Seven years ago, Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was living a very different life. A professional soccer player in New Zealand, Brown was on the brink of retirement from the game with only an inkling of what might come next. But that inkling became a product that is the backbone of a reportedly $1.4 billion business.
While playing soccer, Brown found himself yearning for a sneaker that was simpler than the ones he wore on the field—one that was as straightforward in its design as it was to manufacture. As it turned out, it didn’t exist. Could Brown create one?
“I literally went on Google, found a shoe factory, and visited it in the middle of one of my off-seasons, just because I was curious,” Brown told Benjamin Landy, senior editor at Vanity Fair’s The Hive, during a recent talk at Made by We in New York. “This whole thing really started as a curiosity project—to solve a problem that was only my own.”
Enter Allbirds, which in just three short years has spearheaded the direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail disruption. For Brown and his co-founder, biotechnology engineer Joey Zwillinger, less has always been more. The sneaker startup launched with just one product (its now-signature Wool Runners) largely composed of one material (wool) sourced from Brown’s native New Zealand. It didn’t release a second shoe until a year later, and a third and fourth a year after that. Today, Allbirds has grown to more than 200 employees, moving into a 13,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood last fall.
Brown says none of this would be possible if Allbirds hadn’t committed to simplicity from the beginning. But no matter what stage a business is in, entrepreneurs can incorporate that mind-set into their own operations. Here’s how.
Seek answers to simple questions. Brown stumbled into the world of footwear when he wondered why the simplest things were the way they were—and wasn’t satisfied by the responses he received.
“I started asking really, really simple questions, and no one could give me a good answer, like, ‘What’s a size 9?’ ‘Well, it depends. It’s different for Adidas and it’s different for Nike,’” he remembers. “I was going down this rabbit hole of understanding the industry through fresh eyes.”
Brown claims that his and Zwillinger’s inexperience became a competitive advantage as they worked to clarify some of the more convoluted aspects of traditional footwear, like, yes, sizing.
Don’t overcomplicate gut decisions. Before teaming up with Zwillinger, Brown enrolled in a 10-week entrepreneurship course at Northwestern University, where he began to hone his idea for a wool sneaker. His professor wasn’t convinced by the concept but, witnessing Brown’s drive, encouraged him to pursue it.
“‘For whatever reason, of all the other 50 young people in this class, you seem to be driven to try to solve this particular problem, so you should throw it out into the world,’” Brown recalls him saying.
That gut-check led Brown to move past his initial doubts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Zwillinger that the pair decided to build Allbirds full-time. They made the decision to launch the company over the course of just one weekend spent together in San Francisco.
“It was one of those quick decisions—usually the best ones are,” says Brown. “We made that decision without raising any money, but we decided that the vision was big and we wanted it to have a maximum impact.”
Live or die by doing one or two things exceptionally well. In retail, the direct-to-consumer experience is all about specialization. Allbirds brand launched with just one shoe and sold that same one shoe for the first 14 months. To even get to that point, though, Brown recalls the product going through “more than 200” tweaks and variations.
“That insane focus is probably something more akin to a specialist butcher, or a florist, or a cheesemonger,” he says. “We were coming in to solve a particular problem and we were going to curate our experience in a very, very specific way. We were going to live and die by that solution.”
Do more by delegating. When Allbirds raised its first round of funding in 2015 and the company began to scale, Brown and Zwillinger were still touching every nook and cranny of the business, from answering phones to packing shipments. That couldn’t last.
“The idea is that you hire really smart people who know what they’re doing better than you, and you’ve got to somehow find a way to do more by letting go,” says Brown. “I think anyone who’s been through that process probably finds it a little bit hard. “
Make business decisions simply because they’re the right thing to do. Allbirds’ shoes are sustainably crafted throughout every step of the process, from the Merino wool that’s sheared in New Zealand to the final pair of shoes that hit the shop floor. But Brown argues that’s hardly the most interesting thing about the company.
“Don’t make a sustainable product. Make a great product and make it as sustainable as possible, and look for the competitive advantages where you can do that,” says Brown. With the reality of climate change, Brown believes businesses must be part of the solution by finding better ways to make the things we use. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a way to make a T-shirt more sustainably.”
Get comfortable with the word “no.” Brown attributes the brand’s success to saying no to “97 percent of things”—97 percent of opportunities and partnerships and meetings and coffees—so as not to stray from the path he and Zwillinger forged back in 2015.
On the micro level, that includes setting up boundaries between their work and the rest of their lives. Particularly because both co-founders are new fathers, this has been of utmost importance as Allbirds has scaled. “There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list, says Brown. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it. Try to keep something that’s very, very complicated very, very simple.”
Photos by Liz Devine/The We Company