Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds Co-founder: How We Earned 7 Figures in Our First 30 Days With 0 Marketing Spend | E255
Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds Co-founder: How We Earned 7 Figures in Our First 30 Days With 0 Marketing Spend | E255
Joey Zwillinger is the CEO and Co-Founder of Allbirds, which uses wool to create sustainable footwear. He has long been passionate about making things from renewable resources, which led him to start Allbirds with New Zealander Tim Brown and begin tackling sustainability issues in the footwear industry. Working together, Tim and Joey crafted a revolutionary wool fabric made specifically for footwear, resulting in an entirely new category of shoes inspired by natural materials.
In this episode, Hala and Joey will discuss:
– How competitive sports translates into business
– Finding a career with meaning and impact
– The importance of constraints to creativity
– Aligning your mission and profitability
– Learning innovation from nature
– Founding a purpose-focused company
– Launching Allbirds with the Shopify platform
– The secrets to a million-dollar launch
– Breaking through in a noisy marketplace
– And other topics…
Joey Zwillinger is the CEO and Co-Founder of Allbirds, which uses wool to create sustainable footwear. Prior to co-founding Allbirds, he spent six years at biotech firm Terravia (formerly Solazyme, Inc.) leading its renewable chemical business, developing and selling high-performance algae-based chemicals into various industries such as CPG, personal care, and industrials. He has long been passionate about making things from renewable resources, which led him to start Allbirds with New Zealander Tim Brown and begin tackling sustainability issues in the footwear industry.
Joey’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jzwillinger/
Allbirds Website: https://www.Allbirds.com/
Allbirds Twitter: https://twitter.com/Allbirds
Allbirds Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/Allbirds/
Allbirds Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/weareAllbirds
Zingerman’s Deli’s Mission and Guiding Principles: https://www.zingermanscommunity.com/about-us/mission-guiding-principles/
Why and How Visioning Works by Ari Weinzweig, founder of Zingerman’s Deli: https://www.zingtrain.com/article/why-and-how-visioning-works/
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[00:00:00] Hala Taha: Joey, welcome to Young and Profiting Podcast.
[00:02:04] Joey Zwillinger: Thank you for having me, Hala. It's so good to be here.
[00:02:06] Hala Taha: Joey, thank you so much for being here. I'm looking forward to our conversation and there's so much I want to discuss with you related to your company, Allbirds, but first I'd like us to get to know you a little bit better. So you grew up in the Bay area, you were into sports like a lot of young boys and teens are, namely soccer.
And while you didn't grow up to become a pro soccer player, I'm sure your experience with sports still taught you a lot.. So my first question to you is what are some of the lessons that you learned from sports that you now apply in
[00:02:34] Joey Zwillinger: business? Yeah, good research. I was a soccer player. I played at Cal UC Berkeley where I went to college and it was, I would say absolutely pivotal to how I act in life, how I live and what I think about teams in particular.
I'm an extremely competitive person in general, and I think in business, which is. More or less a game that we play here in life. I think competition is an incredibly catalytic type of mentality to keep for both driving teams towards a clear outcome, but also just how you interact with one another in order to achieve those shared outcomes.
And I remember when I was playing at my peak level, the thing that was most surprising to me was that it was the most inclusive, open environment that I've ever been a part of. And still to this day, I think, where. It is so outcome driven and there is absolutely nothing about the personalities, the backgrounds, the race, the socioeconomic, whatever it is, all of that completely falls away.
And all it is is about winning as a team and making sure that you can trust one another and that you can rely on your partner in whatever you're doing in this case, sports. And I would say that that has translated to me to be the most pivotable. Use of teams and way to interact with your colleagues in a business setting while maintaining that drive around outcome orientation and winning together.
[00:04:01] Hala Taha: So your company, Allbirds, is what you call a purpose native organization.
And we're going to get into that detail later on as we talk about Allbirds. But really my question is about your passion for wanting to improve the world and where that really was stemmed from. So from my understanding, I heard you in another interview where you cited your parents, your dad as somebody who sparked that interest in you, Allbirds is this organization that is aligning its sustainability mission with its profit.
outcomes. So talk to us about how you first got that spark, why you want to help improve the
[00:04:34] Joey Zwillinger: world. Yeah. You know, I think it's, my dad played a pivotal role. My mom also played a really important role in my life and shaping how I view the world and how you're both a speck of dust on the planet, but also you can change everything.
One individual can change everything. And my mom was an immigrant from South Africa. She left her in the apartheid era and really. The values of that government were antithetical to how she believed the world should be. So she picked up and left and left her family behind and came to California where she ended up meeting my dad.
And around that time, my dad was a real social activist leading the professors union at San Francisco state to get the first African American studies department. Did a lot of work around. Social responsibility and uplifting a lot of disenfranchised groups from his position as a professor at the university when he had me.
I think what he imbued upon me was that it didn't really matter what I chose to do in life. He probably preferred that I wasn't in psychology as my dad and mom both were, but he needed me to do something that left an imprint on the world in a positive way. And that understanding that the power of the individual is extremely high.
And with a bunch of hard work and creativity, you can shape the world in very meaningful ways and that responsibility, if you're going to use that kind of effort and use the short time on this planet that we have has got to be done for a broader societal impact and one that was positive. And we happen to be in nature quite a bit, a lot of camping.
And so I think that was the early taste that I got for what kind of social consciousness really drove me and I thought was most important. Leading into what I did in my professional career. That shaped how I viewed business and how could you have both a meaningful professional career and something that was fulfilling, but went beyond certainly making money, which was never much of a motivator for me.
