It isn’t the easiest thing to figure out what millennials want, make it sustainable, give it to them and then outperform in sales with one single, simple product.
But that’s what Allbirds did, and its uncommon approach to innovation and sourcing is part of what drove the two-year-old shoe startup’s quick success.
“A lot of what we think about is innovation,” Allbirds co-founder and co-CEO Joey Zwillinger said speaking at the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America’s (FDRA) Footwear Sourcing and Innovation Summit in New York Tuesday. “Innovation is often thought of as adding a lot of new stuff, a lot of new technology…we’ve tried to differentiate by actually taking a lot of things away.”
Instead of adding a collection of footwear to the sea of what’s already out there, Allbirds first considered consumer ills and where the industry wasn’t serving them when it came to their closets. Acknowledging the shift to athleisure and the need for apparel and footwear that transitions from one activity to the next, Zwillinger said Allbirds’ initial aim was to accommodate that with a product that was at once easy to wear and easy to choose.
That’s why the company launched with a sole option, to avoid the spoiled-for-choice feeling that often overwhelms consumers with too much before them and little that appeals to them.
“We’re going after this one singular point of view and that point of view fortunately resonated with consumers,” Zwillinger said.
It was a matter of “un-designing,” Zwillinger continued. “A lot of it is just about being thoughtful with stripping away a few things that were really unnecessary.” The simplified $95 shoe hasn’t suffered for what it’s sacrificed in embellishments either—Time magazine has called it “the most comfortable shoe in the world.”
And its simplification at the product level also simplified things on the supply chain side.
“When you have lots of different components, there’s more room for error,” Zwillinger said. Likewise, lots of different suppliers also means more room for error.
Allbirds has just two factory partnerships with three regional supply chain options in S. Korea, China and Vietnam. In terms of materials, the company sources ZQ Merino—the world’s first accredited Merino wool that guarantees mulesing doesn’t occur—from New Zealand, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified Tencel fiber from Lenzing, which it used in the new line of shoes it launched in March made from Eucalyptus trees.
As a 130-person strong team, Allbirds can’t audit each sheep farm it sources from in New Zealand, so it calls on key third-party partners.
“We have a max of two suppliers per component,” Zwillinger said. “We go deep with commitments and in return they give us great R&D.”
That in-kind R&D, Zwillinger said, has already brought Allbirds new ideas for improving both the product and the process.
“When you treat a partner like a vendor and ask them for the lowest cost, they’re not necessarily incentivized to do more,” Zwillinger said. “The approach we’ve taken to supply chain is one of deep partnership and very deep commitment to everyone we go with. It’s not about squeezing for cost.”
In this vein, Allbirds has sold more than one million pairs of shoes in less than two years, and the brand has hardly run out of opportunity. Zwillinger said Allbirds has plans to open more brick-and-mortar stores than the three it currently operates in San Francisco, New York City and Toronto. But expanding in size doesn’t necessarily mean it will be expanding in product offerings or supplier partnerships.
“We launched with one shoe and I think that’s to the point of trying to do a lot more with a lot less,” Zwillinger said.