Allbirds, a San Francisco startup that raised $9.95 million from venture capitalists, has become a hit in Silicon Valley with its knit wool loafers — machine-washable shoes meant to be worn without socks.
SAN FRANCISCO — Silicon Valley goes through its own unique shoe crazes. There were Vibrams. There were Crocs.
Now comes the Allbird, a knit wool loafer. In uncomfortable times, Silicon Valley has turned to a comfortable shoe. If there’s a venture capitalist nearby, there’s probably a pair of Allbirds, too.
Google co-founder Larry Page wears Allbirds, according to the shoemaker, as do former Twitter chief Dick Costolo and venture capitalists Ben Horowitz and Mary Meeker.
Founded by a New Zealand soccer star and a clean-technology entrepreneur, Allbirds makes the sneakerlike shoes from wool and castor-bean oil. Slightly fuzzy to the touch, Allbirds have minimal styling (tiny logos only) and come in two versions: a runner and a lounger. Both styles, for men and women, sell for $95. Allbirds, which has a retail outlet in San Francisco, is opening a store in Manhattan next month.
In true Silicon Valley fashion, Allbirds is a startup. Is it venture funded? Of course it is. The company has raised $9.95 million over the last year to spread its vision. But this being startup land, a shoe is never just a shoe.
“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.
So, for now, this insular world has settled on Allbirds — machine-washable shoes meant to be worn without socks.
At Allbirds’ office, in one of San Francisco’s oldest buildings on a high-end shopping street downtown, Brown and Allbirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger, a former clean-tech entrepreneur, told the story of how they became Silicon Valley’s cobblers.
In 2009, 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,” Brown said. With a research grant from New Zealand’s wool industry, 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,” the 36-year-old co-founder said.
Zwillinger, an engineer in biotechnology and also 36, 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. Brown traveled to Northern California to meet Zwillinger and get advice on supply chains. 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,” 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, Zwillinger is an avid birder.
For a while, there was little tech interest. Then, in mid-2016, 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,” Zwillinger said. “Our demo went from mostly female to way male. A run started happening.”
Dave Morin, an investor at Slow Ventures, which put money into Allbirds, said the startup was a place to invest “in the material science and the dream.”
“No. 1, breakthrough material; two, you didn’t need socks, that changes the idea of shoes; and No. 3, it was a single shoe,” Morin said. “I think of it as classic Apple simplicity strategy.”
Others were more hesitant.
“I don’t think Silicon Valley has ever set, is currently setting, or ever will set any fashion trends,” said Costolo, the former Twitter chief executive who wears Allbirds.
Brown and Zwillinger said they planned to release new colors of shoes (currently six are available, including pine and moss) and, eventually, shoes for children. A reporter saw a pair of flip-flops that appeared to be made of bamboo or very firmly packed leaves. “Market research,” Zwillinger said.
The co-founders hope to appeal to the same consumer who buys basic clothes from Everlane, also based in San Francisco, and eyewear from Warby Parker. (Two Warby Parker founders are Allbirds investors.) Shoes are an $80 billion industry in the United States, where the average American buys eight pairs a year, according to a Euromonitor International Passport report.
“If you were going to design one sneaker and only one, what would it look like? We focused on this idea of a singular solution,” Brown said. “The right amount of nothing.”