Radically Personal S1 E7
Changing the World, One Step at a Time
What does it mean to be more like a tree than a business? According to Allbirds CEO, Joey Zwillinger, it’s all about giving back more to the environment than you take from it. And that is the premise that drives a lot of the decision-making behind what the sustainable, eco-conscious brand creates, from the sugar cane-based shoe soles to t-shirts made from discarded crab shells. In this episode, Joey shares the principles and driving force behind Allbirds, and the investments the brand makes into ensuring their customers have the best experience no matter the medium they use to meet the brand.
To make better things in a better way. That sums up what we do as a company. We try and aspire, first of all, to be more like a tree than a company, giving back more than we extract. Secondly, we want to do that by making great products.
Welcome to Radically Personal, where we explore the behind-the-scenes stories of today’s most beloved brands: how they started, what their mission is—and how they’re building enduring relationships with customers and showing them how they have their best interests at heart.
I’m Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly, where we’re on a mission to help companies reinvent customer service and deliver on the promise of radically personal customer experiences.
On today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking to my friend Joey Zwillinger—the co-founder and CEO of Allbirds. In this episode, Joey shares the big idea behind why he and co-founder Tim Brown started Allbirds. And, spoiler alert, it wasn’t born out of a deep passion for shoes.
It started bigger than a shoe because neither Tim or I really cared that much about shoes when we started this business to be honest…We do now. We really do now.
We also talk about how Zingerman’s, a small Jewish deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan helped shape the mission and future for Allbirds.
They make great bread, they make great sweets. But they also do something around visioning, which we found very powerful and inspirational.
Why treating their customers like people, and building relationships matters.
It’s common sense, human connection is going to drive more understanding and deeper engagement to a brand or a product. And so how do we then connect that in an effective way? We need to talk to those customers like human beings.
And we talk about the real story behind the letter heard all around the world: the one that starts with ‘Dear Mr Bezos’.
It was a funny moment because we’ve been ripped off a bunch before and so that was not a new idea to us but Amazon was different
We had so much to talk about we’ve ended up creating a special bonus episode too, so be sure to follow us on Apple podcasts and Spotify to hear that one too.
This is Radically Personal.
Welcome, everybody. I am super excited to welcome Joey, the co-CEO, and co-founder of Allbirds to Radically Personal. Joey, welcome. Nice to have you.
Thank you so much for having me, Joseph. Thrilled.
We have had so many great conversations about entrepreneurship and culture and customer experience. And so I’m really excited to share some of those conversations here. But let’s start with the Allbirds story. What’s the big idea? It’s so much bigger than a shoe.
Yeah, and it started bigger than a shoe because neither Tim or I really cared that much about shoes when we started this business to be honest.
[laughs] Woah, big spoiler alert.
Yeah. We do now. [chuckles] We really do now.
I actually came from a fairly different background than what you might expect someone to come into the shoe biz. I was working at a biotech firm, and we engineered microorganisms to replace a variety of different products. I led the chemicals division, so I was replacing petrochemicals with microalgae.
What we did was we program these little organisms to eat a low carbon intensity feedstock, like sugarcane or some other carbon source, and convert that through their biomechanics, and through the organism, metabolize the sugar and produce something that could replace something very dirty for the planet. A particular petrochemical.
I’d go to multinationals and brands and I would say, “We’ve got this amazing sustainability profile, we have amazing performance. Do you want to buy it?” And at first, they’d be like, “That’s incredible. Come in, meet everybody, pitch it.” Then, it would go, “Can you just do what we do now and do it cheaper?”
It opened my eyes to this concept that there is this lip service being paid to sustainability. And consumers— I had such strong conviction consumers want it and brands were getting in the way. I had knowledge that the technology existed because I was one of the people making it and brands were getting in the way. I felt like there’s an opportunity to go downstream. What industry, I had no idea, and that’s where my knight in shining armor, my co-founder, Tim Brown comes in.
