An interview with Tim Brown, founder of a $1.7 billion sustainability focuses footwear brand
I love talking to entrepreneurs. My family know that, friends at LSE know that and my colleagues at the VC fund I work at also know that. But Tim Brown is now my favourite entrepreneur. Funnily enough, the Zoom interview started of a little differently…my co-host and I were slightly panicky as Tim’s name wasn’t popping up on our zoom and we had over 40 eager LSE students in our virtual waiting room…all wanting to hear from Tim (who’s an LSE Alum himself)…we decided to let the students in and start the event without Tim (praying he’s show up soon)..a few seconds in…Tim’s face pops up! Under the Zoom name of his daughter…to which he explained ‘sorry about the wrong name in the display…I don’t really know how to work this zoom thing’….not what you’d expect from an entrepreneur! Although Tim isn’t your average tech entrepreneur…the problem he’s trying to solve through Allbirds is as critical and impactful as the issues tech entrepreneurs are tackling. Tim’s challenge= sustainability.
Tim is an LSE Alum, having studied his MSc International Management here. Prior to that he studied Design at The University of Cincinnati. He also holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. Tim is also an ex-professional football player- and played for a number of teams in Australia and New Zealand where he combined his interest in design and football to notice that the footwear market was heavily unsustainable and full of logos and clutter….and from there…the idea of Allbirds was born; a sustainable sneaker made with natural materials like merino wool and eucalyptus fiber. According to Time Magazine, Allbirds make the ‘world’s most comfortable shoes’- so comfortable that even Obama wears them.
5 key lessons from this interview
- Don’t always say yes to collaborations and opportunities to work with external brands.
‘One of the secrets to our success is that we actually say no to 99% of the opportunities (to partner with brands) that cross our desks. We’ve been focussed on doing a couple of things really really well.
2. ‘When Allbirds replaced petroleum with sugarcane in its EVA shoe soles, it created the first-ever carbon-neutral alternative to EVA foam, and made the process open-source in hopes of getting other companies to follow suit. Most businesses like to hold onto their secret sauce- why did you end up making yours open source?
‘The whole ethos behind the brand is to change the industry for the better, and I think that the more people who join us on this journey, the more successful we will be in realising this achievement. I think the ‘copycat’ brands (and there’s many of them) just reinforce the fact that we’re going something right. So every brand that follows in our footsteps…will help us to transform the industry slowly but surely into a more sustainable, eco-friendly and conscious one’.
3. Partnerships. ‘In May 2020, Allbirds announced a partnership with Adidas to create a low carbon footprint performance shoe. Some of your customers would question the partnership with Adidas- Why did you decide to go ahead with this?
‘I said to the guys at Adidas that this is our vision and I think it’s something that you should do with us- we’re going to do it with or without you but I think that this is a case where the whole will be greater than a sum of both parts, and that’s how the Adidas partnership formed.
4. The business model. ‘Allbirds decided to be a direct to consumer business, and we see that more and more as internet shopping has become much more mainstream than it was 5/10 years ago. What have been some of the benefits of the D2C model for forming relationships with the consumer’
‘ The D2C story has been a key point with Allbirds. It’s given us the ability to spend money where it truly matters, and as a result we’ve been able to invest heavily in R&D and in the sustainable materials which make up the product. The biggest benefit of the D2C business model has been the feedback loop. We launched with 1 shoe, which is traditionally not how you launch a footwear brand and we were then able to grow the business with feed back, on the fly — all the time and our customers service team is sat right next to our design team from the beginning. Because of the feedback loop, we’ve made 27 different changes to the initial product that we first launched based on the feedback we’ve gotten and this is different to the traditional footwear industry which uses wholesale and the feedback and change speed is so much slower. So we’ve been able to move faster because of that feedback. And that feedback has also let to insights of different products that we should make.
5. Although Tim sits at the top of the ‘food chain’ at Allbirds, he’s slightly different to most CEOs. He knows every minute detail about everything. Even the names of store managers at all of the Allbirds stores in London. During the interview, Tim stressed that whilst coming up with the idea behind the Allbirds London stores, he wanted to make it a personal experience, from the shape of the chairs in the store to the kinds of people he hires to be sales reps. Everything matters, small or big.
‘ Everyone knows what it’s like to buy trainers from a large retail store. It’s not personal, its faceless, bad service and quite stressful to say the least. I didn’t want that to be the case at Allbirds, so we thought long and hard about how we can be a customer friendly store. We evaluated everything from the seating to the guy or girl who helps you out. In large sports stores, they usually have a few benches laid around the shoe area, or a row of square stool like seats. We didn’t like that, because usually what happens is that everyone sits down, especially if you’ve gone shopping with your family or friends, they all fall down onto the same seats, so the experience of buying shoes isn’t personal anymore, so at Allbirds we have chairs which only let one person from the party sit down. We also have store managers who want to know you and give the best quality of service.
Final words of advice from Tim…too all the budding LSE entrepreneurs…
‘ Just don’t do it….trust me…It’ll take your life away’ (we weren’t expecting this response but we applaud you for the brutal honesty Tim).
A final quote from Joey Zwillinger (co-founder of Allbirds)
‘‘ we really value people who are really smart and very humble and what comes out of that humility is this idea of a great and deep curiosity and not just a superficial ‘as a question to make small talk…it’s like ok..go deep with the questions and keep going’ I think thats a key thing for us’’.
Huge thank you to Tim Brown for this insightful interview- one of my favourite so far! And thank you for reading.