Maybe when Tim Brown retired from professional soccer in 2012, he should have seen it coming: swapping out cleats for shoes. It was in fact his shock at the amount of plastic in the footwear freebies gifted to him during his playing days that gave rise to an obsession, which, eventually, evolved into Allbirds, a D2C stalwart and love brand for sustainable footwear founded in 2016. In this episode of the OMR Podcast International, Tim spoke to me about becoming an entrepreneur, the Allbirds approach to sustainability, the importance of materials in footwear and how a skeptical professor’s challenge got the company off and running.
Freebies serving as inspiration
Tim Brown accomplished what so many boys and girls around the world dream of doing, becoming a professional soccer player and representing his country at the World Cup, which he did in 2010. “One of the many great things about being a professional athlete is you get a lot of free gear. I was inspired in many ways [to found Allbirds] by the experience of wearing a lot of heavily-logo’ed and plastic product,” Allbirds CEO and founder Tim Brown recalls.
Initially, it was purely due to curiosity and the need for an activity in the generous amount of free-time pro athletes have (“You have a lot of time in sport”) that inspired Tim to begin experimenting with a different kind of shoe. “In New Zealand there is a very close connection to nature, to natural materials and the idea that that was a possibility in footwear is where I started—but I knew nothing about shoes.”
A cry for innovation and a history of wool
Tim said that around that time, in 2008, footwear and shoes were by and largely plastic, employed loud colors and logos making it very hard to find simple shoes. “The initial insight was, if fact, a design one. It was about simplicity.” Doing away with the subtle-as-a-brick branding in design is relatively straightforward; pivoting away from an industry built on synthetics for decades, not so much. “For the better part of 50 years, the New Zealand wool industry has had their lunch eaten by the synthetic industry. The idea that wool could create a better product was where I started.”
From there, things progressed rapidly. He won a research and innovation grant, while still playing football, then enrolled at and graduated from The London School of Economics in 2013. While on Christmas break he put up his six Allbirds prototypes on Kickstarter. “My professor said it was one of the worst ideas he’d ever seen and suggested I put it on Kickstarter so it could fail.” Fail it did not. “It was, in fact, wildly succsesful. In four days, it sold USD 120,000 worth of shoes so I had to shut it down.”
“Sustinability often means 100 different things to 100 different people
Buoyed by the success of the campaign, Tim founded Allbirds in 2016 with Joey Zwillinger, a VC with “all the skills and business acumen that I did not have.” Through the partnership with Zwillinger, Brown and Allbirds went about rethinking what sustainability meant and incorporated it in a myriad of different ways, especially in the materials. “At Allbirds’ core is a belief that by using natural marterials you not only had a better environmental solution, but also a chance to unlock better performing materials for consumers.”
While Tim is hesitant to say Allbirds is a sustainability ambassador, the topic does enjoy a very prominent role in not only the decision-making process, but also on the shoes themselves. “It took sometime, but we’ve defined it as a business in a really clear way, where I don’t think we have all the answers, but we’ve got all the questions.” One of the specific ways Tim and Allbirds have approached the topic is by identifying carbon as having a similar central role in our understanding of sustainability as calories do with nutrition. “They are both very important metrics that help us connect things. “We label every product we make with a carbon footprint number, which allows us to interconnect products.”
Check out the full episode of the OMR Podcast International with Allbirds founder and CEO Tim Brown for more on the role of sustainability at the company, the impact of D2C on getting the company off the ground and the lessons learned from going public one year later.