To Fit Into Silicon Valley, Wear These Wool Shoes


“We’re about the distillation of solutions, the refinement and crafting of forms in a maniacal way,” said Tim Brown, the Allbirds co-founder from New Zealand.

Silicon Valley likes a uniform. Standing out with a personal style in tech is generally shunned, since it implies time spent on aesthetic pleasures, rather than work. Tech leaders often adhere to strict personal dress codes (like Mark Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirt), and young entrepreneurs study the social media cues of the venture capital class, who tend to select investments in part based on who looks like them.

And so, for now, this insular world has settled on Allbirds.

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The wool used in Allbirds is a very fine merino wool, each strand 17.5 microns wide.

Credit
Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

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The Allbirds headquarters in San Francisco.

Credit
Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

At a gathering last month hosted by the venture capital firm August Capital on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif., about 1,000 entrepreneurs and investors mingled on a concrete patio over margaritas and deviled eggs to celebrate summer. Guests wore other shoes — New Balance, Top-Siders, Tevas and a rare dress shoe were spotted — but the furry-looking Allbird was by far the most common.

Serik Kaldykulov, the managing partner for Elefund, which finances early-stage start-ups, wore a pair as he waited to get into the party.

“Everyone’s wearing them. Sometimes it is awkward, especially if we’re wearing the same color — but then it’s an icebreaker,” said Mr. Kaldykulov, who owns four pairs in different colors.

“Anything with laces becomes less efficient,” said John Kim, chief executive of SendBird, a start-up that helps software engineers build chat features within their apps. He sported a pair of light gray Allbirds.

Mr. Kim said he wore Allbirds for “all reasons and purposes” — except to a recent barbecue, for fear that sauce could seep in. Allbirds, which are machine washable, are meant to be worn without socks. (Some have complained about how quickly the shoes wear out, though Allbirds has said in a statement that the latest line is more durable than earlier iterations.)

Yet today’s hot shoe may easily become tomorrow’s Google Glass in a drawer. So what to do except strike before the moment slips away? Joey Zwillinger, an Allbirds co-founder and former clean-tech entrepreneur, said the company planned to raise more money. “We have pretty big aspirations,” he said.

At Allbirds’ office, in one of San Francisco’s oldest buildings on a high-end shopping street downtown, he and Mr. Brown, both 36, told the story of how they became Silicon Valley’s cobblers.

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Allbirds founders Joey Zwillinger, left, and Tim Brown.

Credit
Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

In 2009, Mr. Brown, then vice captain of the New Zealand soccer team, was trying to figure out his next chapter. He liked design and, before attending business school, made simple leather shoes for his friends. But the shoes were uncomfortable.

“Coming from a land of 29 million sheep, wool was obvious,” Mr. Brown said. With a research grant from New Zealand’s wool industry, Mr. Brown began a Kickstarter campaign to make wool shoes in 2014. Within four days, he had sold $120,000 worth of shoes through the crowdfunding website. He shut down the campaign in a panic.

“I didn’t understand how it could be made,” he said.

Mr. Zwillinger, an engineer in biotechnology, was working in Silicon Valley and struggling to sell algae oil as a replacement for petroleum. (It was too expensive to catch on.) Their wives, who are best friends and former Dartmouth roommates, introduced the two men. Mr. Brown traveled to Northern California to meet Mr. Zwillinger and get advice on supply chains. Mr. Zwillinger cooked a lamb stew, and the two decided to form a business.

“One of the worst offenders of the environment from a consumer product standpoint is shoes,” Mr. Zwillinger said. “It’s not the making; it’s the materials.”

Allbirds are made of a very fine merino wool, each strand 17.5 microns wide. “Which is 20 percent of the width of the average human hair,” he said.

The shoe’s name comes from what explorers supposedly first said of New Zealand: “It’s all birds.” Also, Mr. Zwillinger is an avid birder.

For a while, there was little tech interest. Then, in mid-2016, Mr. Zwillinger noticed tech leaders posting about the shoes on Snapchat and Twitter.

“All of a sudden, men size 12 and 13 went out of stock,” Mr. Zwillinger said. “Our demo went from mostly female to way male. A run started happening.”

Today, the two men have 50 employees in their San Francisco headquarters, 350 contractors in a factory in South Korea and 40 at a warehouse in Nashville. The Brooklyn-based Red Antler consultant firm worked with them on branding and design.

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