Tim Brown was a professional soccer player in his native New Zealand for many years, during which time he became intimately familiar with athletic shoes that were tinkered with each passing season. Required to wear such unsustainable, overdesigned shoes, he wondered, Does it really have to be this way? Almost immediately upon retirement, he entered the London School of Economics to learn more. After he teamed up with engineer Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds—the “it” shoe in tech circles nationwide—was off and running.
I spoke with Tim to find out a little bit about how Allbirds got started and how sustainable materials like Merino wool and eucalyptus are changing the shoe game.
Being from New Zealand, you’re very familiar with sheep and wool. But wool for sneakers? How did you make that thought leap?
Allbirds started with the idea that we could create better shoes in a better way after I observed that footwear had become overdesigned, overlogoed, and changed constantly to fit within the confines of traditional retail. Growing up in New Zealand, the land of 29 million sheep, I was well acquainted with the incredible properties of Merino wool. As a material that is temperature regulating, moisture wicking and, most importantly, incredibly soft, I wondered why it had never been used in shoes before and set out to try to solve that.
It turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to make Merino wool stand up to the wear and tear necessary for footwear. So we partnered with one of the world’s finest mills to create a proprietary material. We spent years creating hundreds of prototype shoes before partnering with my co-founder Joey Zwillinger to raise some money and launch the business. In March 2016, we launched our first product, the Wool Runner, and have sold over a million pairs in a little over two years.
By all measures, Allbirds has grown very quickly. You tested the concept on Kickstarter, and then sold a million shoes in your first two years. Was this huge success a surprise from a business perspective? Did you run into any challenges in terms of fulfillment or other scaling issues?
We’ve been able to scale the business really well by dreaming big from the beginning. That vision helped us choose partners and processes that we knew we could scale with. Having the courage to plan for success and be ambitious in early supply chain decisions has been very important to us. This mentality has also impacted the way we’ve built our team, and from the very beginning we’ve tried to get fantastic people who have been through rapid growth or experienced our type of business at scale. Fortunately we have been able to attract an amazing team and that is the most important piece to get right.
In terms of sustainability, you began with a Merino wool sneaker, and then expanded into a warmer-weather sneaker made out of eucalyptus. What’s next for Allbirds?
As a material innovation company, our goal is to continue to build better things in a better way and to provide consumers with smarter, more sustainable products. We’re excited to explore how else we can rethink materials and products to bring a higher level of design, comfort and environmentalism to our customers’ everyday lives.
M.R. Rangaswami is co-founder of Sand Hill Group and publisher of SandHill.com.