Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
Foot orthotics, those moulded insoles that reduce the stress of injury or genetic misalignment, are wondrous things. Acquiring them, though, can be troublesome. Patients wade through a hard-to-navigate, expensive maze of appointments, fittings and long waits.
This baffled Vancouver's Louis-Victor Jadavji, who was prescribed orthotics after dislocating his knee during a school track meet five years ago. Surely, he thought, the process could be made easier.
He's betting on it. Last year he co-founded Wiivv Wearables Inc. Customers take photos of their feet and e-mail them in, and Wiivv's clever software makes orthotics using three-dimensional printing. All for less than $200, with no specialists or appointments required.
Wiivv's product is not a cure-all. The company strips away much of the biomechanical nuance provided by medical experts and instead delivers an orthotic priced between drugstore insoles and podiatrist-designed pairs costing $500 and more.
"We're trying to bring that level of access, where you're not needing to go to a practitioner of any sort," says 22-year-old Mr. Jadavji, sitting at Wiivv's office in the Marine Building, overlooking Vancouver's harbour.
After moving to California for college – where he began 3-D printing car parts – Mr. Jadavji met an entrepreneur named Shamil Hargovan. They saw a business opportunity in Mr. Jadavji's painful knee ailment.
He and Mr. Hargovan, who previously worked at Hewlett-Packard Co., founded Wiivv last year. Mr. Jadavji returned to Vancouver and opened an office there. The company also has offices in San Diego and Palo Alto, Calif., with 13 employees between them.
Customers take two pictures of each foot against an 81/2 by 11 sheet of paper for scale. Then Wiivv's proprietary customization engine – it's the company's bread and butter – processes them into a 3-D-printing-ready file. The file is sent to Mississauga, where a printing machine can make as many as 35 pairs a day out of a polymer.
Historically, custom orthotics have been made from a cast, either from a digital scan or a physical imprint, such as in plaster-of-Paris, then digitally designed and cut with special machines.
Wiivv is focusing on "comfort fit" products that correct minor alignment issues – think flat feet – to make shoes more comfortable and help athletes improve performance.
They have partnered with Christian Johannsen, a certified pedorthist who owns two Foot Solutions locations in the city. He has used Wiivv's technology to design and print orthotics for his customers but stops short of recommending the cheap, order-from-home model.
"We try to figure out what is going on biomechanically so that pain goes away," Mr. Johannsen says. "It won't be perfect when you buy online like that."
Wiivv has so far shipped more than 100 pairs. As the team looks ahead, though, they're having a bit of an identity crisis.
The company could certainly continue its current course, selling to consumers and expanding into retail stores and specialists' offices. But they also have spoken with major shoe brands about the potential to work as an extension of their business.
Could Wiivv partner with Nike? "That's something we struggle with," Mr. Javadji says. "Are we going to bastardize our brand or are we going to support our own line of products?"
THE CHALLENGE: Should Wiivv forge ahead as a business-to-consumer brand, or consider adopting a business-to-business strategy?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Abena Perryman, vice-president of campaigns and analytics, Mezzanine Group, a B2B outsource marketing company, Toronto
While the lure of B2C (a business to consumer model) with widespread brand recognition is a glamourous notion, the reality is the market has changed dramatically. Margins are tight if they're distributing through established retailers, and going direct to consumer requires higher marketing spend and navigating the digital landscape. A B2C play requires deep pockets just to break even.
The B2B model, on the other hand – traditionally characterized by low margins and high volumes – doesn't provide brand recognition but can establish a pathway to profitability and long-term crossover to B2C. The downside? A longer sales cycle, lower negotiating power with big players, and the "all your eggs in one basket" risk of a small handful of big clients.
Here are a few questions Wiivv should answer to help determine the right channel: Who are your target customers? (What do they want? How do they buy? Where are they located?) What is the potential market size? Your estimated market penetration?
What does the competitive landscape look like – for instance, how does the health-care system impact the sale or stocking of insoles? What part of the value chain provides the best opportunity? What is your overall business vision – can future product offerings leverage current customer segments and distribution channels?
In the short term, the Wiivv e-business design and printed orthotics for uncomplicated treatments can be somewhat successful. However, for more complex treatments, Mr. Hargovan and Mr. Jadavji should begin to develop new networks and partnerships with medical experts and to work with specialists such as Johannsen.
They should ensure constant innovation behind the scenes with experts, otherwise a B2C model will not survive. Whether the owners should expand to retail stores and specialists' offices, or work with major shoe brands depends on which priority is bigger to them. Selling their basic business technology to more sophisticated and structured organizations could result in more innovative uses of their 3-D printing to exploit new markets – such as sports gyms, athletes and businesses where employees are on their feet all day. They could explore online athletic communities and businesses.
Adam Scheuer, president, Tiger Purification Systems Inc., a seller of water-purification products and services, Burnaby, B.C.
Wiivv needs to weigh the reward of building a successful direct-to-consumer brand vs. the challenge of spending valuable time and money continuously chasing the next sale. This can be a long, slow slog, but success is gratifying. Partnering with an existing big business will release some control over the direction of the product but could lead to much faster growth.
If customers are inexpensive and quick to acquire, the direct-to-consumer approach may be the right move. If those consumers are more expensive to reach and slower to jump on board, a larger business will have an easier time reaching that audience.
I would urge Wiivv to identify and focus on what they are best at and consider strategic partners where someone else can do better, faster. Is their strength in the evolutionary product itself, or is it in building a business around their product? Small businesses will generally be constrained with available cash to invest in building the business, and it is important to analyze where the best return on that investment is going to be.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Look for a partner
Break out a list of potential partners, figure out who could best add value to Wiivv's products, and start making calls.
Look for more applications
Partnering with medical industry is a clear early opportunity to align Wiivv's brand with higher-end orthotic design.
Show me the money
Take a good, hard look at the value chain to see where the best money-making opportunity is.
Facing a challenge? If your company could use expert help, please contact us at email@example.com.
Join our Small Business LinkedIn group
Add us to your circles
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Interviews have been edited and condensed.