Starting a footwear company without branding or flashy marketing ads seems as if it would be a recipe for disaster. For Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, it was the key to their success. The story appears unlikely but true. Tim Brown, a former professional footballer, and Joey Zwillinger, the president of a biotech firm, built Allbirds.
For those who aren’t familiar with the brand, Allbirds is a New Zealand-American shoe company founded in 2016. Allbirds has a small line of footwear for women, men, and children, featuring shoes made from sustainable sources such as wool and castor bean oil.
The company was valued at over $1.4 billion in 2018 and continues to grow. They’ve made shoes worn by the biggest celebs. They’ve managed to do all this in just a few years with a product line that only includes a few different shoes and a limited selection of colors.
So how did two entrepreneurs with no experience in the footwear industry overcome the odds to develop the most sustainable, hippest shoes available? Here’s their story..
So Who Is Tim Brown?
Tim Brown came up with the idea for Allbirds during his stint as a professional football player but his lifelong love of wool also played a role. Tim was born in England and raised in New Zealand, where sheep outnumber the people. As of 2015, New Zealand is home to about 30 million sheep and 4.6 million people.
Tim grew up wearing homemade wool clothing and spent his teens playing football (soccer in the US). His skills on the field led to a soccer scholarship at the University of Cincinnati. This was the start of a decade-long professional soccer career that took him from the US to Australia and back to New Zealand.
During his time playing professionally, Tim and his teammates received a wide range of free shoes. He’d get to try the latest sneakers and footwear from the top brands, including Nike and Adidas.
Tim was always surprised by the lack of quality in the free shoes. He found them uncomfortable, cheaply made, and overly plastered in logos or flashy colors. He just wanted a simple pair of shoes so he started designing his own. Tim’s original idea came from the fact that no one used an all-wool upper to make comfortable running shoes. He knew that the wool he grew up wearing was a good fit. He only needed to figure out how to make the material durable enough for sneakers.
Tim announced his retirement from professional football in 2012 and flew to London to earn a master’s degree in management from the London School of Economics.
Developing the Right Kind of Wool
After graduating in 2013, Tim got to work on his passion project. He wanted to make sustainable, comfortable shoes using quality New Zealand wool.
The first obstacle was developing the right material. So how do you design a new footwear material? With a grant from the New Zealand wool industry.
Tim Brown won a $200,000 development grant, partnering with a group of agricultural scientists to create a new wool material. The patented wool fabric had the right combination of strength, comfort, and sustainable production processes. The material is sourced in New Zealand and knitted in Italy. For the soles, Tim used a combination of sustainable foam, rubber, and castor bean oil.
He now had a prototype for his lightweight, comfortable running shoes. The next step was to get them to the public.
Yet Another Successful Kickstarter Story
As with many entrepreneurs, Tim Brown decided to try raising funds for his idea on Kickstarter. However, this is likely one of the most successful business stories in Kickstarter’s history.
Tim launched his Kickstarter campaign in 2014, intending to raise $30,000. Within five days, he had raised over $120,000. One of the first people to help fund Tim’s vision was Joey Zwillinger. At the time, Joey Zwillinger was the vice president of a biotech company in San Francisco. Joey has an industrial engineering background and graduated from Wharton, where he became friends with the founders of Warby Parker.
Joey’s wife was college roommates with Tim’s wife so he was somewhat acquainted with Tim. He loved the Kickstarter idea but wanted to be more involved. Years earlier, Joey Zwillinger beat the founders of Warby Parker during a competition for pitching business ideas. The shoe idea rekindled his interest in developing entrepreneurial projects.
The Kickstarter campaign was incredibly successful. Tim had sold 1064 pairs of his original Brown’s Wool Runners.
Tim soon flew to California and spent a weekend brainstorming with Joey. The two thought about other users for the patented wool material that Tim developed with his research grant.
In the end, they decided to stick with the Wool Runner. They named their company “Allbirds”. According to Tim Brown, the name “Allbirds” is a reference to the fact that the inhabitants of New Zealand were once all birds. The connection to birds is also a reference to travel and flight as Allbirds shoes are about “movement, travel, and comfort.”
Tim and Joey spent the next two years improving the original Wool Runner prototype, officially launching Allbirds in 2016. During their first year in business, Tim and Joey raised an additional $7.25 million from a variety of investors.
Eschewing the Standard Business Model
The next step in Tim’s journey to bringing his shoes to the masses was deciding how to sell the shoes. Instead of following the standard wholesale business model, Allbirds decided to use a direct-to-consumer model.
Most footwear companies produce a wide range of shoes in various styles and colors. They then sell them in massive quantities to retailers. Bypassing the traditional distribution model allows Allbirds to interact directly with consumers, offering faster feedback for improving the product.
Instead of finding Allbirds at your nearest Foot Locker, you’ll find them online. The company has also partnered with a few brick-and-mortar retail shops, mostly for special pop-up events.
Introducing the World’s Most Comfortable Shoes
Allbirds Wool Runners went on sale on the company’s website on March 1, 2016. The same day, Time magazine released a profile on the company, which called the Wool Runners “the world’s most comfortable shoes.”
