Perspective: Interview with Kelly Schmutte, Founder + CEO of PerfectFit Pointe



What is PerfectFit and how does it work?

The PerfectFit Inserts Kit provides dancers with the tools to create customized pointe shoe inserts, shaped to their own feet and shoes, that tremendously improve comfort, support and control.  What we have designed is a new fitting solution, not another padding solution.  They give you more control over your shoe and confidence in your dancing, while simultaneously reducing painful and damaging pressure points.

Using a moldable silicone impression material held in place by a fabric cover, dancers make an impression of each foot inside the shoe.  The molding process is simple and straightforward, and you only have to do it once.  The resulting inserts fill only the voids in the box of your shoe (preserving contact with the floor) and much more evenly distribute weight across your toes and forefoot while en pointe.

 

What inspired you to be this change in the dance world?

I grew up taking ballet, and from the time I started dancing en pointe, I just knew I wanted to do something to transform the experience of dancing en pointe.  It’s such a magical thing, and so central to the identity of what it means to be a ballet dancer, and yet, it often comes with a lot of baggage, whether that’s pure physical discomfort or the frustrations of endlessly searching for the right shoe.  I just found it perplexing that there weren’t more innovations in the world of ballet when there were such clear needs, and believed that dancers deserved a lot better. I personally was always jumping from one shoe style to another (and it didn’t help that I eventually had a size 11 foot by 9th grade!) and was just never all that happy in pointe shoes.  As much as I loved their beauty and what they meant to me as a dancer, I always felt a little bit like I was dancing with my wings clipped while wearing them… never totally free to just focus on my dancing and artistry.  I wanted to bring back more joy to pointe so that it could be more about focusing on technique and craft, and not what your shoe is doing or feeling like.

Even back then, when I first started dancing en pointe in 5th grade, I felt like although I didn’t yet know what I could invent or how I would do it, that it was possible.  I think that sense of creative potential came from several sources.  My dad is a civil engineer and very creative problem-solver, and my grandfather was also an inventor (with a couple patents to his name!), so I think my interest in making and building things comes a lot from them.  I also was blessed to have a really wonderful ballet teacher, Lisa Applegate, who does a tremendous amount to invest in the personal and collective well-being of her dancers, and to build a very positive and affirming culture. She’s also a very creative and visionary person artistically, and I think the combination of that affirming culture and being in a very creative studio contributed to the sense of possibility I felt.  

 

Did you always know you wanted to fuse ballet and design?

I’d say yes and no… I knew that I wanted to create change in pointe shoe experience from the time I first started dancing on pointe at age 11, but the design piece didn’t really come into the picture until I came to Stanford.  I majored in Product Design as an undergrad, which is a fantastic interdisciplinary program that’s based mainly in Mechanical Engineering, but has a sprinkling of other disciplines including Art and Psychology. But at the core of the program is learning a design methodology that can be applied to any sort of design challenge.  It’s essentially a way to creatively solve problems, but in a very human-centered way.  It is by truly understanding a real human need that you discover your initial inspiration, and that need or needs really drives the whole innovation process as you cycle through ideas.  This program was really like the missing piece for me.  It combined engineering and art (which I already knew I liked) with this third element of:  how do you know you’re actually making something meaningful and worthwhile that can really change people’s lives? I felt like I now had the toolset to approach designing for dance in a meaningful way.

I actually made a first version of PerfectFit as my undergraduate capstone project back in 2006. The product looks very different now, and it’s gone through many iterations, but the seeds of the concept were there.  

 

What was a challenge you faced throughout the development process?

Hmm, which one shall I pick?  As an entrepreneur you know that challenges are a part of your daily experience!  I think one of the biggest challenges I faced was how to design a truly customized fit, but in a way that could be scaled.

