When I asked Allbirds Co-Founder Tim Brown what advice he'd give his eight-year-old self, it's no surprise that he focused on relationships and guts. As someone audacious enough to turn the archaic footwear industry upside down, Tim spends as much time thinking about culture, legacy and community as he does about product materials and fit. He stands out as someone whose vision is simultaneously futuristic — and a throwback to simpler times.
Tim does not come from the worlds of technology, footwear or environmental studies. In fact, he started out as a professional soccer player, playing for New Zealand in the 2010 World Cup (FIFA). That's when he developed the concept for Allbirds. He felt that running shoes were "over-logoed and over-colored", and he wanted an alternative that offered comfort, good design, and was made from sustainably sourced materials.
Very early on, Tim and his co-founder, Joseph Zwillinger, mapped out what they wanted Allbirds to become. "We wrote a story looking ten years into the future," he told me. "If we believed all the things and did all the things we said we would, this is what the company would feel like in 2025. We still read that story when we're considering big decisions" (like reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example). "It's about living the values and spirit of why we started this — to build the kind of business we can tell our grandkids about."
"Trust your instincts. Choose the people you spend time with. Keep your family close. Don't be afraid to go after the things you think are important, even if other people don't agree."
As you might guess, culture is also paramount to Tim's approach to company building. Allbirds, which reflects prehistoric New Zealand when it was home to nearly 200 different species of native birds, had a non-traditional start as a Kickstarter campaign. It took Tim and Joseph 14 months to sell their first pair of shoes. Tim credits his past training and the vital role of team: "My sporting career taught me the power of getting better every day, of being competitive. The value of continuous improvement and sticking to something. And the role of a team and teammates in performance, when you're only as good as your last game."
Today, Allbirds has raised more than $200M based on three tenets: know your customer, become a global brand and most of all, have purpose. Allbirds now has more than 20 stores in the U.S. and overseas, and recently moved into apparel.
Unlike most footwear brands that outsource portions of the manufacturing process, the Allbirds team manages everything themselves, which Tim admits is hard. "But it means we're faster to market, and we have more margin room to invest in sustainable materials." The team reinvented the supply chain, choosing natural materials that had never been used before in shoes, and even discovered a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based rubber that's made from sugar cane.
In yet another unheard-of move in the industry, instead of keeping their materials development to themselves, they have open-sourced it for others to use. As Tim observes, "The more people who use it, the more the costs would come down, and it would lower the overall carbon footprint. Always look for those types of opportunities to live your purpose and make your product."
When I asked Tim about Allbirds' commitment to using green materials, he emphasized that sustainability on its own isn't enough to influence consumer behavior. "People don't buy sustainable products, they buy great products." But he also believes that climate change is the primary issue of our time. As he says, "We are in a race, and the next ten years will be critical in finding ways to limit and reverse the impact of climate change. To be part of that conversation is thrilling, nerve-racking, and scary."