Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they are doing now is not what they originally planned to do. Making major professional changes, even in the middle or late career, can often lead to more fulfilling and fruitful results. That’s what our series The Pivot is about. Each month, we chat with founders, CEOs, and entrepreneurs to learn how and why they changed course and succeeded in an entirely different industry. Here we talk to Tim Brown, the co-founder and CEO of wool shoe brand Allbirds.
Growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown had two distinct ambitions: to become a professional footballer and a designer. In his youth, he played in various football teams like the Miramar Rangers, but at the same time he grew up attending film festivals and theater productions with his mother and started dreaming of a profession where he could be creative.
Brown’s coaches would always make him realize how unlikely he was to have a successful career in professional sports, but his incredible drive – and desire to prove people wrong – earned him a scholarship. football at the University of Cincinnati at the age of 17. Academically, he studied design. “I knew in some form that this was what I would do for the rest of my life,” he says.
But Brown’s sporting career began to gain momentum after graduation when he joined Australian professional football club Newcastle Jets in 2006. There he met coach Ricki Herbert , who had played in the New Zealand team that made it to the World Cup. in 1982. Herbert proposed that with years of hard work and training, Brown could be part of a team that qualified New Zealand for the World Cup in 2010.
Brown returned to New Zealand and began to pursue his new dream with fervor and dedication. “That feeling of being part of a group chasing something was really powerful,” he says. Years of hard work paid off: Brown was vice-captain of the New Zealand team that played in the 2010 World Cup.
After achieving his goal, he decided to quit football and pivot. In 2012, Brown retired from sport and enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he planned to learn the business skills necessary to launch the wacky idea he had been working on off the pitch for years: a wool performance sneaker.
The idea began in 2007, after Brown read a magazine article about the steep decline of New Zealand’s wool industry. In 1983, its “sheep peak” years, the country was home to 70 million sheep, but has since dropped to 39 million due to factors such as the decline of the global wool industry and stiff foreign competition. He started dreaming of a way to revive the industry again. As an athlete, Brown was used to being sent heavily branded synthetic sneakers by sports brands, and began to imagine the opposite: a minimalist running shoe whose most distinctive feature was its simplicity. He wanted the shoe to be made from natural, biodegradable wool. He applied for – and won – an innovation grant from the New Zealand government to develop a woolen fabric for use in shoemaking.
By the time he found himself on an exchange at Northwestern University in former Walmart.com CEO Carter Cast’s entrepreneurship class, he had already walked through several prototype wool sneakers. After Brown presented his vision, Cast pulled him aside and told him that while he didn’t think the business idea was very good, he seemed to have more determination about his project than he did. most students. “He said, ‘Why don’t you kickstart it so you can fail and keep going?'” Brown recalled.
Following Cast’s advice, Brown filmed a video of himself talking about the sneakers amidst a flock of sheep and the green hills of New Zealand, and uploaded it to Kickstarter in 2014. Brown managed to sell 1,000 pairs of sneakers in four days. He found a shoe manufacturer in Portugal on the internet that produced the shoe. “I ended up with $20,000 in sales before I had to close,” he says. There was only enough fabric to make all 1,000 pairs.
While the initial concept of a comfortable merino wool sneaker resonated, Brown describes the early years as a chore. “Making shoes is hard, but making shoes when you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have capital is even harder,” he says. He had spent all of his savings on the idea, and even though he had an investment offer, he wasn’t sure there was a way forward for his business.
Around the time he planned to throw in the towel, a guiding light came in the form of an early Kickstarter customer, San Francisco-based biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger. (Brown and Zwillinger’s wives were friends.) Sustainability-minded Zwillinger saw potential in Brown’s idea, and soon after discussing investment opportunities, Brown was on a plane to visit Zwillinger. and the couple spent several days imagining what the business could be. “I had a very clear vision for the product, and he had an equally clear vision for a world that was going to have to fundamentally rethink the products they used every day,” Brown says.
Together they predicted that the global apparel and footwear industry – the latter expected to reach US$440 billion by 2026 – would become more sustainable, so they decided to bet on Brown’s idea. . Soon after, Brown and his wife moved to San Francisco, and Zwillinger and Brown got to work. The duo raised $2.7 million in seed funding and launched Allbirds in 2016 with a single product: the wool rug, available in several different colors.
The company was certified B Corp from the start, which means that its mission was to “strike a balance between profit and purpose”. The shoes quickly developed a cult following among the start-up crowd. The the wall street journal proclaimed them “Silicon Valley’s favorite sneaker,” a status symbol for the type of person prone to, “[beg] for an invitation to the Clubhouse and [worship] Elon Musk.”
At the same time as Google founder Larry Page was cradling a pair of Allbirds, Brown was learning how to build a team, define corporate culture and plan a retail strategy. “It was a whirlwind,” Brown says. “We sold a million dollars in our first month and a million pairs in our first year and a half. We really tapped into some kind of desire.
Allbirds launched its first retail store in San Francisco in April 2017 and in less than six years they have expanded to over 50 retail stores around the world, including a new store in Toronto’s Yorkdale mall, with a workforce of 1,000 employees. The company has also come a long way from the one-product days, now offering a slew of simple sneaker styles derived from natural materials like eucalyptus fiber and sugar cane as well as apparel. This year, the brand launched the world’s lowest carbon sneaker in collaboration with Adidas.
In November 2021, the company went public on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol BIRD and was valued at US$4.1 billion. The stock has since fallen, but Brown isn’t concerned. “That’s the funny thing about success, you get a little bit of it and then things get harder,” he says. Despite the challenges, Allbirds is here for the long haul. The company just launched its new Tree Flyer and Sugar series and continues to invest in materials that make the shoe production process more sustainable. Brown believes that with hard work, Allbirds has the ability to become a century-old brand and build a legacy for generations to come. “I have never felt so clear about the way forward.”