This is a piece authored by our Kellogg colleague Paul Earle for Forbes. Allbirds was started in Carter’s New Venture Discovery class at Kellogg. Both Carter and I thought the idea was a little nutty when Tim Brown first pitched it in class (He wanted to solve the problem of smelly athletic shoes). Just goes to show you that with passion, drive and solid execution, wild ideas can turn into amazing businesses! Enjoy!
Tim Brown had a crazy idea.
The former professional soccer star was troubled by what he felt was a lack of sustainable practices in footwear materials and manufacturing, not to mention the over-the-top nature of the branding landscape itself. And he wanted to change all that.
But footwear is a notoriously difficult space. And his product concept—a hybrid runner made almost entirely out of wool—was so novel that it lacked any useful frame of reference. So when Brown pitched the idea as an exchange student in the New Venture Discovery class at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, clinical professor and venture capitalist Carter Cast had… well… a few concerns.
Ultimately, as recounted to me by Brown and Cast themselves recently, Cast believed in Brown as a principled business leader, and encouraged him to follow his passion. Which Brown did, forgoing other opportunities (such as competing on the Olympic soccer team for his native New Zealand).
This embryonic idea became Allbirds, which struck a nerve in popular culture almost instantly after its launch in 2014, and today is one of the hottest lifestyle brands in the United States. It was named by Time as the “world’s most comfortable shoe.” But were it not for a leap of faith, Allbirds might not have even survived as an academic project.
Faith. It is belief without proof, and irrational by definition. And even in this age of “big data” increasingly telling us what to do, faith is required for progress.
Faith is provocative as a business principle because the term is so closely associated with a different domain: religion.
Theologian John Buchanan, summoning Kirkegaard and others, argues that all your reason, all your logic, can only take you so far. At some point, to achieve anything meaningful, you have to walk through a door without knowing what is on the other side. This is the origin of the concept known as the “leap of faith.”
If you’re wearing Allbirds as you read this, it is thanks to the fact that a very small group of people actually took that leap, initially.
Faith in any context must have at least some grounding, of course. In the case of Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger, their faith in their idea emanated from a belief that if they made “better things, in a better way,” success would follow (note that this has nothing to do with shoes themselves; it is a higher-order ideal). Like most great new consumer brands today, as I’ve chronicled in this space and elsewhere, Allbirds is intensely purpose-driven.
I visited Brown and the Allbirds team at their headquarters in San Francisco last month. Here are other observations about what is making them so successful.
- Radical consumer focus. The company operates a retail store on the ground level of its main office, and all employees, from Brown and Zwillinger to junior staffers, regularly cycle through there as clerks and salespeople. Brown said that this direct daily immersion helps them deeply understand their fans, and allows them constantly experiment with new ideas. What might be some ways established companies can follow suit?
- Team first. The human energy at Allbirds is palpable, and it’s driven by a true egalitarian sense of mission and team. It starts at the top; Brown—a former leader in a team sport—gets it. Everyone, for example, takes turns as the receptionist in the lobby. When I arrived, randomly on the desk was Allbirds’ VP/Marketing Julie Channing, one of their top executives. (She seemed a bit distracted by something big going on in her “other” job at the company, but she nevertheless carried out her receptionist duties admirably.)
[Note: The night before publishing this, I serendipitously had dinner with a Kiwi who told me that in New Zealand, the custom of “mateship” is particularly strong. It is “friendship” times ten, and apt here.]
- Less is more. In nearly every vertical, simple has never been more compelling and relevant than it is today. In Allbirds’ case, they do simple well (which is difficult to do, as Steve Jobs famously said). The product design is minimalist, all the way to the logo appearing as a discrete small tag on the back of the shoe, not the side. Simple also applies to the sourcing guidelines for their materials, and nearly every other element of the Allbirds brand and operations.
- Have some fun. I’ve always believed that the brands (and teams behind them) that are having fun will perform the best: it is attractive. There is a twinkle in the eye throughout the entirety of the Allbirds experience, from the animated sheep embedded in the confirmation email following an order, to the name itself (a reference to the fact that Brown’s New Zealand homeland is inhabited by an abundance of birds; “all” may be a bit over-the-top, but you get the idea).
As I connected with Cast and Brown, I uncovered a startling postscript to their Kellogg experience together. Cast eventually became sufficiently enthusiastic about the Allbirds opportunity that he personally invested in it. His investment thesis: “I believed in Tim Brown.”
Wait a minute, I pressed. What was initially an idea that elicited a healthy dose of skepticism ended up with you reaching for your checkbook? Cast’s second response was the same as his first: “I believed in Tim Brown.” He took The Leap, capital T and L intended. And so did Brown.
(Oh, and for the class: Brown got an “A.”)