The physics of trying to create more even weight distribution in a pointe shoe is not rocket science, so it was really about how you could do it well.  I felt pretty firmly that it had to be something that not only worked functionally, but would be user-friendly and accessible enough for any dancer to do.  In terms of the mechanics, it’s actually a very elemental physics equation.  Pressure = Force / Area.  So if you increase the amount of surface area over which a force is distributed, you decrease the pressure.  So if I could make a way to essentially put more of the toes and forefoot in contact with the shoe, I could maximize surface area and reduce pressure at a dancer’s typical pressure points.  I explored so many different types of moldable materials… fluids, gels, foams, you name it.  I actually was really excited about a heat-moldable foam for awhile.  It’s a technology often used in ski boot liners that’s pretty cool. But what I learned after many, many prototypes was that it just wasn’t customizable enough.  It’s great at conforming, but not actually moving around inside the shoe to fill only the available voids. And in pointe shoes, you’re dealing with super tight tolerances (especially compared to ski boots) and you really need a material that can move around to match the geometry of your toes on a micro scale.  Eventually, I came to the silicone rubber impression material that our company uses in the product now.  It’s a perfect material because it has the advantages of both a liquid and a solid. While it’s molding around your foot, it’s in a fluid state and can easy move around and escape as needed.  When it’s cured, it’s a resilient, firm solid that provides support and better control of the shoe, and doesn’t move around.  And best of all, it’s very easy for a dancer to mix, apply, and mold the material herself.   

 

What has been your favorite reaction to the product? We love the video of Lauren Lovette trying them out!

Yes, that probably has to be one of my favorite reactions, too! There’s absolutely nothing more satisfying as a designer than when that’s the type of reaction you get from your users-- not just that you’ve designed something moderately better, but something that is really, truly a game-changer in a way someone couldn’t have ever anticipated.  I never set out to create another toe pad that would be a little better than what was out there. No, I really wanted to make something that would feel and function on a different level and fundamentally change the experience of dancing on pointe.  So when Lauren Lovette and Indiana Woodward reacted that way, it was exhilarating. You don’t see it in that video clip, but they were dancing around the studio for a good 15 minutes just goofing off and giggling and giddily doing Sugar Plum variations and such!  It was so fun to watch.

But obviously there are many more stories that come in from dancers that we don’t get to meet or work with in person that are just as moving. We’ve tried to capture and share as many of these (from professionals and students alike) as possible on our website.  I think some of the most dramatic stories come from professional dancers just because the stakes are so high for them -- this isn’t just a recreational hobby; it’s your heart and soul and livelihood, and so a lot hangs on how happy you are in your pointe shoes.  Here’s what Kate Penner, a 31-year-old professional dancer wrote us about her experience.  (She has a longer 2nd toe, and a sizable gap between her first and second toes.):


I had never had toenail problems until I was about 28. Then, all of a sudden, my toenails started bruising and it was excruciating. I was having trouble with makers (my Freeds suddenly came much wider), and I had to blindly size down for a performance without getting re-fitted, drastically increasing the bruising. Seriously -- rock bottom was probably either when I drilled a hole in my own toenail with a sterilized red-hot paper clip in my home bathroom to relieve the pressure or when I contracted a tissue infection after a repetiteur came for a bootcamp weekend and I'd been in my shoes for 24 hours over 3 days.  It really had gotten to a point where I was avoiding pointe shoes, and I am someone who prefers to wear them for everything. It happened over a several year period, so I didn't really notice how bad it had gotten, but I could basically only function for 90 minutes before the pain started to inhibit my dancing. It was keeping me from maintaining my technical level, I was avoiding being the cast that dances in rehearsal, and I was DEFINITELY that girl who would secretly slip out of her shoes in the corner, and it was just miserable.  I was doing everything I could -- soaking my feet, using less padding, using more padding, using no padding, arnica, advil, ice, epsom salts, nail files, you name it, I tried it.  My toenails hadn't noticeably changed in texture or thickness, yet I was having these serious problems. I looked at my past and could hardly believe there had ever been a time at summer programs where I lasted for 6 hours a day in shoes!
I molded my inserts in early/mid November (before Thanksgiving), and the very next day, I managed a 4 hour rehearsal day without taking them off. It took me from a level 8 pain to a level 1 pain. The final run of flowers that I did at 6pm showed fatigue, but didn't hurt. I was astonished!  Since then I've never gone back. I've managed 6 hours in shoes (on our craziest Nutcracker days where I was both running rehearsals for other dancers and hopping into rehearsals myself), as well as a 3-week, 15-show run of Nutcracker with no shows off and performing everything from a Snow/Flowers/Marzipan show to a Sugar Plum show.  I feel confident that they are snug and won't let me down. Even though the dressing room was locked between shows, I took them home every night because I knew I would have a BREAKDOWN if they got lost. Toenail bruising is gone, there are no friction points at all on my foot. I no longer use tape, toe hats or bandaids.  Swelling is also minimal (I think the pads act as a compression system?) and my feet don't have that roadkill, fresh ground beef look at the end of the day.
I haven't had to use a single piece of tape, bandaid. I never had to soak my feet. I'm completely astonished.  The pain is gone. And I didn't really see how much it was affecting my dancing until it stopped. Now I throw on shoes whenever I want. It's not an endless calculation of how many 'good minutes' I have in the day, or grabbing a spot on the wall to elevate.
THANK YOU. I am excited to be physically dancing for the first time in a long time. I cannot thank you enough. I have other ailments, but toenails are no longer on that list! I've never experienced such relief in my life.

