, Chook Wah Sun, the founder of San Lee Shoes, also realized this.
Their only shop in Cheras / Photo credit: San Lee Shoes
He found that hiking shoes not only hurt the feet when dancing, but are also not as soft and flexible on the feet as dance shoes.
Noticing a demand in the market
"Dance shoes are soft and designed to provide good support for the dancer's feet so that accidents on the dance floor can be avoided, especially when performing complex movements," said Chook Heng Mun in an interview with FMT.
Plus, dance shoes weren't easily available back then. Heng Mun told the Vulcan Post that dancers would normally import their shoes from the UK, which 30 years ago cost them around RM 300 for just one pair.
Chook Heng Mun is the current owner of San Lee Shoes, which he inherited from his father Wah Sun.
Share the same love for making shoes as his dad / Image credit: FMT
Wah Sun started making shoes when he was 13. He was an apprentice to a shoemaker in Ipoh and after several years of experience went to KL to work in a shoe factory. He announced this in a press release on his website.
There he met his wife, with whom he founded San Lee Shoes in a small shop in Cheras.
Wah Sun and his wife and the process of making shoes / Photo credit: San Lee Shoes
Before the dance shoes, San Lee only made casual shoes.
“One day a customer came in and asked if we could make a pair of dance shoes. My father received the order and they showed us some samples, ”Heng Mun told Vulcan Post.
“My father even signed up for a dance class to learn about it and modify the shoes to make them more comfortable,” he recalls.
How can you better understand your customers' needs than put yourself in their shoes?
Adapt to the core
Back then, having to source their dance shoes from overseas, people didn't have the luxury of getting their measurements right or trying them on for size before buying. Wah Sun wanted to change that.
“Malaysians generally have wider feet in the instep area and more spread toes due to our hot, humid climate. And because we rarely wear socks, our feet tend to grow more freely, ”said Wah Sun in an interview with The Star.
So Wah Sun decided to involve dancers in his shoe store and give them the opportunity to customize their shoes from scratch.
San Lee Shoes adjusts latin, ballroom, salsa, jazz and tango shoes for men and women, as well as wedding shoes, office shoes, dress shoes, walking shoes and even shoes for people with foot problems.
If no one had told me about this, I'd really think these were just normal heels / Photo credit: San Lee Shoes
There is no fixed price for their products as it depends on customization. Dance shoes usually cost around RM 160, while walking shoes cost around RM 200.
It's almost half the price your customers would have to pay if they ordered their shoes from overseas.
Although they started their shoe store to give local dancers the opportunity to customize their shoes, they also have customers overseas.
They had clients from Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the US and Europe.
Customers select the colors, designs, and materials they want before having their feet measured.
“We also require the customer to come and adjust before the shoes are 100% finished. This is to ensure that the shoes fit the customer well. The whole process can take about two weeks, ”said Heng Mun.
Wah Sun also previously told The Star that if the shoes don't fit their clients, they will repeat the shoes until they do.
Is there still a market for Ballroom Dancing shoes?
Although ballroom dancing was popular in the past, it is less popular today. Nowadays, Malaysians are more fond of fitness dancing like Zumba and contemporary dancing like hip-hop, b-boying, K-pop, etc. Often times people only wear sneakers to dance in these genres.
With MCO happening now, the people who are still dancing ballroom dancing won't be dancing as much for now.
Therefore, for the time being, her focus is on making shoes for those who cannot wear commercial shoes, such as diabetic patients, people with two different foot sizes and people with balled feet.
Heng Mun told Vulcan Post that their earnings actually fell 70% in this pandemic. Aside from Heng Mun's wife, mother and sister, they have reduced their workforce from 4 to just 2.
In her shop / Photo credit: FMT
Despite their niche market, which is most likely their affordability and specialty in customization, the business is still here after decades.
On the other hand, their hiking boots, especially those made from full leather, can last for more than 8 years, which is a long time before the user wants to replace them.
So your business is not just a niche, it's not a fast one either, which can be quite a risk, especially in times like these. Besides, they are not a monopoly.
However, if they are able to adapt their business to today's dance trends and, for example, find a way to include contemporary dancers in their target market, they may have a higher chance of survival to survive for more decades.
Bottom line: As a company with such a niche, they are undoubtedly valuable to their target audience. Trends may change and the enduring culture of ballroom dancing in Malaysia and around the world could be questioned, but the fact that San Lee has already found ways to adapt is a promising sign of continuity.
- You can find out more about San Lee Shoes here.
- Here you can find out more about other startups we've written about.
Selected Image Source: Chook Heng Mun, current owner of San Lee Shoes