His background in design, he was a professional athlete sponsored by the big athletic footwear companies. We saw a big opportunity because there is a lot of shoes made every year, 20 billion in the US, that’s about eight per person per year. This is a big deal. We felt like it was a big leadership opportunity, and that’s why we went in.
Yeah, so it’s really a lot more about wanting to change the world, and improve the world than it was originally really about this idea of creating the world’s most comfortable shoe, if you will?
Yeah. 100%, it was about the idea that climate change is the problem of our generation. If we don’t solve it, it’s an existential question of whether we survive as a species.
And if we can play a role, in something as important as that, and we think that shoes can actually be a great wedge in to story tell and do something special on the manufacturing side, that’s something important to spend your life doing.
Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s great. And I do agree. We’re living this challenge of climate change here in the Bay Area. The last four weeks of fires and smoke and everything else. It’s literally on our doorsteps. I don’t know how else to describe it anymore to people.
Yeah, we should all be panicked and we should all do something about it.
Climate change is the North star for us to combat that. We think it’s the beating heart of the planet. There’s a lot of other environmental issues that matter to us but if your heart stops beating, the rest of them don’t matter so much. So climate change is number one.
Some people look to the stars for inspiration. For the team at Allbirds, that inspiration came from a rather more unexpected source: Zingerman’s deli in Michigan.
You shared a little bit of a story about Zingerman’s Deli, and the role they played in actually, creating a vision document. And you shared that vision document with me, which I thought was really well-written. I think you wrote it four years ago.
When you try to describe that vision to people, and to your team and to stakeholders, what are those key principles that you thought of then that you still live in today?
And how does it affect how you make decisions day-to-day?
Maybe just for a little context. Zingerman’s Deli is a little Jewish deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They make great bread, they make great sweets. But they also do something around visioning, which we found very powerful and inspirational.
What they ask you to do is put yourself some time into the future, look backwards, and write what happened. What we chose to do when we started, the company was about three months after we launched to consumers. So we launched to consumers in March of 16th, and we wrote this in June of 16th. We said, “What does it look like 10 years in the future? What have we accomplished? What have we done?”
And through a number of iterations and involving the founding team that we had at the time, we crafted what we would say no to. It forced us to choose and align on the strategic priorities for who we were as a business and what we were trying to accomplish.
As you write that down, you weave through 10 years of, as specific as you can get on what you do, while leaving enough to mystery so that it remains relevant. As long it has remained relevant for us, which is now going on almost five years.
What does it do? It says who you are. We didn’t say we were going to make a running shoe and a ballet flat. It says: we are going to focus on being an innovation center related to natural materials and creating very differentiated products as a result of that research and development.
We said we were going to be a vertical brand that wasn’t going to use wholesale partners. And we were going to be a purpose-driven company that embraced stakeholder views of the world for how the private sector should engage with society, versus the shareholder only profit at all costs mentality.
That was how we were going to build a great culture, a great company, and a great financial outcome for everyone involved.
What’s so powerful about that is that in clarifying all of those strategic choices, you hand it over to a candidate in the final round of interviews, and some people think you’re a hippie with a flower in your ear. Some people think you’re really smart, and they’re inspired by it. If you’re one of the latter, you might join our company. If you’re one of the former, you might opt not to, and that’s great because we don’t want people that don’t align with that mission and share the values that we have.
Yeah. I talk internally a lot at Gladly about this. Our goal is to find people who believe what we believe. You got to first start by writing it down.
It’s such a powerful thing when people just believe in that mission. It helps to get through all those challenges that are going to happen day-to-day. When I was reading through your doc that you shared, you actually said exactly what you just described back then. If I can read a little bit from it, which is, “You’ve transformed from a company with one style of shoe to a global leader in the evolution of a movement to make better things in a better way.”
And that better things in a better way is so foundational to what you were trying to do. That’s the best way to describe the big idea.
That is our mission statement, “To make better things in a better way.” That sums up what we do as a company.
