This interview was conducted by Aalia Shah
Foreword: Tim Brown is an LSE Alum, having studied his MSc International Management here. He also holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. Tim is also an ex-professional football player- and played for a number of teams in Australia and New Zealand where he combined his interest in design and football to notice that the footwear market was heavily unsustainable and full of logos and clutter. From there, the idea of Allbirds was born; a sustainable sneaker made with natural materials like merino wool and eucalyptus fibre. According to Time Magazine, Allbirds make the ‘world’s most comfortable shoes’- so comfortable that even Obama wears them.
I love talking to entrepreneurs and one of my favourites is definitely Tim Brown.
Our Zoom interview had started off a little different because my co-host and I were panicking slightly when Tim’s name wasn’t popping up on our Zoom. We had over 40 eager LSE students in our virtual waiting room, all wanting to hear from Tim (who’s an LSE Alumni himself). We decided to let the students in and start the event without Tim in the end (while praying that he shows up soon), and just a few seconds in, Tim’s face pops up! It was under the Zoom name of his daughter, in which he explains,” I’m sorry about the wrong name in the display, I don’t really know how to work this Zoom thing.”
This is totally not what you’ve expected from an entrepreneur! While Tim isn’t your average tech entrepreneur, the problem he’s trying to solve through Allbirds is as critical and impactful as the issues tech entrepreneurs are tackling, and that is sustainability.
5 key takeaways from Tim Brown
1.Don’t always say ‘yes’ to collaborations and opportunities to work with external brands
Tim Brown mentioned that one of the secrets to their success is that Allbirds actually say no to 99% of the opportunities (to partner with brands) that cross their desks. Rather, they put their energy into those few things that they did well and strive to improve on.
2. To change the industry for the better
When Allbirds replaced petroleum with sugarcane in its EVA shoe soles, it created the first-ever carbon-neutral alternative to EVA foam and made the process open-source in hopes of getting other companies to follow suit. Since most businesses like to hold onto their secret sauce, I was very curious as to why they made their process open-sourced.
To this, Tim said that the whole ethos behind the brand is to change the industry for the better. The more people join on this journey, the more successful they would be in realising this achievement.
I think the ‘copycat’ brands (and there’s many of them) just reinforce the fact that we’re going something right. So every brand that follows in our footsteps…will help us to transform the industry slowly but surely into a more sustainable, eco-friendly and conscious one.
3. On choosing Partnerships
In May 2020, Allbirds announced a partnership with Adidas to create a low carbon footprint performance shoe. Some of their customers might question the partnership with Adidas, but they’ve chosen to move forward with it.
I said to the guys at Adidas that this is our vision and I think it’s something that you should do with us- we’re going to do it with or without you but I think that this is a case where the whole will be greater than a sum of both parts, and that’s how the Adidas partnership formed.
4. The benefits of D2C model in forming customer relations
Internet shopping has become much more mainstream than it was more than 5 years ago. In that sense, I was curious how the D2C business model of Allbirds have helped them in forming and retaining customer relations.
The D2C story has been a key point with Allbirds. It’s given us the ability to spend money where it truly matters, and as a result we’ve been able to invest heavily in R&D and in the sustainable materials which make up the product. The biggest benefit of the D2C business model has been the feedback loop. We launched with 1 shoe, which is traditionally not how you launch a footwear brand and we were then able to grow the business with feed back, on the fly — all the time and our customers service team is sat right next to our design team from the beginning. Because of the feedback loop, we’ve made 27 different changes to the initial product that we first launched based on the feedback we’ve gotten and this is different to the traditional footwear industry which uses wholesale and the feedback and change speed is so much slower. So we’ve been able to move faster because of that feedback. And that feedback has also let to insights of different products that we should make.
5. Everything matters, small or big
Although Tim sits at the top of the ‘food chain’ at Allbirds, he’s slightly different to most CEOs. He knows every minute detail about everything, even the names of store managers at all of the Allbirds stores in London. During the interview, Tim stressed that whilst coming up with the idea behind the Allbirds London stores, he wanted to make it a personal experience, from the shape of the chairs in the store to the kinds of people he hires to be sales reps. Everything matters, small or big.
Everyone knows what it’s like to buy trainers from a large retail store. It’s not personal, its faceless, bad service and quite stressful to say the least. I didn’t want that to be the case at Allbirds, so we thought long and hard about how we can be a customer friendly store. We evaluated everything from the seating to the guy or girl who helps you out. In large sports stores, they usually have a few benches laid around the shoe area, or a row of square stool like seats. We didn’t like that, because usually what happens is that everyone sits down, especially if you’ve gone shopping with your family or friends, they all fall down onto the same seats, so the experience of buying shoes isn’t personal anymore, so at Allbirds we have chairs which only let one person from the party sit down. We also have store managers who want to know you and give the best quality of service.
Before we ended the interview, I asked Tim what his advice was to all budding young entrepreneurs out there:
“Just don’t do it….trust me…It’ll take your life away” (While we weren’t expecting this response, we applaud you for the brutal honesty Tim).
Aalia Shah is a Tech enthusiast and a Masters in Finance student at the London School of Economics, where her core focus is on Venture Capital, Private Equity, and Entrepreneurial Finance. She has spent time experiencing as much of the tech ecosystem as she can, from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Google, Fintech startups, Venture Capital, and even taking part in a Kickstart Accelerator and teaching herself how to code along the way (with help from Code First Girls). When not studying or working in Venture Capital, she spends her free time interviewing innovative Entrepreneurs, Business mentors and VC Investors for the LSE’s Founders’ Club. She is a supporter of Diversity and is happy to help other women get into startups and Venture Capital.
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