Coming from New Zealand, the land of 27m sheep, the idea of wool in footwear seemed like one of those things that should have been done and never had been,” says Tim Brown. He first pitched an idea for wool sports shoes in 2013, when he was a business masters student at the London School of Economics.
Mr Brown, now 37, spent a term on the MBA programme at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, as an elective to LSE students. The professor overseeing that entrepreneurship class, former Walmart.com chief executive Carter Cast, did not pick the pitch for ultra-comfortable, sustainably produced shoes as one of the ideas that the students would try to develop.
“Carter called me aside and he said, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’,” Mr Brown recalls. “‘But for whatever reason, of everyone in this class you seem most committed to try and make this work.’”
Mr Cast suggested selling prototypes so, after returning to London, Mr Brown offered 1,000 pairs of shoes on the Kickstarter website. Within four days he had sold them and raised $120,000, which he used to fund product development.
“I remember sitting in a restaurant in London with my phone buzzing constantly as this thing caught fire,” he says.
This was the start of Mr Brown’s second career, as co-founder and co-chief executive of Allbirds, now a hugely popular footwear brand. His idea of making comfortable merino wool shoes that are more environmentally friendly than conventional leather footwear has found fans among the tech elite of San Francisco, where Allbirds is based. There are also stores in New York and London — the latter opened last month.
Before starting his business education, Mr Brown had been a professional footballer for clubs all over the world, spending eight years playing for the New Zealand national team. He was picked as vice-captain for the side in the 2010 World Cup, then broke his shoulder, preventing him from playing in the tournament.
After that disappointment, Mr Brown quit football and signed up for the masters in international management. He chose LSE because the campus was close to Fleet Street, historically the home of British journalism, where both his father and grandfather had worked for publishing houses. A business education, he hoped, would complement his undergraduate degree in design.
“I’d always wanted to come back to grad school and study all the subjects I’d avoided through my previous academic career,” he says. Mr Brown admits that LSE “took a chance” on him, asking him to take extra classes to improve his calculus skills before beginning the course.
“It didn’t jump off the page that I was going to be a star student at school,” Mr Brown admits, adding that returning to full-time study proved to be “an incredibly intense” experience.
That business education seems to have paid off. Allbirds’ sales passed 1m units on the company’s second anniversary last year, helped by a strong online following. Last month it secured $50m to help fund a second hub in London, adding to 140 staff in the US. The company has not revealed revenue figures, but Mr Brown says it has been profitable since 2016. It is backed by several US venture capital firms, including Tiger Global and Maveron.
A year after that Kickstarter, Mr Brown enlisted a friend of a friend as a co-founder, Joey Zwillinger, a Wharton MBA and engineering graduate from Berkeley, who had been researching sustainable clothing materials at biotech firm Solazyme. “We spent a couple of days wandering the hills of San Francisco, asking ourselves some pretty deep questions about whether we wanted to work together, whether we had complementary skills,” Mr Brown says.
The pair decided to go ahead and he relocated to the US west coast, working with Mr Zwillinger out of his mother’s house in the Bay Area.
Six months later, in August 2015, Allbirds was founded with four staff, selling shoes manufactured in South Korea using New Zealand wool spun at an Italian textile mill.
Most of the sales then, as now, were online, enabling the company to develop a global brand. In March, it introduced a second line: shoes made with eucalyptus fibre, which is breathable and lighter than wool. The founders share the chief executive title, with Mr Brown overseeing product design and the brand while Mr Zwillinger runs operations, technology and finance.
“We found a complementary set of skills,” Mr Brown says.
Speaking in the minimalist interior of the Allbirds store in Covent Garden, Mr Brown seems amazed at what the company has achieved in three years of trading.
“For a long time I struggled with why I was doing this,” he says, admitting that he wondered whether this would give him the level of personal satisfaction he enjoyed playing for his country’s football team.
In the beginning, his father, would tease him by calling him the “wool cobbler” as he struggled to find the right design for his footwear.
Now, though, the opportunity is clear. “There are 20bn pairs of shoes being made each year on average globally,” Mr Brown says.
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