We try and aspire, first of all, to be more like a tree than a company traditionally, giving back more than we extract. Secondly, we want to do that by making great products. We don’t want to compromise on what that product needs to do for a consumer just because it’s sustainable. We want it to be better for the consumer because it’s sustainable.
That’s how we view our role in the world.
When you think about this idea of better things in a better way. You list your ingredients, in your products and your shoes. Some of the things you’re using, was like castor oil, sugar cane products. I was reading through them. “How do you make a shoe from sugar products? How does that work?”
That is one of our proudest accomplishments. If I could ask you to bear with me, I’ll tell you a little story about how we created that. When we started the company, before we launched to consumers, we knew we had an issue with the sole of the shoe. That’s s-o-l-e, the sole is strong. Not s-o-u-l.
The sole is made from a petrochemical derivative and the whole world of sneakers uses it—it‘s the most ubiquitous component. I happened, from the previous background that I mentioned around the biotech company I worked at, to know that there is a company in Brazil that could take a waste stream of sugar cane processing and convert that into a valuable chemical. I had this vision that we could convince them to make this specific derivative we wanted to make.
So we flew down to Brazil with a mock-up of the front page of the Wall Street Journal. We wrote in that article what we were going to do for the world as a partnership together. The company’s called Braskem. So Braskem and Allbirds get together and change the world through this innovation with sugar cane.
Lo and behold, we convinced them, and they invested many millions of dollars in their manufacturing facility in the very southern tip of Brazil to convert sugar cane waste stream into what we now call SweetFoamTM.
And SweetFoamTM is this unbelievably comfortable sole that we put on the bottom of the shoe and it’s better for the product. And it is a carbon-negative product. So in the manufacturer of this component, it actually sucks more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it takes to create, helping combat climate change. With that vision, we said, “Wow, that’s so good that we should share it.”
So we’ve opened sourced it. The altruism there as if everyone used it, the world would be sucking carbon out of the atmosphere in much greater magnitude, much more than we could ever do as an individual company.
And pragmatically, from a business perspective, we ensure that we get a good deal and the price keeps going down for that component. It’s a win-win, and that’s sort of the tension that we want to eradicate, that good business can’t be done sustainably. That is a tension that shouldn’t exist.
That’s great. The level of innovation that you’re doing there is great to hear about it. I don’t think a lot of people know that and think about that when they think of Allbirds, to be honest, and I wish more people actually knew it because it’s making a huge difference and impact and it has to start somewhere and it’s great to see.
I agree with that perspective that not a lot of people know that and I’m uncomfortable with it, but I also have always recognized that better things in a better way, the first and most important part is that it needs to be better things.
When people come to our store or our website or our app, they want to buy an amazing product. Whether it’s sustainable or not, is now a secondary consideration in the mind of the consumer for the most part.
That’s changing and that’s evolving quite quickly—more quickly than I anticipated—but it’s still true that it needs to deliver what you want to set to deliver and so we focus on that. Then on the back of that, when we notify you that your product’s being shipped, we also ask you to tell us where you want to direct your carbon credit when you purchase a product.
We do it in subtle ways. For us, that story will unfold over time, and being a relatively young company, we want that to blossom and we just need to be authentic and make sure that we stay true to our values internally so that when the story is told, it’s from a place of real innovation and methodical and objective analysis and processes.
Customer experience is the guiding principle for so many brands, but Allbirds takes it to the next level from how they think about the details of their online experience, to designing custom seats that make trying on shoes easier, to how their customer experience team engages with their customers.
It’s all about making the experience feel effortless.
You mentioned a couple of other things—your e-Commerce site, stores, app. You not only are doing innovation and material science, you really are doing a lot of innovations and excellence in how you run the company, and how you think about customer experience.
If you had to describe your similar set of principles when you think about customer experience. Like when you walk into a physical retail store at Allbirds, you get a similar feeling than if I’m in the app, or if I’m actually on the website, for examples, what’s that customer experience principle for Allbirds?
Yeah I appreciate you saying that. And the way retail is going, it’s very difficult for brands and retailers to compete with Amazon, Walmart, the big guys. One of the most important ways to do so is through the control of proprietary merchandise.
