Back in 2016, I spent a day with Tim Brown, co-founder of Allbirds… you know, the company that makes the world’s most comfortable shoe. I was a TV journalist for Newshub — one of New Zealand’s biggest news networks — and spent the day interviewing and filming Tim at a farm in beautiful Central Otago. You can check out that story here and a video of our time at Allbirds below.
I’d been hunting Tim down for a while, pestering him to let me do a story about how he went from playing football for New Zealand’s national team to founding a company which became famous for its merino wool shoe. That particular shoe was taking Tim’s adopted home of San Francisco and his homeland of New Zealand by storm.
Despite his immense success, Tim was a charming and super humble guy. Shooting the story with him was a hell of a lot of fun and Tim spoke openly about his football-to-footwear career. As we were finishing up the shoot, I told him about Offcut and gave him a cap to take back to the US. He kindly offered that I one day spend some time at the Allbirds office in San Francisco to learn from his company.
"Shooting the story with him was a hell of a lot of fun and Tim spoke openly about his football-to-footwear career."
A few weeks ago, Dan (Offcut co-CEO) and I did exactly that. We spent a week at Allbirds and had meetings with Allbirds’ marketing, sustainability, and design teams. The week was an enormous learning and motivating experience.
The Wool Runner - The Shoe that made Allbirds famous. Photo: Allbirds.
We were blown away by how open the team was and how willing they were to share their knowledge with us… as well as their delicious San Francisco coffee and team lunches.
So, here are the top seven things we learnt after spending a week working from Allbirds HQ:
ONE - They hire really awesome people.
Everywhere we went in the Allbirds office people stopped to introduce themselves. Allbirds now has more than 100 staff, but the office really feels much smaller than that because there’s an amazing family atmosphere. We only spent five full days there but we feel like we know the Allbirds crew so well because they were all friendly people. Not only that, but they’re super competent. The meetings we had with Jamie (design), Patrick (marketing), Lucy (social media), Hana (sustainability), Puja (Co-CEO chief wrangler) all blew us away… these guys know their shit and they’re stoked to do what they’re doing. It’s awesome to see.
TWO - They don’t fake social media.
We’ve all been there as marketers and asked ourselves the same question: “Should I buy followers and use growth hacking tools such as River to grow social media accounts?” We asked Allbirds the same question and their answer was a simple: “no.” Allbirds has grown their Instagram to more than 165,000 followers with huge engagement, organically — so what they say is good enough for us. Their secret? Post great content which fits within one of a small group of consistent themes, and engage with fans with human replies. Lucy, the head of social media is so old school that she doesn’t even use a scheduling app like Later to plan posts… she prefers a good old-fashioned Google Doc instead.
Allbirds' stunning imagery is what makes its Instagram so cool. Photo: Allbirds.
THREE - They have fun.
Tim Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger had no experience in the footwear industry before launching Allbirds. That’s always given them a rebellious edge and super-inquisitive approach where they’ve had to learn and develop everything from scratch. In turn, that’s translated into a brand which takes its product, but not itself, too seriously. It’s a really fun brand on the outside with quirky characters such as Peter the Sheep, and we were stoked to see that it’s also a fun company on the inside, too. Laughter and banter are common in the Allbirds office and little things like weekly team lunches, and the daily “40 at 4” — an office-wide team push-up session — ensures everyone is having a good time making the world’s most comfortable footwear.
FOUR - Everyone is equal.
In line with the Allbirds brand not taking itself too seriously, no one at Allbirds — including Joey and Tim — take themselves too seriously. From what we saw, there were no egos or big personalities at Allbirds HQ. To help ensure it stays that way, Allbirds has an awesome policy where all staff are made to work on the reception desk for a day on a rotating shift. That’s absolutely everyone, Tim and Joey included.
FIVE - They are super protective of the Allbirds brand.
Allbirds does no discounts and no free product, ever. Tim is a big believer that doing either of these cheapens a brand, and once you start, it’s hard to stop because customers will be unwilling to pay full price and will prefer to wait for the next sale. Tim and I share the belief that if you create a great quality product and sell it at a fair price, you shouldn’t need to discount it.
This rule is all aligned with the decision, made right in the early days, to only ever sell Allbirds footwear direct-to-consumer online. This is something Tim hammered home to me as we shot the TV story, and it’s been a major reason behind the fact we here at Offcut also sell only online (with a couple of small exceptions). When you sell direct-to-consumer, you keep the all-important customer relationship and you can manage every single customer touchpoint to ensure the experience is always exceptional. This allows you to present your brand exactly as you want to present it — not through a retailer who might forget to put your product in the right box or confuse your brand story. It also allows you to hold on to your margins, giving you flexibility to produce high quality products.
SIX - They actually take sustainability seriously.
Who else here is sick of greenwash? These days it seems every company is trying to save the world — absolutely no disrespect meant to those who actually are trying — but for most, a claim to environmentalism is an afterthought to appease a growing class of conscious consumers. I have to admit I had a healthy level of scepticism as to how much Allbirds actually cared about its footprint (‘scuse the pun) before spending a week at HQ. “Was it all just a clever marketing tactic?” I wondered. I can now say that these guys take sustainability seriously — in fact, they have a team of two dedicated solely to ensuring Allbirds does good by the planet. The best thing is that they sit with the design team to help ensure sustainability guides the design process from the moment pen hits paper. What’s more, Allbirds has B Corp Certification to back up its claims that it genuinely cares… that’s something we’re working to get here at Offcut too.
SEVEN - They keep their staff well-fed.
After a couple of months in Europe, I was craving great coffee by the time we arrived at Allbirds. Allbirds coffee is incredible, as are the healthy snacks which cover half of the kitchen bench. Team lunch on Wednesdays is exceptional. I once heard in a previous job that providing coffee and food to employees pays itself off in the productivity gains you get from doing so. Seems like a no-brainer!
Allbirds is a big inspiration to Offcut and we were super chuffed to spend a week around awesome people. We learnt an enormous amount and made friendships for life. As a small company and young business owner, it was really encouraging to see how willing Tim and his team were to open their doors to us and others — on the first day we were at Allbirds, three other university students were starting internships.
Our week at Allbirds has got me thinking: should we set up a New Zealand or global business internship/buddy system where more established businesses and startups volunteer to welcome smaller startups for a week (or longer)? Does something like this already exist? What do you think?