[00:06:37] Hala Taha: I love that story. And I love looking at entrepreneurs, careers and backgrounds and trying to figure out. How all the stars aligned, and also from my research, I found out that you weren't the first in your family that had experience in the garment manufacturing industry. So can you tell us about that?
[00:06:53] Joey Zwillinger: Yeah, my parents had zero business background and they truly did not, I didn't know what business was at all, uh, when I left college. So I, I needed like some serious education, uh, when I got to the workforce. But yeah, my mom's grandpa, he fled Russia in about 1904, there was some pogroms and he was in the garment business and he happened to cut a little rip, a hole in his trousers and stuffed some Russian rubles in his trousers to, if needed, to bribe some policemen on his way to the harbor.
Managed to make it out to the harbor and found himself on a boat, didn't know where it was going, and he landed in South Africa. And fortunately didn't have to use those rubles. Uh, his name is Ruben. So we named one of my kids and then we now have those little coins to celebrate that spirit from his great grandfather.
And he ended up starting a contemporary men's professional wear business in South Africa and really did fantastically for a little while before going bankrupt. But you know, that's the way it goes in the garment business. And my grandpa on my dad's side was also lower east side tenement housing, had a business inside of his apartment when I, when my dad was growing up in Manhattan, making uniforms for Pinkerton detective agency and some government agencies and things like that.
So I guess it runs deep. It was sewn into my DNA from many generations ago and, and here I am. Yeah. That's such
[00:08:20] Hala Taha: a cool background story. And so you went to college and you got your MBA from Wharton, you went to UC Berkeley for engineering. And you don't often meet engineers that turn into CEOs. And so I'm curious to understand what kind of advantages you feel that you have as a CEO who really thinks like an engineer.
[00:08:40] Joey Zwillinger: I think being trained as an engineer, there are some positives, fantastic positives. And there's also some drawbacks. I was taught to think about problems extraordinarily analytically. And I save a quote in my phone. If you can't describe what you're doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing.
And I think that speaks really concisely to how I think about running, not just a process independently, but running a business. And yet at the same time, I think if people don't share that. Sharp analytical focus. Sometimes it can feel a little too linear and leave no room for creativity, which is quite the opposite from what I, how I think about running fantastic processes.
You really need to leave room and put the right gates for wonderful creativity, but you also need to logically tackle problems. And I've taken that in every business experience I ever have while also trying to compensate for the fact that not everyone shares that kind of point of view. So. Always a growth area for me to make sure that there's clear room for creativity and clear articulation of when that comes into the process and leaving room for serendipity all along the way.
[00:09:53] Hala Taha: love that. And you have a good point. Process doesn't have to stifle creativity. Having good structure and good process can actually enable people to feel more creative because they have like an SOP of how something should get done. So there's certain things that are sort of. in concrete, but then there's certain areas where they can innovate and get creative.
[00:10:12] Joey Zwillinger: That's a great articulation. I think that constraints are the most significant impact on a creative outcome. If you aren't bound by great constraints, you're left to a wide open canvas to come up with a great idea. Those are typically a lot less actionable, a lot less commercial, a lot less meaningful for whoever you're targeting.
Consumers in our case are our clear end point. And Having the boundary and the guardrails is incredibly important to get the best kind of creativity. I totally
[00:10:45] Hala Taha: agree. Okay, so after college you worked at Golden Saks, you did some consulting, you got into venture capital as well. Can you walk us through some of those highlights in your early career?
[00:10:55] Joey Zwillinger: Yeah, I mean, as I said, not knowing what business was. Back in college. I recall it distinctly. I would say, you know, what does your dad do? What does your mom do? He'd be like, oh, he's in business. I was like, oh, cool. That's good enough for me. That's a good enough granularity. If someone said that to me today, I would be like, well, like, what do you mean?
Like, what kind? Like, what do they do? What function? What department are they working? All that good stuff. I had no idea. Business was very ethereal to me. So I really left college seeking just a broad based education. I did a little bit of consulting. I wanted to do investing that's around the time that I really caught the bug where I thought that the dynamism of entrepreneurship could blend with social purpose to create something extraordinarily meaningful that didn't have to sacrifice on the planet, but actually quite the contrary, made meaningful impact on the social purpose as well as the bottom line for the business.
And so I started looking at investing in that time frame. I didn't find. The clean tech was the kind of jargon du jour in that era where people were investing in businesses that met my kind of value set and met my business ambitions as well. The venture capital model at that time in particular was not really a great avenue to pursue.
It just took too much capital to build these huge facilities to displace petroleum derived products and make them from naturally derived products using. Cutting edge technology at the time. So I left the investing world and really sought after an operating role. And I chose a company after a huge amount of diligence.
I went out and met dozens and dozens of companies interviewing to really understand where I didn't have the most technical background. So where could I make an impact on the business side, having a technically oriented mindset without having a deep understanding of the technology. And I found a company called Solazime, which was using biotechnology to engineer microalgae to essentially replace any derivative of petroleum.
and do so with a zero carbon impact. So all of the benefits of whatever the cut of oil is that the end product used from a performance perspective with no environmental impact and ideally no cost impact or even cheaper. That was the ambition of the company. I ended up leading the chemicals group. So green chemicals displacing any petrochemical product that's surrounding all of us all the time with an algae based solution that left no dent on the planet.