If you can only get Allbird’s product on allbirds.com or in one of our stores, you’re more likely to go there if you think it’s special. When you go to that store, better damn well be great retail experience or that website or the app. Whatever the touchpoint, it needs to be an incredible experience that is much better than Amazon.
I think we have absolutely superior experience to Amazon in every way you could possibly imagine in terms of what we do for consumers.
You think about that on our website, it goes from price to convenience to quality to education to understanding of what you’re getting and setting expectations. Then when you go to the store, it’s kind of amazing service quality.
We’ve gone down all the way to the packaging of the product where we have designed a box that allows us to bring it in a beautiful form closer to the customer when they enter the store, so that when they ask for a particular style and size, we can deliver it within 30 seconds to a custom-made seat that you can bend down and helps you tie your shoe better so that you have the best experience you possibly can.
Then, you think about when we engage with those customers, they give us so much insight into our products; what’s wrong? What’s going great? That we learn from them every day. So we need to invest in technology that allows us to be tightly connected with them.
Some of that is just data that we then look at from a pattern recognition perspective. Some of that is in customer service and how we interact with customers.
What we found is when a customer who talks to our service agents that has bought, for example, two pairs of shoes and you compare that customer to someone who has not talked to our customer service agents, the LTV, the lifetime value that customer who has talked to the agents significantly increased compared to the one who has not talked to the service agent.
It’s common sense, human connection is going to drive more understanding and deeper engagement to a brand or a product. How do we then connect that in an effective way? We need to talk to those customers like human beings and we need to understand like we’re having a lifetime conversation with them and learning about them along the way, how could we make their experience better every time?
For us it is so omnichannel, it is so foundational to our product to the way we work as a company and to the eventual customer experience and happiness that we create for our customers.
And it’s in no small part due to our partnership with Gladly, so I’ll throw a, give you a little shout out there.
(laughs) Thank you
You said it sounds like common sense. I have to tell you, I don’t know if everyone agrees.
I actually think from our very first early conversations when we started talking about exactly what you said, most people look at the post-sale experience as a cost. But it really isn’t.
The fact that you know that people that actually engage with you on support of higher lifetime value. I think you and several other companies, you really on the forefront of actually thinking about it differently and not thinking about it as a cost center and really thinking about it as a revenue center.
Again, I don’t think that’s actually common sense, to be honest with you.
Revenue center almost implies that you’re going to change it to a sales organization and in some ways that’s 100% true There’s real value created and we endeavor to do that, we endeavor to make sure that our customer experience team interacts with customers in a way that helps educate such that they’ll learn more and want to covet our product even greater than they do today and buy more.
I don’t even know if you know this, we had a customer forum and some folks from your team, Karla and Steph were on. They were sharing a little bit about—Well they’re not trying to be a sales organization.
We rolled out this feature where you can take payments via chat, which is a great way, someone’s chatting in they’re asking a bunch of questions and they were sharing a little bit about how they were trying it and getting started on it. It’s become a very natural part of the conversation that they’re having with people, which is, people are asking a bunch of questions about the shoe. How does it fit? How do I clean it, et cetera? Then the ability to just say, “Hey, do you want me to help you and just put the order in for you?” It’s become very natural and I don’t know if that’s something that you try to or trying to create in the culture because of just how you make it very seamless to go from conversations to commerce if you will.
Look, our conversations have been very enlightening for me, and when we first started talking, we had found Gladly as an opportunity.
I was thinking about how we use—very abstractly at the time—thinking about how we use our customer experience team to actually like that second word, make the experience.
I had this view that we could turn this from a reactionary group of people that is taking in problems or answering basic questions to something that was much more high–value for the customer.
I think our conversations really helped shape that vision for me where it’s not about answering a question that a customer has but it’s about developing a relationship with them longitudinally, like do over time across different channels so we know if somebody likes to shop in our mobile app or in our store or in our website. We know if they like to gift products to their friends and family. We know what types of products, what colors they like.
