When professional footballer Tim Brown teamed up with engineer Joey Zwillinger to create a sneaker made of wool, they never imagined it would become a Silicon Valley staple.
“We certainly never planned for it,” says Tim. “It’s hard to say what makes the sneakers so appealing to startup founders. I think it is, in part, a stylistic thing and the shoes’ versatility plays well to the simple Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and a sweatshirt. Perhaps, the fact we are trying to come into a very big, very old-fashioned category like footwear and do things a little differently also resonates. Either way, we’re very grateful.”
Even if you haven’t heard of Allbirds sneakers, if you follow the cool kids of Silicon Valley on social media, you might have spotted the grey sneakers, made of super-fine merino wool, which has won over the Bay Area. Startups CEOs can’t stop Tweeting about it, and Time Magazine called them the world’s most comfortable shoes.
They’ve also won the hearts of venture capitalists including Brett Jackson, who previously worked at Crocs, and is now an investor in Allbirds.
It’s not bad for a concept inspired by the abundance of sheep in New Zealand, where Tim was born and played for The All Whites Football team before retiring to go to business school. After graduation, he began designing the first prototype for a sneaker that would utilise the abundance of merino wool in his home land, alongside Joey Zwillinger, who previously worked in biotech exploring the makeup of sustainable materials.
“We made hundreds of prototypes to get everything just right,” says Tim, recalling the development stage of the product. “To be honest, the real magic is found with the 17.5 micron superfine NZ merino wool. This fibre is just incredible. Top fashion brands like Tom Ford use it in their fine suits. Our job as designers was really just to get out of the way, and we did that by reducing everything down to, what we like to call, the right amount of nothing with as few seams and components as possible.”
The shoes are not only machine-washable, but also odour-resistant and come with a 30-day money back guarantee if you’re not “obsessed” with them (which most people seem to be).
When Tim launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first prototype, they made over US$100,000 in pre-sales in the first week. Since then, they have raised over US$10 million in venture capital-backed funding.
It isn’t just the look of the shoe that piqued interest, but also their packaging, which uses 40 per cent less material than regular shoe boxes. There are YouTube videos of people excitedly opening their boxes, which are split into two compartments, so no extra cushioning or tissue paper is needed.
“At the core of the Allbirds brand is this sense of curiosity,” says Tim, who as an athlete was sponsored by Nike. “We questioned why e-commerce footwear packaging always seems to consist of a box to carry the shoes put inside another box or bag for shipping. Our simple insight was you could design one box for both, if you did it thoughtfully.”
An investigation by Yahoo Finance criticised the durability of the sneakers. However, the duo undertake constant market research and customer surveys to problem solve. “I think both Joey and I share a sort of healthy paranoia about all aspects of our business,” says Tim. “We are constantly tweaking and testing ways to do things better.”
Whilst some sneaker brands dream of athletes or sport stars wearing their shoes, he is grateful that Silicon Valley’s top talent decided to adopt them. “It has been great for us,” he says, “Although, I would hate to get pigeon-holed. I like to think the Allbirds brand can go anywhere and we have big plans for products in the future that I believe can attract all sorts of folks in all sorts of fields.”