Having just unveiled the world’s first net zero carbon shoe at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, Allbirds co-founder and chief innovation officer Tim Brown reflects on the challenging road to this ‘landmark’ release.
Much of what influences my philosophy in business has been inspired by my experiences as a
Something I’ve been citing a lot recently is: you’re never as good or bad as they say you are.
I think back to that historic night in Wellington in 2009, when New Zealand beat Bahrain to secure World Cup qualification for the first time in a generation. I enjoyed the high of that moment — trust me when I say it was a party for the ages — but even still, the ups and downs of being a footballer taught me not to get too high when things are good, nor too low when they’re not. The reality is sometimes you’re playing well and not winning, while the reverse can also be true. However, in the end, the best teams usually win the season.
To understand this in an Allbirds context is to understand that we are just seven years into what I believe can and should be a 100-year journey to build an iconic brand.
As a general rule, I think we all have a tendency to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be built over a long period of time.
When I started the shoe project that in time would become Allbirds from a Cuba St apartment, circa 2007, I really believed there was a problem to solve… but all signs suggested it was a very, very bad idea. I knew very little about making shoes, and yet I had a nagging belief that people were in search of a shoe that wasn’t over-embellished or flashy. Many folks disliked the idea, questioned its viability, and said a New Zealand-born business would never survive against the big players with deep pockets. My business school mentor told me the world didn’t need another shoe, and to “fail fast”.
So with that challenge in mind, my brother and I, with help from some friends, filmed a $700 video for Kickstarter in a field in Pāuatahanui.
I almost canned that video, to be honest. We’d written the script in advance, but when we got there, it just seemed silly.
I told my brother I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. He gave me an incredible pep talk, which I’d love to tell you all about … but sadly, all I can remember is that as he got really passionate about it, he grabbed the electric fence and gave himself a huge shock. I couldn’t stop laughing, and all the tension and anxiety disappeared.
Turns out that video wasn’t such a bad idea, because that Kickstarter campaign generated more interest than I could’ve dreamt of. And a couple of years later, when we properly launched the Wool Runner, the shoes started selling like crazy. Not long after, Time magazine described Allbirds as the most comfortable shoe in the world. That all felt like a pretty solid start to me.
But I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that the way Allbirds took off came as a bit of a surprise.
My co-founder Joey Zwillinger and I went for a drink at the end of our first month, after we’d done US$1 million in sales — almost our entire first year’s projections. And at a time when other folks would probably be high-fiving, we were deep in reflection. We’d spent the best part of a year working on the launch, and by all intents and purposes, it had worked. But hard work in and of itself isn’t enough. You have to create space for alignment on strategy and partnership to sustain momentum.
Sometimes, when you’ve had a moment of massive success, that’s when you’re most unsure or scared. And maybe that’s why my recent experiences at Allbirds, now a Nasdaq-listed public company, have been more balanced than you might expect. After years of upward trajectory, we’re up against some headwinds. People are calling our purpose — reversing climate change through better business — into question. But I know this moment we find ourselves in doesn’t define us. Nor do any of the unlikely successes we have found along the way. We’re only as good as our next move.
So when people ask me how I’m managing the pressures, or what’s keeping me up at night, it’s not anxiety but anticipation for what we have yet to achieve.
What fuels that confidence and optimism, I suspect, is the work we’ve got going on behind the scenes at Allbirds.
One example was revealed just this week, the M0.0NSHOT: the world’s first net zero carbon shoe, achieved without carbon offsets. That means that in terms of carbon emitted, this shoe’s impact on the planet is zero. That includes materials, manufacturing, transportation, product use, and end-of-life. M0.0NSHOT is the landmark Allbirds was created to achieve. It’s the culmination of all of our work since day one, and the essence of the Allbirds ethos.
It also speaks to our proud roots.
The key ingredient for M0.0NSHOT (as was the case for our first shoe, the Wool Runner) was the use of regenerative Merino Wool developed in close partnership with our friends at New Zealand Merino and their extraordinary growing community. The superpowers of that material and community continue to amaze and galvanise.
But the part I find most energising is that we’ve also open-sourced the toolkit that took us to net zero carbon and urged the rest of the industry to use it. Because, unlike the race to the moon, reversing climate change is more of a relay — we need others to take up the baton and drive this work forward, powered by a new vision of “hyper-collaboration”.
Having just revealed both the shoe and the toolkit at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, I feel deeply that an important part of the path forward is defining a new model for how brands big and small work together.
In between the excitement and pride of this project, I also reflect on the fact that M0.0NSHOT comes at an interesting time for Allbirds. It is a symbol of our progress to date, but also of the long road ahead, too.
What’s ahead of us feels strikingly similar to what has come before on this journey. We are once again faced with question marks about the role of sustainability in business, and the role Allbirds specifically has to play. Like when we launched, I believe these doubts can fuel us to be an even better business.
I’m currently sat in our San Francisco office, between calls with the 1000 or so members of the Allbirds flock based around the world and I’m as convinced as ever that the world needs Allbirds.
The work ahead of us is as exciting, and urgent, as ever before. If my time in both business and sport have taught me anything about success, it’s this: the challenging moments are a necessary — and inevitable — part of the journey.
My hunch is there is a lot more of this story to tell. Please stay tuned.