San Francisco-based ethical footwear brand Allbirds has just opened its first international store on Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden and has just closed a $50m Series C funding round. Its founder Tim Brown talks to The Industry about his move from professional footballer to footwear designer and why London is close to his heart.
Welcome to London! Can you tell why you decided to set up your first international store here?
Coming back to London is really special to me. I did my masters at LSE, and it was while living in London that I got serious about my idea to make shoes out of wool, which ultimately turned into Allbirds. Back in 2015, I was a graduate student in a small apartment not far from Covent Garden where our new store is now located, working on a concept for a more comfortable, sustainable shoe. I never would have imagined that a little over three years and more than a million pairs of shoes sold later, I’d be back here opening our third permanent store. To bring Allbirds to London is such a highlight for me, and it’s been so exciting to see the response from British customers.
What was it about the area of Covent Garden that attracted you in particular?
Covent Garden is such an iconic area of London, and so many amazing direct-to-consumer companies are taking root here. It’s become a great place for emerging brands to introduce themselves to the UK market, so it felt like the natural choice. The area also gets a high amount of traffic from visitors coming from outside of London, which provides us with a wonderful opportunity to grow our brand awareness with a larger group of consumers.
Obviously, it’s early days but what has been the reaction to the store?
So far the reaction has been amazing. There are a lot of fans of the brand who have been waiting for us to come to the UK, and they’ve been so excited to get to see and feel our products for themselves. We’re thrilled to finally be here, and to have such an incredible space and team in London to bring our story to life.
Why do you think bricks and mortar are still so important in today’s digital-first world?
Since our products are designed for optimal comfort, it’s important to give customers a space to interact with our shoes and materials in person. Once someone gets a pair of our shoes on their feet, they feel the difference in comfort and design immediately. After seeing the response to that first try-on moment, we realized that brick-and-mortar had to be an important part of our retail strategy. It’s also a great opportunity to share more of our founding story and sustainable material innovation. We hope people can get along to say hi.
Your product is specialist and differentiated, can you tell us a bit about how the product came about?
As a professional footballer, I was sponsored by large sportswear brands who would send me a lot of free gear. I soon came to realise that the trainers I was receiving were over-designed with lots of colour, logos and unnecessary details. It was this that spurred me on to think about how I could create something that was more simple and focused on comfort. Being from New Zealand, where sheep are in abundance, I started to design trainers made from wool on the side, really as a curiosity project at first. From there, the idea grew and so did my dedication to it. I ended up teaming up with Joey Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert who became my co-founder, who was crucial in making the product what it is today.
Your background is in sports but we understand you had designed shoes in the past for your friends?
Yes, the first prototypes were sold to my teammates. At the beginning, most of them laughed when I offered them a pair, which is fair enough. Those early prototypes needed a lot of improvement!
What drew you to doing that?
I was looking for honest feedback, and right from the start I knew I didn’t want to create a product that was sub-par. I was diving into an industry that was completely new to me, so I relied on the help and feedback of my friends in the early days.
A woolen shoe isn’t the most obvious route to take but it has clearly been a real, why do you think it has been so popular?
After a lot of research and work on the initial prototypes, I soon realised that the manufacturing and production of shoes hadn’t really changed for the best part of a century – it was was a labour intensive process with a pervasive low-cost mentality. I saw that there was a real opportunity to bring natural, sustainable materials into footwear, and believed that people would buy a product that was focused on simplified comfort.
While we’re fiercely dedicated to our sustainable mission, we also realized that consumers aren’t going to buy green products unless they have the same – or, hopefully in our case, better – design and functionality than what they’re used to. That’s why we focus on making great looking and supremely comfortable products first and foremost, then we work out how to make them as sustainably as possible.
Could you tell us a bit about the unique qualities of the wool you use and why producing a sustainable product was so important to you?
Wool is such a versatile material, but it hadn’t been used in footwear in this way before. It is moisture and temperature regulating whilst also being extremely soft, all of which contribute to a very comfortable experience.
Joey and I truly believe that climate change is the problem of our generation. Outside of the fossil-fuel industry, fashion is the largest contributor to carbon emissions globally. The fashion and footwear space is contributing to this massive crisis, which the recent UN report stated was only 12 years away from becoming irreversible. It’s our mission to contribute towards a positive change by developing greener alternatives to the polluting synthetic materials traditionally used in footwear, and to ultimately encourage the wider industry to commit to more sustainable solutions.
One example of how we’re doing this is SweetFoam™. SweetFoam™ is a shoe sole material we developed that’s made from the world’s first EVA foam derived from sugarcane. In its raw form, the material is carbon-negative, so we decided to open-source the technology so the larger footwear industry could follow our lead.
You’ve not only been popular with customers but with investors too. Congratulations on the latest round of funding, what will that enable you to do?
While we are very proud of how far we’ve come and what we have achieved to date, there is so much more left to do. This injection of capital will help us to bring our sustainable products to more people around the globe. We’ll be continuing to invest in international expansion and brick-and-mortar retail, as well as research and development into new sustainable materials.
Are there any more plans for further stores here or in other international markets?
We’re planning on expanding our footprint around the globe in coming years. We will be opening more stores across the U.S. in 2019, including in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C, and are looking into other markets as well for future retail investment.
You have a very focused product line, can you see yourself broadening that in future, if so how?
We’ve kept our product line very limited on purpose. We first launched with a single shoe, the Wool Runner, which is unheard of in the footwear industry. But in our first two years we sold over a million pairs and realised that it was better to do one thing and to do it really well, rather than spread yourself too thin.
That being said, we’re always looking into new styles and products that could benefit from our dedication to comfort, simplistic design, and sustainability. We definitely have some exciting new products that will be launching in the near future!
You are still a young company but have grown so quickly and have created an recognizable brand in such a short space of time, what has been the key aspect to your success so far?
Listening to our customers and engaging in an open dialogue has been so important and useful to us. Direct daily interaction, both through our stores and digital platforms, helps us understand our customers and hear how they’re reacting to our products. That feedback loop between us and our customers is critical, and we’re constantly making improvements to our products as a result. For example, we’ve made over 35 changes to our original Wool Runner & Lounger since it launched in 2016, almost all based on the concerns and experiences of our customers.