It’s not often you hear about a successful start-up in the crowded footwear or athleisure markets.

How on earth would you find a point of difference that hasn’t already been tried? Who would be brave enough to go head-to-head with established brands in the fashion or retail sectors?

An ex-professional athlete with a competitive streak and a relentless perseverance to succeed. That’s who.

Before teaming up with his business partner in San Francisco, Brown had played soccer as a foundation player of the Wellington Phoenix, and for the All Whites from 2004 to 2012. To say he had a lot of exposure to footwear brands is somewhat of an understatement.

Addressing the crowd at a sold-out event in June, Brown drew comparisons between the worlds of business and sport as he talked about the three keys to success for Allbirds.

1. They have the courage to have a point of view.

Allbirds is all about making comfortable shoes. They do that one thing, and they do it really well. Often brands are trying to do too many things. You’re better off doing one thing exceptionally well than too many things just satisfactorily. But it takes a lot of courage to do just one thing – particularly in the fashion world.

When he played soccer, Brown trialled and used several different footwear brands and saw how companies were over designing and over complicating things. Shoes were becoming more colourful, more logoed, more detailed – all at the sacrifice of comfort and affordability.

“Too often innovation is about adding stuff – but it doesn’t work,” says Brown. He saw a gap in the market to do less, and an opportunity to create simple, comfortable footwear. Turning up to work in casual wear was becoming more acceptable and athleisure clothing was a growing sector, but no one was doing it in footwear. And no one was doing it in wool. On the one hand, consumers were looking for more sustainable products and practices, yet there was (and still is) an abundance of synthetics being used in footwear.

2. They know their why.

We’ve heard a lot already about the importance of the “why” behind a business. Simon Sinek reminds us that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Brown takes this one step further and says, “You have to stand for something more – more than just the product, more than just the profit.”

This is where the three brand pillars of Allbirds become relevant: comfort, sustainability, simple design.

The “why” behind the shoe itself was the comfort and the simple design – the courage to do one thing and do it well. The “why” behind the business was the desire to do something different in the area of sustainability.

Brown worked on the product design in New Zealand throughout 2014 with several iterations and prototypes, trying to make the perfect shoe. But it was after a trip to San Francisco in 2015 to meet with his future business partner that the why started to become clear.

A new era of sustainable manufacturing was emerging, but the fashion industry was still a big offender when it came to issues like greenhouse gas production and its carbon footprint. There was a lot of talk about how to become more environmentally friendly, but many people in the fashion industry were just paying lip service to it. Again, looking at how to simplify things, Brown was “determined to find better ways to make stuff”.

He and partner Joey Zwillinger, a biotech engineer and renewable materials expert, launched a Kickstarter campaign. Using a sports analogy that a coach had given him after a particularly tough soccer match when he was questioning his future as a player, Brown says it was time to “take a big swing at this”. It was time to go all in. The Kickstarter campaign raised almost $120,000 in just five days, and Brown relocated to the US.

3. They have a culture of feedback.

Even before their official launch with the first wool runner in March 2016, Brown was constantly asking for feedback about the product. They’ve made over 20 refinements and improvements to the shoes over the past two years, consistently trying to make it better.

“It’s not enough to just listen out for feedback,” Brown says. “You need to actively seek it. Keep asking customers what they think.”

The Allbirds direct-to-consumer (D2C) model gives them the ability to do this. They sell online and in a few shops (San Francisco, New York, Toronto), allowing them full control of the retail process. Brown explains that under this model they don’t rely on what retailers want to stock, and they don’t need to wait for seasonal launches and timeframes that retailers control. They can respond much quicker to customer feedback and demand. Along with having a large analytics team that studies purchasing data, Brown and his partner keep abreast of customer satisfaction levels by spending time in store whenever they can, talking to consumers.

As a result of customer feedback regarding wearing wool shoes in the summer, Allbirds launched its Tree range in early 2018. Made from eucalyptus tree fibre, these runners and loungers look much like the wool range and are also made from natural, non-synthetic materials. So while the range expands, the core product remains focussed – comfortable shoes made from natural materials using sustainable manufacturing processes.

To make it even simpler, all shoes are sold at the same price point. Brown is proud of the fact that they’ve sold a million pairs of shoes in just two years – with no discounting or sales.

Elaborating on the subject of feedback, Brown adds that it’s also important to know when to say no. “When you launch a new product, everyone will have an opinion and want to tell you how to do things. You need to trust your instincts and know what to pay attention to, what will add value.”

The feedback loop is their competitive advantage. And here the sports analogies come fast and frequent. To stay ahead, you must always be listening, reviewing and questioning. How can we improve? How can we be better? What can we tweak? What do we need to do to stay ahead?

In closing, the Kiwi innovator who persevered when everyone was telling him it couldn’t be done left us with this question to ponder: Can you describe your brand to someone in 10 seconds, but also talk about it for 12 hours on a plane ride from Auckland to San Francisco? If so, then it might just have wings.