And if we have a relationship with our customer where we understand that information about them as an individual, we’re obviously going to be able to make a better experience for them. That’s going to translate to better business for us. It’s also obviously going to help our impact as a company on the planet from an environmental perspective.
These things are very synced and aligned. We’re not super far down this journey, but the journey we’re on is to create wonderful, long-lasting relationships.
As we add new products into the mix for our company, we’d love to make sure that we identify customers who we know are going to love it. Educating those customers that we even have, who knows we have a running shoe? Very few people know that we have a running shoe right now.
I’m wearing them for the record. They’re so great.
Thank you. We got to understand our customers on an individual level in order to do that and we need technology and tools to be able to unpack that and then we need great people who share that vision. The people on our customer experience team, and our leader, Karla, that runs that has done just a fabulous job of instituting those principles within the team.
Yes. There’s that book, the score will take care of itself.
It’s not about the transaction. It’s about, “Hey, let’s be on the relationship. We do right by everyone by building better products and better ways, the transaction, the order, it’ll come.”
That approach, that you guys do is great and it gets people to fall in love. At the end of the day, when they fall in love with you, with Allbirds, the score will take care of itself in the end and that’s a great way to think about it.
Finding cheap knock-offs on Amazon isn’t anything new. But what happens Amazon themselves—the 800-pound eCommerce gorilla—makes the knock-off?
You talked a little bit about competition. You mentioned Amazon. About a year ago roughly, where they came out with that Amazon-branded shoe that I don’t know how else to describe it. It was basically a rip off of an Allbirds shoe. I’ll just say it like that.
You probably won’t say necessarily that way but two questions. One, when you first got that text message from Tim or whoever who sent it to you and was like, “Dude, we got a problem. Check this out.” What was going through your mind in that moment?
[laughs] If you curse, we can bleep it out, it’s totally okay. [laughs]
It was a funny moment because we’ve been ripped off a bunch before and so that was not a new idea to us but Amazon was different because what was immediately obvious is that you go to Amazon.com and you type in Allbirds.
You are passing data to Amazon, and you’re telling them that I’m interested in Allbirds. With over 50% of product searches originating in Amazon.com instead of Google, Amazon has really dominated the product search first discovery window when people are looking for a specific kind of product.
We understood that it was the first time that we’ve been ripped off algorithmically.
There’s a lot of people that are opportunists and they’re like, “Oh, I think Allbirds is doing great, people like them, let’s rip them off”, that’s one thing. But to algorithmically decide that you’re going to take the mercenary tactic and understand exactly what it is, try to rip off the aesthetics of the shoe to siphon off demand we’ve created.
Then, by the way, when we looked for the first time and what the knockoff was, there was reviewers that have been paid by Amazon through in-kind product to review the products positively.
Not only is it algorithmically you ripped off, but then, systematically doctored the outcome. It was a fascinating thing to be a part of and to experience. It was a different moment in terms of the other rip off that we had.
That said, we’ve never once for a moment believe that we were a wool company or a shoe company. And certainly, the Wool Runner that they have ripped off wasn’t going to be something that would make a company, it was a cool product, but that wasn’t what would make a company.
We always believed that we just had to keep innovating and be ahead of the competition and knock-offs would not be an issue if we were successful doing that.
We’ve always had that belief. I wouldn’t say I was upset any more than any other knockoff, but it was interesting.
What was great, actually, the second part of it is your response, the Dear Mr. Bezos letter.
If folks haven’t seen it go search for, I think it’s ‘Dear Mr. Bezos’, it’s on Medium, you wrote it and published it. And you didn’t really attack him, in terms of like knocking off a shoe. You said, “Hey, thanks, you copying us is nice, but why don’t you actually join us in this mission of sustainability?”
I just thought it was such a great high ground response that was hard to refute. I don’t know if he ever– Have you ever heard from him or anyone from Amazon after that, but I just thought it was such a great response was like, “Look, take our stuff, use the materials. Change the world with us.”
