The wool to win: Ex-UC soccer player's shoe startup reaches back to Kiwi roots with Allbirds

Company off to running start with big-name backing
Posted at 8:00 AM, Oct 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-28 13:58:15-04

SAN FRANCISCO -- Would you trust a professional baseball player to design a great bat? How about entrusting a pro golfer to create your next set of clubs? Sure you would.

So what would you look to a pro soccer player to create?

It’s gotta be shoes.

University of Cincinnati graduate Tim Brown (left) and co-founder Joey Zwillinger run Allbirds.

Tim Brown stumbled into the shoe business while playing for Wellington Phoenix FC, a New Zealand-based professional soccer team in the Australian A League. Now Brown is co-founder of a San Francisco startup called Allbirds, maker of what Time magazine calls “the world’s most comfortable shoes.”

“I started this whole thing because initially, I was sponsored by Nike and had shoes all covered in logos,” said Brown, a former University of Cincinnati soccer player and graduate of UC’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. “And I thought there’s a need for a very simple shoe that’s better than a Chuck Taylor, basically.”

Brown’s native New Zealand provided inspiration for both the company’s name and the shoe itself. When explorers first arrived on the South Pacific island, “there was nothing there but birds,” Brown explained.

It’s not all birds anymore. Now New Zealand has sheep -- perhaps not as many as there are birds, but lots and lots of them. Though Brown laments that he wasn’t raised on a sheep farm because it would be a good story for the company’s marketing, he said the sheep inspired him to use wool instead of leather or synthetic material.

“Wool is incredibly soft in its purest form,” Brown explained. “It wicks away moisture, it regulates temperature, and it was just kind of one of those light-bulb moments for me.

“I think there are some shoes that should be made out of synthetics and leather, but if you’re going to make a nice, comfortable shoe, you make it out of wool.”

Allbirds makes wool runners for men and women in one distinct, no-frills style. The soles are made of a lightweight blend of foam and rubber, and the upper portion of the shoes are made with a light, breathable wool that’s cut into a one-piece, sock-like shape.

The company is exclusively direct to consumer right now, and Allbirds’ shoes are available online for $95 per pair, including basic shipping. The company enjoyed success when it experimented with a pop-up retail store, and retail is certainly in the company’s plans, Brown said.

“How that happens and when, I think we’re still working out,” Brown said.

But it could come sooner rather than later. Allbirds recently closed a round of funding with Maveron, the venture capital firm founded by Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz and Dan Levitan, an investment banker that assisted Starbucks with its initial public offering.

“That obviously brings with it more pressure and expectation, but it’s given us a wonderful foundation to double down on hiring more smart folks and doubling down on our mission to make better things in a better way, in a nutshell,” Brown said. “It’s a really exciting time.”

And Brown knows a thing or two about exciting times. The highlight of his soccer career was qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup as a member of the New Zealand national team, its second time ever making the tournament.

But not far behind are his memories of Cincinnati. He looks back fondly on his days at UC, both on the pitch and in the classrooms at DAAP. He credits the experience with equipping him with the skills he’s relied upon as an entrepreneur.

“I had this incredible, unparalleled experience of sport and education, this moment that you can’t get in any other country in the world,” Brown said. “I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever did, and I’m grateful to UC for the education it gave me.”