And. It was interesting. I'm sure you want to get into all birds more, but I had these experiences repetitively where I would go and speak with brands. We'd have a conversation where I would kind of tease out the opportunity that the technology presented for that company. And it was like jaw dropping.
Everyone loved it. And then. By conversation three, it was like, well, you know, I talked to my sourcing department and really they just want polyester cheaper. Can you do that one in particular? We made it, we made a surfboard out of microalgae that we then derivatized into a polyurethane foam. So this is a zero impact, rigid polyurethane shaped into an amazing high performance surfboard.
We had Rob Machado, a professional surfer, ride it in competition and. You think about these guys and gals, they're sitting in the ocean, seaweed floating by, maybe a dolphin skimming the wave. What a better customer than that could you find me for somebody that wants high performance with no environmental impact.
Yet when we pitched it to the surfboard blank companies, paying 10 more per blank, which ends up retailing down the chain for, you know, 700 to 1500 bucks, 10 bucks more. That was too much for them to stomach and no one could figure out how to position. The product such that you could really make the impact with the end consumer there.
And so it was just this eyeopening experience for me. It felt a little like pushing string every time I went to these meetings, because I eventually knew what the outcome would be. So fortunately I was introduced to Tim via our wives and Tim Brown's, my co founder at Allbirds now, and really saw an opportunity to connect my frustration with trying to bring high volume, low carbon material to market.
With a wonderful consumer product where you didn't have to compromise on any performance attribute that the consumer wanted. I love
[00:15:18] Hala Taha: that you brought this up because later on I want to talk about the importance of clear messaging when it comes to bringing your product to market. So I love that you brought that story up.
Would you say at this point, after you're working at this company, that you knew that you wanted to make sure that your career would have something to do with environmental science moving
[00:15:38] Joey Zwillinger: forward? Yeah. Innovation is pretty exciting. And if you can constrain your innovation to something that is high performance and low impact, so you offer the consumer a no compromise solution for whatever that need is that they have, that is a constraint that is exciting.
Because you drive amazing business value and you drive amazing environmental value. And if you can connect those ideas together, you have a business model that is both mission aligned and profit aligned. So there's really no asymmetry between the stakeholders that you're really fighting for being your shareholders in a business and your environmental impact is one of the other key stakeholders.
So I'd say I caught that bug early on the way it ended up manifesting within my career, took some twists and turns. I learned a lot along the way, but this is the place that I always wanted to be. And, and I think making that impact every single day, I couldn't think of something more exciting. Yeah,
[00:16:35] Hala Taha: it's very cool.
So let's move on to Allbirds. So you alluded that, uh, you met your co founder, Tim Brown. I think we should start off with maybe his origin story or the origin story of the product beginning with him.
[00:16:48] Joey Zwillinger: Yeah, very important because you got all my background, which is running in parallel of it. to Tim's. Tim was actually a professional athlete.
He happened to get a design degree, which was his kind of intellectual passion when he went to college, also in the United States, but he's actually a native New Zealander, Kiwi. And he was pretty good at soccer and ended up playing more than a decade professionally, uh, in the A League and a couple other places, A Leagues in Australia.
And. He ended up rising to be the vice captain of the New Zealand national soccer team, which ended up going to the world cup in 2010, obviously both a leader, as well as an incredibly good athlete and talented soccer player. Yet he was consistently offered free gear from all the big sportswear companies.
And there was this vacuum in space between what he wanted and what he thought all of his comrades on the soccer team wanted. And What was being offered. And really the brands were marketing themselves via the athletes as a vehicle for marketing and getting paid a little extra if you wear the bright yellow shoes on the field.
And if everyone wears the yellow shoes, you get even a bigger bonus. So. It's obviously focused on marketing and a big logo on the side of a shoe versus comfort versus performance versus what the athlete or the consumer needs in particular. So he started using his design background and, and really cobbling around with shoes back in probably as early as 2008 was probably the first shoe he ever made really small scale, much more as a hobby on the side while his teammates are playing PlayStation, he's, he's making shoes.
Ended up after his retirement after the world cup, uh, let's call it 2012. Now he really started in earnest and it got the concept, you know, he's staring out his window in Wellington, New Zealand and seeing 30 million sheep in the countryside and saying people understand the amazing qualities of Merino wool when it comes to shirts or when it comes to base layers for outdoor adventure.
Why has no one made a shoe out of Merino wool? And so he had this instinctual understanding that nature was the greatest innovator and, and mother nature having many millennia to do her work, do a lot better job than a chemical engineer over the last a hundred years with working with petroleum. So that concept as a Colonel coupled with his design background was something that drove him to get it out of his system, so to speak, entrepreneurially.
And he, he ended up designing a prototype. Put the product up on Kickstarter in 2014 and it was a phenomenal success for Kickstarter at the time in that Category and I was fortunately one of the first customers that got to feel the wall runner and listen to his message You can still see the video on Kickstarter today.
I was fortunate enough because My wife and his then girlfriend now wife were college roommates when I went to college at Dartmouth So I'd known him socially, but nothing, uh, ever crossed my mind that we might connect business wise. He went through this experience, had some success, and then went through an unbelievable set of travails when it came to fulfillment, customer service, manufacturing, all the good things that are required and can break a company if you don't do it well.
And so we started talking first about just a solution to those issues. But eventually it was about really connecting something much bigger than a single product or a single material, but really connecting the idea that we could offer something that was no compromise performance with no impact on the environment or much less at least to start versus the competition and that every time we stole market share from a competitor, we were doing something great for our business.
