About a month ago, I was invited to visit the new SOLS offices. I ventured way out on the west side of Chelsea, and nestled between the galleries and studios full of fine art and fashion models, was SOLS.
From the moment I walked into the building, it was clear that the companies living here were on the cutting edge of fashion, and it was everywhere. From the models I shared my elevator ride with, to the line of people grabbing coffee at the 8th floor cafeteria, it was difficult for me to believe that a custom orthotics startup co-exists among all of this high-fashion.
As soon as I walked into SOLS’ loft, I was overcome with clarity, staring at a wall of insole products. It began to make sense why SOLS resides among the high-fashion giants in the industry - design is a key driver to their business. SOLS started in 2013, with the goal to make custom orthotics sexy again, using cutting-edge 3D printing technology to streamline the customization and manufacturing of bespoke orthotics. SOLS is able to deliver a custom printed insole in 10-14 days from start to finish, significantly faster than the 2-3 week industry average.
I was fortunate enough to chat with the product leaders on both sides of orthotic production. Regardless of your orthotics provider, SOLS starts in the doctors office with an initial diagnosis. Using SOL’s proprietary iOS app, a physician is able to create a 3D model of the patient’s foot by snapping several photos. Using that model, the physician is then able to add additional features to the orthotic prescription. From there, the frame of the insole gets printed at SOLS, followed by a leather or custom finish before getting shipped out to the customer.
“We have all types of products at SOLS - an iOS product, a physical product, a web product,” says Erdem Ay, VP of Product at SOLS. An engineer by training, Ay started as a backend developer, primarily creating enterprise products. Ay shifted from working on backend supply chain and compliance management software to consumer-facing products when he took a liking to prototyping. The shift into product was based on passion, and Ay simply found working on consumer products more engaging. Using his skills as a backend developer, Ay was hired to help build out myspace.com’s photo management tool, slowly marrying backend technology with front end technology.
The shift into product culminated when Ay accepted a job at another dating startup, with responsibilities heavily focused on customer conversion, and other product optimizations. As the first product person hired at SOLS, Ay is faced with a new set of challenges that are familiar with most startups in rapid-growth mode. “Some of the challenges we have today, are how do we structure the teams, what kinds of product managers do we need to hire, and what should the roadmap look like?” says Ay.
Currently, SOLS is expanding its product teams, and the core team is beginning to grow. "Right now, everyone’s talking to everyone, which is great, but it’s very difficult to maintain that, when it’s easy to segment yourself in your department.” says Ay. The most effective way Ay is able to support small culture in a growing startup is by keeping teams smaller. “We’re starting to create teams that have the versatility and decision making power of a startup - and it’s worked well for us.” Whether it’s creating new teams, or splitting up existing ones, Ay is confident that this structure will keep everyone involved in the decision making process.
Aside from dealing with the complexity of organizational growth, SOLS’ business is responsible for end-to-end production, and that has a huge effect on each part of the manufacturing process. In the same way that Apple designs the hardware and software behind their products, SOLS does the same for orthotics. “Every time we make a change in the product, there’s a ripple effect in the entire product development process,” says Ay.
That’s where Australian transplant and lead product designer James Kennedy comes in, responsible for coordinating the development and manufacturing of SOLS’ orthotics. Kennedy has always been involved in biomechanics and sports medicine from his academically-inclined research projects, to working for the 2nd largest design consultancy in Australia. From designing cricket helmets to complex systems that measure the force exerted on an athlete’s foot, Kennedy was a natural fit for SOLS’ physical product manufacturing team. “The part [of SOLS’ business] that really appealed to me was the idea of mass customization on a manufacturing level,” says Kennedy. It’s a total departure from traditional manufacturing model, where the “law of averages” determines the size and fit of the product. “People are beginning to recognize that what they really want are custom products,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy’s core team consists of two biomechanical engineers, and an industrial designer - an effective combination of expertise, constantly adjusting the product’s engineering for the customer. “The hardest part is that there is no instruction manual for this business,” says Kennedy, laughing. And it’s true. Kennedy and his team are pioneers in the custom manufacturing space, with multiple dependencies on Ay’s (and other) teams.
“We have to make sure we’re able to take an idea, and generate a custom fit into hundreds of variations of that product,” says Kennedy, “and we have to challenge ourselves and our approach on how to solve this process.” Kennedy explains further that this is a highly coordinated task, and the only way to succeed is proper collaboration. “I’m not an expert on anything, but collectively we're able to get several teams to solve some really complicated problems,” says Kennedy. Kennedy is a huge advocate of IDEO’s method of design thinking and approaching problems from a designers point of view, where preconceived assumptions are left at the door. “It’s not my role as a designer to tell you what you want, it’s my job to create opportunities and open your mind about the possibilities,” says Kennedy.
Aside from wrapping his head around the physical product challenges at SOLS, Kennedy continues to maintain a multi-faceted outlook on design thinking by applying them to his passions. Kennedy started an education foundation in Indonesia. “It allows me to change my mindset on how to approach things,” says Kennedy, “Designing for 3rd world convention lets me break away from the plethora of technology that I use.” By solving problems like “what’s the best way to transport water to a remote village?” Kennedy is sharpening his design method thinking, with the ultimate goal of making him a better designer.
Getting a glimpse into a mass manufacturing customization solution left me with feelings of optimism in light of Kennedy’s passion project. This is bigger than just orthotics. It’s refining a process that can have a truly positive impact the masses, with precision to help people on an individual level.