Comfort doesn’t come cheap. A pair of Wool Runners typically costs just under $100. The shoes cost a little more compared to your average unbranded sneakers. The combination of sustainable materials and attention to detail tends to drive the price up a little bit.
While most sneakers are made using the cheapest materials available, the shoes from Allbirds are made using specially formulated materials from sustainable sources. The care that goes into sourcing sustainable materials and minimizing the impact on local ecosystems increases the cost of production. The wool comes from a company called New Zealand Merino in Christchurch. Using this wool allows Allbirds to use 60% less energy compared to the materials commonly used in synthetic shoes.
After obtaining the material, Allbirds sends it to Italy. The company workers with a skilled Italian wool provider in Biella, Italy who mostly makes fine suits for major designers such as Tom Ford and Armani. The Italian wool provider runs a small innovation lab where the material used for the soles of the shoes was created. The next leg of the production process occurs in South Korea, which was once a hub for the footwear industry.
The shoes are then sold on the company’s website through its effective direct-to-consumer business model.
So are they really the world’s most comfortable shoes? If the positive sales figures are any indication, Allbirds has succeeded in developing comfortable sneakers. People seem to love them, especially after seeing their favorite celebs wearing them on Instagram.
Celebs Provide Help Making Allbirds the Latest Trend
It didn’t take long for celebrities to embrace these eco-friendly shoes. The shoes exploded in popularity, with everyone from Ed O’Neill (Modern Family) to Emily Watson (Harry Potter) sporting Allbirds Wool Runners.
The combination of overwhelmingly positive reviews from online customers and celebs helped make Allbirds an instant success.
As the company is headquartered in San Francisco, the shoes also became a hit with the tech industry. You couldn’t walk around Silicon Valley without seeing people wearing Wool Runners. Matthew McConaughey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey, and former president Barack Obama are also fans of the shoes. Thanks to free celebrity endorsements, the company was valued at $1.4 billion by 2018.
What Was the Secret to Allbirds Success?
If you ask Tim Brown or Joey Zwillinger for the secret to their success, they’ll likely tell you that it’s not a secret. The duo believes in complete transparency, which is one of the reasons why people have embraced their products.
Allbirds hides nothing. If you visit the company’s website, you can view separate pages for each of the materials used in the shoes, including recycled bottles, castor bean oil, and bio-TPU.
From the start, Allbirds has been upfront about the company’s vision. They want to make sustainable shoes. However, they still have a long way before they can achieve 100% carbon neutrality.
The standard pair of sneakers emits 12.5 kg CO2e during production. The average pair of Allbirds shoes produce 7.6 kg CO2e. The numbers are available on the company’s homepage. Consumers embrace this honesty, which helps increase trust in the brand. Consumers also love the comfort of these wool shoes.
The merino wool used for Allbirds shoes is highly breathable. This allows the shoes to mold to the shape of your feet. The material is also naturally odor-resistant as it helps minimize odor-causing bacteria from sweaty feet. The wool is also machine washable. If your eco-friendly shoes get a little dirty, simply remove the insole and laces and throw the shoes in the washing machine.
Allbirds Is Focused on Keeping it Simple
Allbirds remains committed to offering the best products available. They do this by maintaining a streamlined product line. Most other shoe manufacturers would capitalize on Allbirds’s initial success by releasing a wide range of designs and colors. Tim and Joey prefer to keep it simple.
Allbirds didn’t release its second shoe until 2017. The same year, they also released a small line of shoes for children called Smallbirds. The shoes cost less compared to adult shoes but feature the same materials and design.
In 2018, Allbirds released running shoes made with eucalyptus tree fibers. The Tree Runners were the company’s first shoes made without wool as the primary material. A boat shoe called “Tree Skipper” was also released with the same materials.
Allbirds has a limited selection of products. While this may limit the scope of its customer base, the company remains hugely successful. By only releasing a few new shoes, they can spend more time on research & development (R&D), which led to their next breakthrough.
Releasing the Formula for Their Shoes
One of the biggest deviations from the company’s famous footwear is the Allbirds flip-flops. Released in August 2018, the flip-flops feature an original material called SweetFoam.
SweetFoam is a unique material made from sugarcane sourced from southern Brazil. It’s also the world’s first carbon-negative EVA.
Instead of keeping the formula for SweetFoam a company secret, Allbirds made it public. The company shared the formula in the hopes that other companies would embrace the eco-friendly material.
What Does the Future Hold for Allbirds?
As of the time of this story, the world is dealing with a pandemic. Many businesses have had to put their plans on hold while waiting to see how things play out. True to their commitment to helping make the world a better place, Allbirds has chosen to donate over $500,000 worth of shoes to the healthcare workers on the front lines.
Along with philanthropic endeavors, Allbirds has a few plans up its sleeve. However, this is one area where Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger remain a little secretive.
In the past few years, Allbirds has developed an eye mask for Air New Zealand and introduced wool socks into its product line. The company has started to venture beyond shoes, which may be an indication of the direction of the company. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see. Luckily, we’ll be waiting with extremely comfortable shoes on our feet.
Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.
Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.