We're doing something great for the world. And so that that idea really sparked something in us It made us feel like we would be proud to build a brand that stood for that. And we would be proud to tell our grandkids that that's what we spent our large chunk of our life doing. And so we decided. We met on my, uh, my house in, in Marin, which is just north of San Francisco over a weekend, my kids and wife were gone and we kind of crafted what were the key messages, what was the key idea for this business, how would it take shape over the next few years?
We really shook hands on it that day on my deck and we have not skewed very far. And when we skew far, sometimes we make mistakes, to be honest. And that core understanding of what we were trying to accomplish is, is the root of what became Allbirds eventually. And we joined forces formally in 2015, did a real sprint to launch our product on the first day of March in 2016 and came out of the shoot pretty hot.
[00:21:48] Hala Taha: love this story. You guys have such a great founder story because it is so inspirational to other entrepreneurs because you use platforms that are available to all of us for very little investment. For example, you started on Kickstarter, then you ended up using Shopify for DTC. And so it's just awesome that you use things that are readily available, and it's just very inspiring
[00:22:12] Joey Zwillinger: to hear.
In my story, you hear about innovation, you hear about Tim's design background, you hear about the consumer a lot. You don't hear about technology a lot. We are a product first business that's making amazing things that people want because it's going to make their lives better, make them feel happier, bring joy to their lives.
We are technology enabled though the core offering for us is about product so if it's not going to make our product better let's see if we can rent it from an expert and make sure that it's going to be way better than we could ever recreate ourselves so you know the tools that you mentioned are amazing catalyst for a business in the solution like Kickstarter but really.
an enabler for a very long term kind of business build when you're thinking about e commerce as a core part of our solution for how we come to market with customers in a product like Shopify.
[00:23:07] Hala Taha: Totally. You get to focus on creating the best offering ever, product ever, rather than focusing on how to scale an e commerce platform, right?
So I love it. So let's go back to this concept of a purpose native organization. It sounds like you were super intentional when you and Tim met up and really. Started the foundation for all birds, walk us through that process, how you guys started to think about your business model and was it like highly intentional where you already knew you were going to have a purpose native organization or did that sort
[00:23:38] Joey Zwillinger: of evolve?
No, that was from before day one purpose. Native was a phrase that we kind of figured out later on, but that was at the core of what we wanted to do. We would never have agreed to do business together if it wasn't with that in mind. So. The way it most formidably took shape was about a month after we launched our product.
We got the founding team together, it was about 10 people at that time, and we went through a multi day exercise where we wrote out, looking back from the seat of the summer of 2026, 10 years before. Writing about that journey, what brought us to the place that we eventually saw the business getting to and the brand getting to, and we wrote that into a three page narrative.
And we still use it very much today. Every final round candidate that's interviewing for our company, reads it, has to digest it, and it really separates out whether people want to come here for the right reasons or not. And you can generally tell whether people get more excited by it or less excited by it.
They might think we're hippies from San Francisco with flowers in our ear. Or they might think, wow, this is something I can get out of bed every single day and feel amazing about the work that I'm doing on the planet. And it aligns with their personal values. So we not only. Knew it from the core, but we wrote it down and documented it and institutionalized it.
And we've always from the beginning believed that environmental causes is a very broad term. Sustainability means 10 different things to 10 different people. The thing that we found the most generationally important problem that the world has to face is climate change. And so we focused on carbon emissions from day one and we constrained all of our innovations to be lower carbon emitting and less of an impact on greenhouse warming and constrain it with those types of guardrails and then allow us to come out with componentry that delivered much higher performance, much higher comfort and a much better consumer experience all within those constraints.
So the way we come to market is better products. They're just going to feel better and look better on your feet than anything else in the market. Cause we make shoes. Yet, as a gift with purchase, you get this amazing environmental impact that you may not have even understood when you bought the product because it's just phenomenally comfortable.
[00:26:01] Hala Taha: actionable advice on Yap. And I think everybody tuning in is probably like, what's in this three page document that he wrote? How can I do one for my business? So could you give us some insight in terms of how we can do this exercise for our own businesses?
[00:26:16] Joey Zwillinger: Yeah. You know, this isn't our idea. We stole it.
Uh, which all good ideas generally have some inspiration. It's from a deli in Ann Arbor called Zingerman's. They have a process for visioning. And you've seen companies like Amazon are pretty famous for writing the press release of what you want to do at the end of the project. It's in a similar vein as that.
But you really seat yourself well forward in the future. It doesn't need to be 10 years, but that was sort of the initial timeframe we wanted to architect with the original business plan and how we were going to come to market. And we asked everyone to write down, you do that exercise. They weren't allowed to lift their pen off the paper, physical pen, physical paper, no typewriter, no computer, and not lift their pen off the paper for 20 minutes.
And everyone went around and read to the group what they wrote about. And then we, as the leaders of the company, unearthed the gems from each of those and kind of steered it in the direction that we felt was most high impact and also the best articulation of what we were trying to achieve. And we ended up getting down to that final prose and that three page narrative.
And if we don't have it published already, I'm going to take the opportunity from this podcast and see if we can get it on our website. Oh, my God. I would
[00:27:30] Hala Taha: love that. I would love to read that. And in the outro, I'll find more information about what was it called Zillinger? What was it called again?
