Sometimes it takes a complete outsider to shake up an industry.
When Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger decided to get into the shoe-making business, neither had any experience in the industry. Now they’re helming a company with a $1.4 billion-and-rising valuation. And the backbone of that company is footwear.
People from Oprah to the Australian prime minister own a pair of their sneakers. Time called them “the world’s most comfortable shoes.” What allows a company that started from literally nothing—just an idea and a Kickstarter campaign—to build that fast?
The Humble Beginning
The genesis of Allbirds began with Tim Brown’s career as a professional soccer player in Australia. A New Zealander, he was fond of his country’s highest-quality export: merino wool.
As a professional player, he had gone through many different pairs of free shoes, and thought that the footwear industry had gotten more and more complicated, getting away from its roots and leaning too far into useless over-designing. Brown wondered if stripping a shoe back to the basics of high-quality materials and a simple design might be a winning formula.
Unlike many industry outsiders who have an idea, though, Brown acted on it.
After retiring from his professional soccer career, he went to business school in London to teach himself how to start his own business. In 2014 he started a crowdfunding campaign based on a simple shoe made from merino wool, and in just five days, that campaign passed $120,000 in funding.
The idea intrigued Joey Zwillinger, who was one of the early backers. Zwillinger also happened to be married to a close friend of Brown’s wife, and when Brown realized he was over his head his wife suggested the two meet.
At the time, Zwillinger was working in biotech in the San Francisco Bay area. After a meeting at his home, the two spent a month hashing out the details of a business plan before actually taking action.
As they entered the production process, they discovered something that gave them pause: shoes are really, really hard to make. And for a product whose entire value proposition was based on quality and natural materials—materials not generally used in shoes—that meant an expensive, time-consuming, challenging R&D process. The first shoe didn’t launch for two years.
Very early on, though, they had a windfall PR opportunity with the Time mention of Allbirds as the most comfortable shoe in the world. The footwear began to draw word of mouth buzz, and between the article and the grapevine, word began to spread.
The Growth Phase
In some ways, the growth of Allbirds parallels another well-known boutique brand that emphasizes quality and giving back: Warby Parker. That’s no accident. Zwillinger’s entrepreneurial fires were stoked way back during his college career at Wharton, where he became friends with the founders of the famous eyewear company.
Allbirds is similar in the way that they approach service, sustainability and superb quality. Their flagship shoe is a wool runner that uses 17.5-micron merino wool, a fine fabric that gives their shoes the comfort customers are looking for.
That wool is sourced from Brown’s native New Zealand, but worked in Italian textile plants and assembled into shoes in South Korea. Materials are a key part of the Allbirds philosophy, and they’ve continued to innovate with their new Tree line, made of eucalyptus.
Warby Parker’s philosophy of iterating early and only launching when the quality is there is similar to the Allbirds philosophy, too. In the case of Allbirds, they’ve tried so many new things that there really isn’t much choice. Their Tree Skipper style took 37 prototypes before the company settled on one that worked.
The thing that sets the shoes and the sales model apart, though, is the simplicity.
Allbirds sells online and through its boutique stores in five major cities. They haven’t tried to expand massively or sell into large chains, instead mostly working through more limited collaborations and a direct-to-consumer model that cuts out middlemen that could affect quality.
Quality and sustainability are key factors that the founders care about. From the very early days, Brown wanted to use that high-quality wool in the first runners. The Tree line with the eucalyptus pulp material is one aspect of that, too.
Another is SweetFoam, the foam they use in their shoes that took millions of dollars and two years to create. Because it’s produced from sugarcane, it’s carbon-negative—the plant actually takes carbon out of the air.
And after that long R&D cycle and millions of dollars invested, Brown and Zwillinger didn’t keep the recipe to themselves. They published it for other companies to use.
Allbirds has established themselves already as a small but fast-growing footwear company, backed by everyone from Silicon Valley investors to Hollywood celebrities. They’re continuing to innovate and grow, but as it stands right now they’re focused on staying true to the original ideals of the company: simplicity, quality, and sustainability.
That’s a recipe that rings true to a consumer base jaded by years of over-engineered, overhyped shoes and different iterations of the same synthetic materials.
The tech community in the Silicon Valley area got on board straight away. Allbirds went from nothing to part of the official Bay Area uniform for tech workers rapidly, based on their simple, borderline-dressy style and all-day comfort.
That early success in that sector fueled investment to the tune of $27.5 million so far, and they’ve sold over 1 million pairs of their first wool shoes already. Moving forward, the founders have stated that they think they can be leaders in sustainable manufacturing, and at the rate they’ve been going, they may well be right.
Two outsiders came in and shook up the basis of the footwear industry, and it’s worked. Getting back to basics helped Allbirds find a niche that allowed them to both serve their company mission and build a brand that’s ready for the big time.
Where are they going from here? Who knows, but the sky looks like the limit.