There’s a new sustainable shoe brand that’s shaking up the market and everyone is talking about it. Don’t believe me? Just a couple of weeks ago I was waiting in line for the bathroom at Russ & Daughters Cafe on the Lower East Side in New York City when a woman complimented me on my shoes. “Do you like them?” She asked, “Are they comfortable?” We chatted about my sneaker selection for a moment before she interrupted and asked me if I’d tried “those Allbirds shoes yet”. The answer was yes, I had, in fact I have two pairs and love them. Ever since Allbirds launched in Canada earlier this year, I’ve been hooked. Not only are these sneakers comfortable af, they’re sustainable and feel like cashmere slippers on your feet.
I could tell you more about these shoes and the sustainability of their products, but I went straight to the source and asked the co-founder of Allbirds, Tim Brown, to share everything about his booming business in our latest #FounderFiles feature. Keep reading to learn more, and if you’re in Toronto, be sure to stop by their first international pop-up shop at 700 Queen Street West from May 24th to August 31st, 2018.
Business Name: Allbirds
Name & Title: Tim Brown, Co-Founder
Location: San Francisco, CA
Education: BS in Design from University of Cincinnati and a Master’s in Management from the London School of Economics
Edit Seven: Tell us about your brand, what do you do?
Tim Brown: Allbirds is a footwear company that uses premium natural materials as alternatives to the synthetics used in most shoes. We aim to create better shoes in a better way and do so without compromising comfort or design.
E7: How did you start your business? What inspired you to start?
TB: Throughout my career playing professional soccer, every uniform was becoming the same–shirts and shoes were built on flashy colors and slapped with logos. I wanted to get away from the heavy branding I had been wearing all those years and create my own, very simple shoe, leaning toward a minimalistic aesthetic–-just the right amount of nothing.
E7: Why do you love what you do?
TB: I love having a positive impact on the [fashion] industry, which is typically known for being incredibly harmful to the environment.
E7: What makes your business special?
TB: What makes Allbirds stand out amongst other brands is the fact that yes, we produce our shoes in a sustainable way, but it’s not the first thing that people are drawn to–its the comfort and design. Sustainability is a growing trend and topic for consumers and many brands will sacrifice comfort and design if that means being sustainable. It’s great if you can manufacture a shoe in a sustainable way, but it doesn’t matter if no one’s going to buy it.
As a certified B-Corporation, we are constantly looking for new ways to be innovative and continue to improve our sustainability. We regularly audit our product and processes to understand our environmental footprint, which is something that most companies aren’t focused on when driven by trends.
E7: What makes your product special?
TB: We offer two different materials and three styles of shoe. Our original line, Wool, is made from ZQ-certified merino wool, a moisture-wicking, temperature regulating material that has a broad appeal. Our newest collection, Tree, uses FSC-certified eucalyptus fibres to create a cooling, screen door effect that delivers a breathable experience.
E7: What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running your business?
TB: That taking feedback on board is critical to improvement both for yourself, your product and ultimately your business. Learning to listen and learn is a hard skill to master. Equally important, and less well discussed, is the ability to ignore a lot of the conventional wisdom that has the habit of killing really good ideas. It is a fine balance.
E7: What have been some of the pros and cons of building your business in San Francisco with a material that comes all the way from New Zealand?
TB: Though our wool is from New Zealand and Allbirds is based in San Francisco, we are truly an international brand. Our wool is crafted just outside of Milan, our eucalyptus pulp is sustainably harvested in South Africa. We’ve sold in over 16,000 cities in the US, with New York being our largest market, and are eager to broaden Allbirds’ reach.
E7: What have been some of the benefits of being a fashion start-up in San Francisco?
TB: In San Francisco, sustainability is a top priority. Every day people are walking, biking, even skateboarding to work, so it was clear that introducing a shoe that was comfortable, sustainable and was incredibly versatile would spark a lot of interest. Many people living in San Francisco are also part of their own start-up companies. Many of these are in the tech industry, which meant there was no direct competition, yet these were people who understood the struggle of start-ups and were both open-minded and intrigued by new never-been-done products such as Allbirds.
E7: What is your #1 piece of advice to keep in mind when starting your own business?
TB: Start. Make. Trust your instincts. Most people talk about doing things and never do them. It is always harder to do something well than you think, and great design, certainly in the context of product, is a contact sport. Picking a meaningful problem is usually a great way to find the energy to drive through the inevitable hurdles and setbacks you will face.
E7: Is there anything you wish you’d known before starting your business?
TB: A lot more about making shoes. It turns out it is a very, very hard thing to do well.
E7: What is a challenge you’d tell future entrepreneurs in the footwear, sustainability and design business to prepare for?
TB: A revolution in the way shoes are made is coming to an industry and process that hasn’t really changed in a hundred years. Equally in terms of sustainability, every business should have this top of mind. Many older established businesses don’t and that is an entrepreneurial opportunity for new brands and products to be built with sustainability as a non-negotiable from day one.
E7: How do you stay organized, balanced and motivated?
TB: HA, it is an ongoing challenge. It is really important to take your work seriously but not yourself and laugh openly and often. I try and keep things simple and just focus on improving a little more every day. With the miracle of compounding that mindset can lead to good things over time.
E7: Who are some of your mentors/role models?
TB: Gosh, so many. My co-founder Joey is a regular inspiration although I’d never tell him that. My wife of course. My family have backed me for a long time on the long journey to create Allbirds. Beyond that I am constantly reading, talking and soaking up ideas from many different sources.
E7: Do you have a daily or regular ritual you practice that you love?
TB: At Allbirds, we have daily ‘40 at 4’ sessions – which involve everyone coming together to do forty push-ups, in whatever way works, at 4pm. It started as a bit of a joke, but has become a nice ritual that breaks things up and gets people together at a slow part of the day
E7: Where do you go or what do you do to look for inspiration?
TB: Our goal is to make better things in a better way and to us this means making products that respect and reflect nature. We are inspired by what exists in the world around us, rather than trends or fads. Whether it’s the materials we use to make our shoes, or the packaging they are sent in, we always look to follow Mother Nature’s lead.
E7: As a U.S. company that recently launched in Canada, why do you feel the Canadian consumer will love Allbirds shoes?
TB: With Canada so close to our home in San Francisco, it felt natural to bring Allbirds to our neighbours of the north. We know that our commitment to protecting the environment resonates with Canadians and our products work well with Canadian seasons–Wool for when its cold out and Tree for those hot summer months.
E7: Who is the Allbirds customer and where can your designs be purchased in Canada and the U.S.?
TB: Allbirds are for everyone, we created them to be an everyday shoe for various lifestyles. A lot of our customers do tend to live active lifestyles though. They care about health and wellness and are a bit adventurous blurring the lines between work and play. Mens, Womens and Smallbirds will be available via Allbirds.ca.
(Story by Editor-in-Chief, Gracie Carroll)