Zingerman's Deli. Zingerman's Deli. I'm going to find out information about that and then explain it further in the outro for everybody else. So in your first month, you ended up making a million dollars in sales through your, I guess, your Shopify website, D2C. Talk to us about that. Why do you think you were able to have such a great launch compared to other entrepreneurs who start businesses every day and fail?
[00:27:59] Joey Zwillinger: You know, if I look back at that time, I'd say that the most pivotal aspect of our success was focus at that time, Tim and I would always share this kind of quip that we would have to say no to 99 things for every one thing we said yes to. And you have so much advice coming in, particularly like before your business is truly anything, you haven't even launched a product and how do you filter that out?
So incredibly fine filter with extreme focus. And we knew that we were a product and marketing company. Everything needed to come out feeling amazing for the consumer. So we poured an enormous amount of the money that we had collected to help start the company into product. And then the only other dollars that we spent was to build the personality of the brand and amplify the message that we wanted to send to consumers that we were making the most comfortable shoe in the world.
And fortunately, a lot of people shared that view when they tried the shoes and wrote significantly about it. So. We didn't spend any dollars on marketing for many, many months paid marketing. I should say we did the PR thing and a whole bunch of other tools to amplify our messaging, but really it was just about a singular focus on amazing product and amplifying the message that we wanted to deliver the promise that we wanted to deliver on, on that product.
And fortunately, because we did those two things, well, the promise was met by amazing product and we, we delivered on the customer expectations that we set, and so Uh, lo and behold, people like the message. We had some good amplification from the media and yeah, we sold a million bucks worth of shoes in the first month, which was dramatically more than we ever anticipated.
We were chasing into demand for at least a year, always behind what the signal from the consumer was and having some caution. I remember the first million dollar purchase order, like it was yesterday that we made to the factory. And it's, uh, very fortunate to have. Both really good timing to have tools at our disposal, like Shopify channels to amplify the message really nicely to reach the consumer and a great partner and Tim so that we could have one plus one equal three to really start things off in the right direction.
[00:30:12] Hala Taha: earlier you were talking about. When you were working at another company and you wanted to create these like LG surfboards, right? And they didn't want to do it because they didn't want to spend 10 more and have to charge the customer more down the line. And you said that messaging would fix that, positioning would fix that.
So talk to us about how you were able to put out a clear message that allowed you to price your products. At a point that was profitable for you and also good for
[00:30:38] Joey Zwillinger: the world. I think there's an underlying tension that business people, but also consumers feel, which is that if something is sustainable, that it's probably worse.
Maybe it's less durable. Maybe it doesn't look as good. Maybe something else has been sacrificed on the way. Maybe it's too expensive. And we always believe that that tension was a paradigm that needed to be broken. And so we wanted to offer an amazing product for an amazing price and do that without any compromise on the tangible aspects of the product itself.
As I said, the gift with purchase is that it's amazingly beneficial for the world, but that's just a gift with purchase. What you get for the price is a price value of your product that is fantastic and stands on its own two feet, so to speak, without needing some kind of like A price premium or anything like that, that's never been in the language that we use internally to how to think about innovation and how to think about building great products.
People love great products and I love sustainable ones. I think. Over time, we do believe people will understand that truly great products are also sustainable, but that's not the leading message that this is a gift with purchase from us, and we give you everything that you could possibly want. You've come to expect from an amazing pair of shoes, and we deliver that because we rely on the best innovator in the world, which is nature.
These are some
[00:32:02] Hala Taha: really important lessons, especially for any entrepreneur that's trying to get into this space. So you mentioned that one of the key reasons why you were successful and you had your million dollar launch essentially in your first month was focus. So talk to me about how you made sure you guys stayed focused during this time.
[00:32:20] Joey Zwillinger: Whew. Yeah. That is a subjective art. I think this maybe goes back to my training as an engineer. You know, it's what is the outcome you're seeking and does this help the outcome? Is the activity that you're doing today or this week or this month? Is that going to help you drive towards the outcome that you think is going to be the barometer of success for what you're, whatever you're trying to achieve?
So we picked the three key outcomes we wanted to do. Was it going to help this or was it going to hurt this? And more is not more. More is often much less. And so that was the mantra. And it was often just. Tim and me, and then eventually a handful of people around a room debating these things and just saying, I don't, why are we wasting time doing this?
Don't do that. This is what we're coming to market with. We need a exceptionally clear message if we're gonna break through an enormously noisy Consumer marketplace enormously noisy and competitive if we're going to break through and have any kind of success we need to be clear we need to be singular and we need to back that up with everything we can from a messaging perspective to meet those expectations that are going to be set very high and so you better deliver if you're going to be successful because you know you can market your way to a first sale but the second sale it's got to be love for the product it's got to be love for whatever that service or product is that you're offering.
So it's got to be good, it's got to be good. You got to set high expectations, but then you got to deliver.
[00:33:46] Hala Taha: So many gems in this, a sharp offering, sharp messaging, and focus. Don't get distracted on those two main goals. So let's talk about you starting as a direct to consumer company. Why did you decide that you were going to start off
[00:34:01] Joey Zwillinger: DTC?
I like how you frame that because we believe that we are a brand. We are not a sales channel. So direct to consumer was never something that we believed that would describe the company. Or the brand, frankly, we are a brand first that makes amazing product that sets expectations really high, just like the consumer deserves and delivers on them.
But what we wanted to do to start was to reach consumers, both in New Zealand and the United States that we started with two websites built on Shopify platform launched at the exact same time. And. We believe that creating a feedback loop had no noise around it from omni channel sales or places that we couldn't get data from.
