How a Jewish Deli in Ann Arbor Inspired the Phenomenon that is Allbirds

Find the nearest Jewish deli STAT. Image credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/75998312440917180/

Ok, now that you’re officially salivating along with me, let’s dive into Joey Zwillinger’s Silicon Slopes Tech Summit 2018 talk.

We’re covering: inspiration, motivation, focus, brand and product/market.

Primer:

Allbirds is a phenomenon. Since launching in March 2016 with just one shoe design (unheard of in the shoe industry), the company has grabbed headlines and capital while cementing itself as the shoe to wear if you’re hoofing it around Silicon Valley / Alley.

I myself, a traditional stalwart against hype, have fallen prey to the momentum Allbirds is currently enjoying. So much so that I just found myself questioning why I was not wearing my Allbirds at Joey’s session. Some brand enthusiast I am…

I ran across the brand via Twitter, then had a lunch meeting with a guy wearing them. They caught my eye, I asked what they were, and he brought me into the fold.

A week later, they were on my Christmas list (yes, I now have one of those again thanks to my wife.) and two weeks later, they were on my feet (thanks to my in-laws).

Session Notes:

On Inspiration:

A Deli?

Indeed. Turns out a Jewish deli in Ann Arbor served as one of Joey’s main inspirations as he was working with his Co-Founder build out the vision for Allbirds, mentioned below in the “On Brand” section.

Sounds like I need to get myself to Zingerman’s to read this book over a corned beef sandwich.

My meal from Seigfried’s German deli in SLC. Yeah I know, it’s actually “recency bias”

On Motivation:

A Good, Old-fashioned Challenge.

Joey and his Co-Founder Tim (former pro/national team soccer player in New Zealand turned wildly successful startup Founder, #lifeaintfair) looked at the shoe industry as total outsiders and decided to have a go.

Why? Because of their innate love for all things shoe? Unh-uh…Joey and Tim didn’t really care about shoes or retail. What they did care about was what they viewed to be a lack of leadership in an industry and the challenge to provide that leadership.

I believe in this. You don’t have to come from or even care about your industry to be successful. You can draw motivation and inspiration from somewhere else (generally solving a problem you feel is going unaddressed) and use that to fuel your efforts in that industry.

On Focus:

Aww Hell Naw.

Remember how Stewart Butterfield extolled the virtues of constraints for creativity? Well, Joey credits some of the success Allbirds has been having to constraining themselves to not do that many things.

This penchant for saying NO to new and shinies is a forced mode of discipline that keeps them keyed into their ethos of simplicity and working on what really matters. Reeks of sound product management practices.

Multiple times throughout his talk, Joey referenced them saying NO to smart people advising them to do things. I think he may have actually said “we said not to absolutely everything.” Now, I don’t know Joey, but I don’t get the sense he’s super arrogant and smarter than thou. I think he just has an intense belief in the benefits of focus and conviction in one’s approach. Easier said than done.

Less is More.

Yes, this is a cliche. Give me a break, I don’t write headlines for a living. Joey touched on their reductive design approach. Stripping away everything but the essentials. They’re not throwing massive logos and crazy color schemes on their shoes to make them pop.

This is a liberty they have by controlling their distribution and thus their destiny. Like fellow Wharton alum Warby Parker, Allbirds sells exclusively through their website (e-commerce) and their soon to be retail stores.

Joey mentioned how brands selling wholesale employ a design filter of “Will this jump off the shelf?” It’s sales-centric, not customer-centric, but this is the game they’ve put themselves in as they compete for shelf space and customer awareness against multiple other shoe lines.

Oh yeah, Allbirds also does not offer any discounts. They feel they offer a fair price for the value they deliver. Imagine that.

On Brand:

I Promise.

It’s crucial to create a brand voice, comprised of words and tone. Your brand voice is the conveyance of your brand promise and the attributes you use to deliver on it.

You must marry your product attributes with your brand promise. For Allbirds, their brand promise/purpose is:

“Making Better Things in a Better Way”

The attributes they focus on to deliver this promise are simplicity, comfort and sustainability.

A Moat.

Joey said that they have always thought about their brand as their sustainable advantage. Their advantage is not wool. Sure, it’s different, but once other companies see its success, they can easily make wool shoes. They cannot easily replicate a strong brand.

Buy In.

Joey shared that that every new hire candidate that makes it to a final round interview signs an NDA and then reads Allbirds 10-year vision (a 3-page document that Joey and Tim co-authored with support from their early team). The vision looks out to 2026 and asks what the past two years have looked like for Allbirds.

I highly recommend this exercise for founding/exec teams. It’s worthwhile, and if anyone fights you that it’s not, remove them from your organization.

On Product/Market:

Race to the Bottom.

Prior to Allbirds, Joey was in the sustainable chemicals space, naturally. He said that a common refrain from potential customers was “Does it do the same thing that my current product does but cheaper?”

Anyone who has sold a product into a market that does not value it (or does not know how to value it) knows how demoralizing this is. I face it regularly when I’m talking with Founders about a different way to finance their growth. I get asked about price in probably 70% of initial conversations. I doubt this is the case when the same Founders are talking with VC’s (btw the answer there is probably about 25% of your company).

But I digress, back to Joey. After six years schlepping sustainable chemicals, he determined enough was enough. What had started as a passion and an avenue to deliver impact had turned into a non-huffing induced headache to be battled on a daily basis. Thanks silly market participants, you helped bring us Allbirds!

Joey Giveth and Joey Taketh Away.

“The absence of comfort is where you really miss it.” Joey said that nobody really buys shoes based on comfort. It’s kind of expected and every shoe is going to be marketed as comfortable.

Leading up to their launch, Joey asked members of the media to wear Allbirds for three days. What he did was build a baseline against which to measure the other shoes they wore. Once Allbird was extracted from foot and replaced with another shoe, they realized what they were missing, that sweet sweet comfort.

This apparently worked as, on the day they launched, a Time Magazine author called the Allbirds he was sent the world’s most comfortable shoe. Joey said “…and that helped a lot.”


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