To bring joy back into someone’s life in that way… I just don’t know what can be more rewarding.  


How are pointe dancers damaging their feet without even knowing it using traditional padding (or none at all)?

I won’t make any blanket statements about the damage pointe shoes can cause, since it really does depend on what your feet (and toes) are shaped like, and how well that happens to match whatever shoe you might be wearing.  Some dancers are blessed with perfect square-shaped feet, and many others have feet that are less-than-ideal for pointe.  Getting a shoe that fits well, and has been fit professionally, is the most important first step.

I can say that when human bones (whether in the feet or anywhere else in the body) are subjected to greater forces than they were designed to bear, they can respond in a variety of ways:  increasing bone tissue, permanently changing their shape, or in extreme cases, fracturing. The PerfectFit inserts help protect your long-term foot health by reducing forces at high pressure points and providing much more even, equalized support, which lowers the risk of bone tissue enlargement or deformation.

I know there can sometimes be pride in certain communities around how little you wear in your pointe shoes, but the way I look at it is:  you only get one set of feet, and one dance career.  Why would you not do everything you can to protect this amazing asset to allow you to continue to dance as much and for as long as you can?


What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Go for it!  The world needs more creative innovators and problem solvers, especially women entrepreneurs.  The first thing I’d say is to work on something that really, really motivates or moves you.  What frustrates you or angers you that not more is being done to solve this problem?  This will keep the fire going inside of you when the road gets tough, and is longer than you thought.  Next, I’d say if you have already an idea, don’t keep it inside your head; visualize it by making a sketch or drawing, or even better, building it (we call this making a prototype in design-speak).  And then show it to the people you’re designing it for.  Have them actually try it and test it, and be humble and open to evolving your idea based on the real needs you find.  And lastly, being an entrepreneur requires a lot of persistence and patience.  Great things are not built overnight, though it might look like they are sometimes.  If you really believe in your idea, don’t be discouraged when others can’t see the same potential as you do.  If you keep going back to and designing for what your users need, and they are excited by what you’re creating, you should keep moving forward.


What can we expect from PerfectFit in the future?

We have big visions, and while I won’t share all the details, I will share two exciting things.

First, we will be building out our Ambassador program for both students and professionals.  So many dancers have been asking about this, and it exists sort of informally at the moment with the very active online community of supporters we have on Instagram, but we’d like to make it a little more formal, so stay tuned! 

Secondly, we will be doing more to serve dancers in the professional community, both through more fitting workshops at companies, and also new products specifically tailored for the needs of professional dancers.  The response and feedback we’ve gotten from the professional community has been tremendous, and we want to continue to serve these amazing artists and athletes.

 

Is there anything else you want to share or we should be asking?

One thing that we consistently hear from professional dancers is how much more responsive PerfectFit makes their shoes feel, which is really exciting.  With such a glove-like fit, when your foot moves, the shoe responds.  No slipping, sliding, or sloshing around in sweaty paper towels.  The part of the molded insert underneath your toes even provides extra grip to point your foot.  That’s what Sara Mearns’ favorite thing is about them -- they provide this grip that has taken her footwork to the next level.

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Did you like hearing from Kelly at PerfectFit? Let us know below!

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1 comment

  • Dear Kelly

    I am a former engineer, turned UBS/JP Morgan investment specialist, turned Early Stage/Entrepreneur funding specialist that is married to a dancer/opera soprano director.

    Our 13 year old daughter has just ordered PerfectFit Pointe Shoe Inserts as she is in her first pointe classes.

    My wife Melanie and I wondered if you had a UK/European distributor for PerfectFit Pointe Shoe Inserts, as we would definitely be interested to take on the task?

    Best regards

    James Vinall
    Director
    Trill and Drury associates Limited
    Brook Cottage, Tanhouse Road, Oxted, Surrey, RH8 9PE United Kingdom

    Mobile +44 (0) 7824 172669
    Telephone +44 (0) 1 883 715126
    Skype ID jamesvinall
    Email james.vinall@trillanddrury.com
    LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/jamesvinall

    James Vinall

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