We needed to understand who was buying the product, why they were buying the product, and then feed that right back into the product lifecycle management to make sure we made agile and correct. Improvements to our products to keep building the foundation of the brand in a way that most significantly resonated with those consumers who fell in love with the company and fell in love with what we were offering.
So our vision was always start with. DTC first digital, then add our vertical retail operation and then eventually expand into wholesale marketplaces, whether it's drop ship or something more traditional wholesale model. And as we would do that, we would reach a broader set of consumers that wouldn't initially want to engage with a company that makes shoes on a digital platform or if they didn't live around a store where we were.
There's a lot of people who still like that physical try on, don't like to deal with returns through e commerce for shoes when that fits a really important consideration. That was the thesis and we took the first four years to be exclusively DTC. We built a fleet of stores and then we expected to start expanding into wholesale at that point when the world got a pretty big challenge in early 2020 with a, with a bug that floated around.
And so that threw back our timeline on entering the wholesale marketplace. But now we're just at the start of that journey, which is pretty exciting because we're able to reach a number of new consumers that we eventually think are going to be able to come back and engage with us directly.
[00:36:18] Hala Taha: And when it comes to your direct to consumer business, how did you decide on Shopify? Did you evaluate other platforms? What made you decide that Shopify was the platform for you?
[00:36:28] Joey Zwillinger: We did evaluate a number of other solutions. And remember, this is 2015, so Shopify was a different company than it is today, but we saw the vision that Shopify had and going back to the idea of what is your core offering as a company, how do you focus on that almost exclusively and our core offering is product.
And so we wanted to have an unbelievably seamless shopping experience for the consumer, but we didn't want to have to hire a ton of engineers. In order to create that experience, we didn't want to have a technology operations team to monitor performance of a website or worry about the interfaces with our warehouses or eventually our product catalog to make sure we had accurate pricing across our broad assortment across a number of markets.
So we wanted to find a solution that would take. All of the burden off of us from building that seamless shopping experience while being able to deliver that for the consumer, finding a group of people who were dedicated to that solution as their core offering and seamless checkout, seamless shopping experience, amazing emails to track your progress as you get an order when you, when you shop via e commerce.
And we found we were pretty early in the Shopify plus ecosystem. And I think we quickly became one of the fastest groups to reach various thresholds of number of orders done through the platform. But because that was the best solution on offer, and we felt like had the biggest scale that could take us from nascent organization all the way to something that was very large scale.
It was pretty clear early on Shopify was the best solution and we've been proven really right about that. And I will say, as I mentioned earlier, you know, when you're in the early business building phase of your company, you get so much advice and people have these narratives in their head, like, Oh, like, you know, Shopify will never scale.
Like you guys are gonna have to get off that and you have to be really data oriented when it comes to this, like, look at the requirements that you have as a business, look at your future roadmap, engage with. The vendor, whatever that technology solution is. In the case of e commerce, we work with Shopify's team incredibly closely to align our product roadmaps and understand where they're pushing further than us, where we're pushing further than them and make sure that we time things appropriately so that we can scale the infrastructure of the business to support our ambitions on the consumer side.
And Shopify has been an incredible partner. I, and just to be clear, I'm not paid by Shopify, although Toby, if you're listening, I'm happy to text you some wire instructions, but it is something like, I think. Anyone starting a consumer products business would be absolutely crazy to use a different platform at this point.
And I know tons of huge companies are migrating over to the solution because they've really proven that they can scale to the biggest size.
[00:39:27] Hala Taha:
[00:39:35] Hala Taha: And it's so cool to see how there's so many companies of all sizes using Shopify.
So I have a social media business, a podcast network. And one of my businesses is I sell courses and I sell them on Shopify. for all these entrepreneurs, cause I think a lot of my listeners I've been talking about Shopify for a long time, so I'm sure a lot of people are on Shopify.
Talk to them about how over the last decade that you've been able to scale using that platform. What are the ways that you've scaled on
[00:40:01] Joey Zwillinger: Shopify? From day one, we had a seamless shopping experience for e commerce. If you were in the U. S. or New Zealand, you had localized currency. You had the opportunity to click a button and something would show up at your door in three days, and you'd be just breathtakingly wowed by how easy it is.
I've had people tell me that after a couple glasses of wine, they would find two days later, Allbirds shoes showed up at their doorstep and they're like, shit, I did it again because it's that easy. Like you almost forget it. It's so seamless. So that was true from day one. But I talked about the vision for distribution for the company.
We wanted to be a global brand. We started in two countries from day one, we also wanted to be omni channel, so we wanted to make sure that the infrastructure to support an ambition like that was robust enough to allow us to do that. So what is Shopify allowed us to do? First, there's amazing interfaces to systems that are vital.
To our ability to create an amazing customer experience, I would say we have something we refer to as a product information management system where every one of our product in our catalog can spit out into multiple different nodes of Shopify for different countries. It'll have the right pricing and everything will be entered perfectly.
It'll launch at the same time. We have a content management system where we can send out translated text and translated copy into various markets. We have interfaces with our warehouses so that we have really seamless order interchange, and we are sure of where every single product is across the cycle.
We've integrated our radio frequency ID tags that are on every single product. So we have 99. 9 percent accuracy share both our auditors, our planners, and our finance people absolutely love. And so we can understand where everything is all the time. So that, that kind of backend support is incredibly important.