I just thought that that was such a great high ground response.
Thank you, yes, the SweetFoamTM material that we’ve produced, that’s carbon negative, and open source is available to anyone, including Amazon.
If you think about the market power that they have, by way of being able to get over 50% of product searches in the US, at least that is. Starting on Amazon.com. What if you use that in a powerful way to actually direct people to something that would impact the world positively rather than just getting an extra couple pennies on the bottom line by ripping off a design in a really harmful way for the environment.
For us it was one of those things, let’s not go to court it’s going to drag out for years, it’s going to be expensive, they have more lawyers than we have employees at Amazon, so what are we going to accomplish by doing that? Let’s just try to address the issue head-on and move on and keep innovating.
Yeah, that’s great. Continuing on that thread about competition and cooperation, you recently announced this partnership with Adidas.
Now, first of all, I loved how you did the announcement. It was like a late-night Tweet from Adidas like, “Hey, Allbirds, what are you doing? What’s up? What’s going on over there?” [laughs]
I thought it was genius, and then, Allbirds responded, “Just dreaming about some things and sustainability, et cetera.”
What’s the partnership about? How do I say it? They’re the opposite side of what you guys have tried to do historically, but what are you thinking about there?
Yes, it is definitely different, in the words of our counterparts at Adidas, they sold it in as, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
We looked at it a little bit different, we came to them and we said, “As a society, we’ve been making running shoes to make people run faster, and jump higher, do whatever for many decades.
And the pursuit of human performance is really aspirational and important but we’re running the wrong race. If we don’t, as a society, try to fix what we’ve created from a climate change perspective, the species will perish. And so, I think we should probably be racing against that, because we’re racing against the clock on that.
And if Allbirds becomes the biggest shoe company in the world, it’s going to make very little impact from a carbon mass balance perspective on climate change.
But if we can catalyze a movement, where we change the way people manufacture and the way consumers think about consuming, and we do that through collective action with collaborators, competitors, other industries, et cetera, then we got a shot at this.
And we got a real shot at turning back the clock on what’s happened to our planet, and we don’t have to keep sucking in smoke from wildfires in California, enduring hurricanes and changing water supplies and all this stuff that is really threatening our species.”
That was the idea and now, we’re in the hard work of little company and big company getting together and challenging each other to do something really special.
I can’t wait to see what comes of that.
The name of the podcast is Radically Personal. What’s something radically personal about you that most people don’t know?
I was thinking about this because I listened to your stuff, so I had a hunch this might come.
Something that’s really driven me to do what I’m doing stems from my dad, in his activist background.
In the 60s he moved from the East Coast to San Francisco and he was the leader of the professors’ union at San Francisco State University to create an African American Studies Department at the University which had been just abandoned as a plan that was previously agreed to by the Chancellor of the University.
He went on and do the strike for many months and led the Professor’s Union with the strike in concert with the students and ended up achieving the objective. It was the precursor to the free speech movement in Berkeley later on.
His view on the world, which has shaped me significantly is that our role as individuals is one that needs to contribute to society. If you have a conviction on what the right thing is to do, you can do it and your creativity and self-determination can really make it.
It’s been very shaping in my life and led me to. Whatever it was—he didn’t care what I did—it just had better well, be for the benefit of not just me and my family, but also society.
That’s a great story. Totally touching. Thank you for sharing that.
Joey, thanks so much for sharing the big idea behind Allbirds, and learning more about your mission to save the planet.
We at Gladly are proud to be your partner in delivering on the customer experience we’ve all come to know and love.
For everyone listening, there was so much good stuff in my conversation with Joey that we couldn’t fit it all into one episode.
We created a bonus episode where you can hear us talk more about entrepreneurship, the challenges in building a sustainable business, and how a shoe company is iterating like a software company.
I’m Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly.
If you enjoyed the episode, please be sure to subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify, or visit us at radicallypersonal.com. We’ll see you next time. Thanks for listening.
This is Radically Personal.