It's also the front end. So the front end I've talked about the digital experience, but Shopify is also supported where we had at times far ahead of where Shopify was thinking for our point of sale and retail experiences. And so we launched our stores. Before Shopify really had any kind of a semblance of a point of sale solution.
They've updated that many times and have consistently invested in that, which really supports us with a fleet of 50 plus stores now. We need one pool of inventory, understanding where everything is that enables us tied to some of the other technology investments we've made to do things like ship from store, which is incredibly supportive for profit on the back end for what we're needing to do to reach customers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
So these are just a small smattering of examples, and I would just say, zooming back, you know, the idea that Shopify has thousands of engineers focused. Solely on this problem allows us to not even think about it and sure we have to do alignment with our road map and we have an amazingly talented group of engineers, but they are an order of magnitude smaller than what we would have had to have done if we started to try to build things and really not rent software from the best providers in the world.
Yeah. And I
[00:43:19] Hala Taha: just want to call out something that you said that I think is really important is that Shopify is not just an e commerce platform. They are the leading e commerce platform where 10 percent of all e commerce business is happening on Shopify. But as you grow and scale and your business channels change or go to market channels change and you want to be retail, like you were mentioning, you can also utilize Shopify and everything is all in one place, whereas if it was different platforms, it'd be really clunky to manage and make sure that everything's super cohesive.
[00:43:48] Kevin: Yeah, that's right. And, we've been privileged to have a partnership with Shopify where we have, you know, access to the key people who matter and Shopify to make sure that when they look us in the eyes and say they're investing in this for the long haul that we're like, okay, we're on board. Yeah.
[00:44:05] Hala Taha: And thank you for paving the way for many of us entrepreneurs going in your footsteps later on and able to use those Shopify features. Okay, so let's talk about why you decided to go IPO. So you guys pretty recently went IPO. What was the decision making process around that? And how do you feel that IPO enabled you to sort of future proof your business?
[00:44:27] Joey Zwillinger: If you've been listening for a few minutes here, you can understand that we never really started with a small idea. It always was about a vision that we would be proud to tell our grandkids about. Every time we sell a pair of shoes, it's better for our business and it's better for the world. So with that alignment, with that kind of purpose native construct that we've created for the business, it's really important to get big.
We've made a lot of investments in growth along the way. Some work, some don't. And we always wanted to have the fuel in the tank, or the battery charged in the EV, I suppose would be a better analogy here. We wanted to make sure that we had the power in order to achieve those ambitions and getting on a global scale being an independent company was something that was important to us until we felt like we really reached a scale where we had started to scratch at at achieving our mission and we're nowhere close to that yet.
You know, that said, neither Tim nor I are ideological about the best way to achieve the mission. It might be independent. It might not be. We've never been wed to a single point of view on that. But until someone presents us with a path that looks better than. Building this on our own, the core offering of what we do and doing it in the way that we know is the right way to do things from a consumer products perspective.
Uh, we wanted to make sure we had a ton of ability to do that. And capital is really important. And so that moment was an opportunity to refill the gas in the tank and. Allow us to keep investing in the long term picture that we, we believe we could and
[00:46:06] Hala Taha: talk to us about some of the innovations that your company has made and the ways that you've delivered on your purpose when it comes to sustainability and
[00:46:14] Joey Zwillinger: things like that.
Where do I start? I mean, almost every component in our shoe has some real innovation to it that is designed to deliver unbelievable, tangible luxury for people and that tangible luxury manifests itself. And the most comfortable footwear that you've ever experienced. And I often tell people, you know, try our shoes for three days and then go back to whatever else you were wearing and the absence of comfort that you will feel and the exhaustion that your body will signal to you at the end of a day, when you put back on your old pair of shoes that aren't all birds.
Is the best signal of the kind of comfort that we deliver. And so how do we do that? The very first innovation that we had was with Merino wool. We designed a textile that, that was bespoke for footwear that had the, stood up to the durability challenges that is quite high for a pair of shoes, but yet delivered all of the magical benefits of this miracle fiber that regulates temperature.
You know, it keeps you cool when it's hot, hot, when it's cold and is silky soft and just delivers unbelievable comfort. So, you know, that was step number one, the sole of our shoe took us probably three full years to bring the market. We call it sweet foam and we were able to utilize some of the. R and D from my background work with a company down in Brazil, which happens to be kind of the Saudi Arabia equivalent of sugar cane that it is for, for oil.
Uh, and about 50 percent of the world's production of sugar cane is made in Brazil. And we were able to work with a partner to derivatize a waste stream of sugar cane production to create one of the most comfortable, great feeling rides for the soul of a shoe. And so now we have this carbon negative material born from a waste stream of sugar cane that delivers unbelievable cushion and comfort underfoot that is across our entire lineup of shoes.
We've come with great innovations. We're speaking now as we enter into the colder months of the year and we have amazing warmer fabrics. With a membrane that can stop rain from getting in the shoe, keep you waterproof while you're walking around and grit for the bottom. I mean, I go on and on and on and these are all consumer oriented, tangible luxury benefits that are then gift with purchase.
We happen to do it with the constraints that it had to be better for the earth.
[00:48:36] Hala Taha: It's such a great story. It's such great products. I've never tried Allbirds. So I am like, you've sold me. I'm ready to try some Allbirds
And I know you have a new product coming out. Can you talk to us about that?
[00:48:49] Joey Zwillinger: Yeah, send us your size and address, and we'll be sure you're one of the first to try it on. Seven years ago, a little over seven years ago, seven and a half years ago, we launched the Wool Runner. That was the first product we ever came out with March 1st, 2016.
And this is a moment where we're going back to that iconic silhouette and we made, you know, more than a dozen, very significant changes to the shoe. It is a modernized aesthetic, incredible and durability. And a vast improvement on a whole number of other dimensions that are important in the footwear construction and also, of course, for the planet.
So we've made incredible strides. We're kind of going back to the core here and you're going to see both some exciting content as well as an amazing, amazing new product. That I think is going to really excite the world again.
[00:49:43] Hala Taha: Awesome. And I can't wait to study your launch, see how you position everything, your messaging, because you seem super smart in terms of how to position your product.
So it was such a great conversation, Joey. I end my show with two questions that I ask all my guests. And then at the end of the year, we do something really fun with it. So the first question is, what is one piece of actionable advice that you can give my young improfiters today? To make them more profitable
[00:50:10] Joey Zwillinger: tomorrow, I think it's as simple as do more with less and just have incredible focus and understand the metrics that you're trying to achieve and focus and clarity with what you're doing and what you're trying to send the message to whomever your customer is, whether it's a another enterprise or a consumer.
Be super clear and be super focused on your activity to reach that exact singularity that you're looking to convey to the customer. And what is your
[00:50:39] Hala Taha: secret to profiting in life? And this can go beyond the topic of today's episode, it can go beyond your own, you know, business, personal career, finance.
What is your secret to profiting in life?
[00:50:51] Joey Zwillinger: I think the model, I guess I aspire to, which I'm not going to subscribe that I achieve it. Is, if you think about the most important things in my life, family, health, personal health, and what I do in business, if I can match those circles up, think about them as little circles as tightly as like the concentric circles in a tree, I have the greatest harmony in my life.
And I'd be remiss if I went through talking about the all bird story for as long as we have here without noting how important. That interaction between my wife and I have been for the success and the creativity that is at the heart of what the company does, not to take anything away from my partner, Tim, but from my contributions, I would have been a fraction of the effectiveness if I didn't have that tight harmony between my personal life and my family with what I did professionally, and
that kind of harmony has been very helpful for me.
[00:51:56] Hala Taha: Joey, thank you so much for your time here on young and profiting podcast. So much advice for entrepreneurs. You've got an incredible story, incredible company, all birds. Where can everybody learn more about you, your company, all birds and everything that you do?
[00:52:09] Joey Zwillinger: The best place is by buying a pair of shoes to do that at all birds. com or one of our phenomenal immersive. Wonderful retail stores. That's probably very close to wherever you're listening.
[00:52:21] Hala Taha: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today. It was a pleasure. Thanks, Hala.
Young Improfiters, I got so much out of this interview with Joey Zwillinger. It's so wonderful to see how something meaningful, like a passion for sustainability, could lead into building a huge, successful, impactful company like Allbirds, which is literally revolutionizing its industry. And for Joey, his mission was all about vision, focus, and execution, and of course, having the right tools to execute.
When it comes to vision, Joey mentioned this restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan called Zinger Men's Deli. It's been in business for more than 40 years, and it's famous for its bread and sandwiches, which Oprah once rated as an 11 on a scale of one to five. Zingerman's is also famous for its visioning. They write out a vivid description of what success looks like and feels like for everything from a five-year business plan to a dinner special for that evening.
I'll put a link in the show notes so you can read more about it. It's super interesting. Another thing that was pivotal to Allbirds success was focus. With so many things coming at them, Joey had to continually remind himself that they were a product and marketing company first. That means they had to say no to a lot of things.
And that means that they couldn't have built their own e commerce platform. It meant that everything needed to come back to delivering on their promise to their customers that they were making the most comfortable shoe in the world. But of course, it's not enough to have a clear vision and a keen focus.
You need the technology to execute on that vision. And from day one, thanks to Shopify, all birds had a seamless shopping experience for their e commerce. As a small company, they could go direct to consumer with very little investment and time. And even as they grew and scaled to the huge global brand that they are today, they didn't have to hire a ton of engineers in seamless experience.
Shopify scaled with them, even as they expanded to brick and mortar retail shops. Well, that's all for this episode. And I'd like to thank Joey for coming on by and Shopify for sponsoring this special series about how technology is changing the landscape of entrepreneurship. And if you want to get your pair of the newly released wool runner two shoes, you can get them at allbirds.
com. Thanks for listening to this episode of young and profiting podcast. If you listen, learned and profited from this conversation with the visionary Joey Zwillinger, please share this episode with your friends and family and drop us a five star review on Apple podcast. If you prefer to watch your podcast as videos, you can always find us on YouTube.
Just look up Young Profiting and all of our episodes are uploaded there as video podcasts. You can also find me on Instagram at Yap with Hala or LinkedIn if you search my name, it's Hala Taha. I also want to shout out my amazing production team, my executive producer Jason, Amelia, our assistant producer, Furkan and Hesham for helping us with guest outreach, Greta and Sean for supporting research.
Kriti Garima, Ashutosh, and Ambika for supporting us with AdOps for my show and the entire network. You guys are awesome. Thank you so much. I love my team at YAP Media. And that was only just a small sliver of them. We've got over 50 people who work at YAP Media. So shout out to everybody who works at this company.
I love you guys so much. Appreciate all your hard work. This is your host, Halataha, aka the podcast princess, signing off.
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