From kicking goals for the All Whites to designing footwear that Time Magazine called “the world’s most comfortable shoe”, Tim Brown is a man of many talents.
Wellingtonian Tim Brown burst onto the international sporting scene as a young, rambunctious midfielder for the NZ U-20 and U-23 teams, before debuting for the All Whites against the Solomon Islands in 2004.
He went on to become vice-captain of the Wellington Phoenix and one of seven foundation players signed in 2007 for its inaugural season in the A-League.
He was an influential member of the All Whites; he had a stint as captain and proudly vice-captained New Zealand at only its second FIFA World Cup appearance, in 2010 in South Africa, before retiring from professional sport in 2012.
Now, like a fine display of Darwinism, Tim’s foray into entrepreneurialism is proving equally as lively as his football career.
The woollen footwear company he founded, Allbirds, has introduced to the market a whole new category of casual designs for the suave and socially conscious, inspired by natural materials, and the world just can’t seem to get enough of the brand being dubbed the new Converse.
Launched in March 2016, Allbirds is evolving at light speed. It’s already popular with celebrities like Hollywood actress Jenna Dewan Tatum – best known for her leading role in blockbuster film Step Up, or for being Channing Tatum’s wife, depending on who you ask.
In May, Dewan Tatum shared a photo with her 746,000 Instagram followers of herself rocking a pair of Allbirds, and in September Allbirds received a $9 million boost from Maveron, the private equity fund established by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz.
But though his business may be going global at haste, Tim is vocal and appreciative of the fact that Kiwi influencers bind it.
Allbirds takes flight
When Tim announced his retirement from professional football in 2012 he had a clear plan to head to the UK to complete a post-graduate degree in business.
He’d been accepted into the London School of Economics and while he had some sense of wanting to start his own business, his first goal was to simply not get kicked out.
Perhaps underrating himself ever so slightly, not only did he graduate but while completing his studies he turned an epiphany he’d experienced years earlier into the beginnings of a very prosperous business venture.
“It all started back in 2009 with a few core insights. One, that there was a need for a beautiful, simple sneaker devoid of logos. Two, the footwear industry, as I started to understand it, is extraordinarily old fashioned and there was an opportunity to question and rethink aspects of the way it did things, namely materials and its focus on synthetics and leathers,” Tim says.
“This led me to thinking about wool, and finally, the most important reason why people buy shoes is comfort and this is very rarely paired with insight one, aesthetics.”
Upon finishing business school Tim launched a Kickstarter campaign for his first prototype, the Wool Runner, and remained in London for one year developing the Allbirds brand with a team of experts.
It was here he met, through a friend of a friend, Joey Zwillinger, who displayed an “incredibly complimentary set of skills to help build the business” and has proved an “incredible addition to the story of what is now Allbirds”.
Tim adds Joey has been influential in attracting crucial capital funding and helping the company gain global traction after the decision was made to base themselves in San Francisco.
Since officially launching in 2016 with a team of six people and just one shoe – the Wool Runner – for sale in the US and NZ, Allbirds has enjoyed an incredible first year by any definition.
“We are now a team of over 30; we just launched our second shoe – the Wool Lounger – a few weeks ago and are very excited about what we can achieve in the future.”
What exactly that may be is tightly under wraps but Tim promises “lots of exciting things”.
Not just a pretty shoe
Why wool? And not just any wool. Allbirds collaborated with one of the world’s great Italian textile mills to create an innovative new fabric: 17.5-micron superfine merino grown by farmers in the South Island of New Zealand.
As far back as 10,000 BC woollen cloth was being spun and woven by the tribes of northern Europe. Wool put New Zealand on the world trade map and Kiwis have enjoyed an affinity with it ever since. Tim considers it the super fibre du jour to trump all other textiles.
It’s natural, it’s easy care, it’s durable and it’s elastic. It is grown, not made, using less energy than man-made fibres during manufacture and it’s biodegradable, taking only a few years to decompose, and with a high nitrogen content it can even double as fertiliser.
Used in footwear, wool minimizes odour, regulates temperature and wicks moisture, making for a comfortable experience, as well as a morally enlightened one.
It can also be bent 20,000 times without breaking and still have the ability to recover and return to its natural shape, meaning it looks and functions better for longer, again solidifying its prominence as a supreme material for footwear.
Not only is all of this important for physical consumer comfort but because corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability are significant players in business today.
In the eyes of the modern consumer it’s not good enough to just be offered a cool product or service – it has to be cool and socially conscious, and that’s where Tim’s humble Kiwi roots come in especially handy.
“Every single person involved in business today should be thinking about social and environmental impact and not just because it helps the brand, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Tim says.
“There is a movement around business at the moment where very shortly this type of behaviour will be non-negotiable in the eyes of the consumer.”
Allbirds is a certified B Corporation, having met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.
Its merino is ZQ-certified and requires approximately 60 percent less energy to produce than the synthetic materials typically used in footwear. Even its packaging – a patent-pending shipping shoebox – uses 40 percent less materials than traditional shoe packaging.
Additionally, though Soles4Souls, Allbirds is committed to giving its used shoes new life by donating them to communities in need.
“The truth is the shoes we make are really just conduits for experiencing the magic of this very special fibre.
“Those guys [the farmers down in the South Island] are the ones doing the real work and we are lucky enough to be telling their story.”
Life after sport
While it may seem like Tim slipped into his new calling like a pair of old shoes, he says until finding his place the transition to life after sport “sucked”, but in hindsight, it was pivotal to where he finds himself now.
“It was a complete loss of identity and status. Fortunately, I wanted both of those things, but it didn’t make it any easier… and moving to the other side of the world… it was a hugely challenging time,” Tim says.
One thing that did make it easier, he noted, was the serendipitous realisation that being a professional athlete and the head of a company is not all that dissimilar. “The parallels are enormous in terms of team building and culture, leadership, and executing under pressure.
“I think all sports people have certain qualities that have enabled them to be successful in sport that are absolutely applicable to business, but the trick is finding an environment in which they can be applied.
“For me, it took some time after retiring from football to work out where to deploy my experience. Fortunately the process of building a company has been really a perfect post-sporting step for me.”
Tim is immensely grateful to have received influential support from friends and family both within the industry and outside of it, including cousin and former All Blacks captain Anton Oliver, who followed a similar path years’ previously.
More broadly, however, he thinks we could be doing a lot more to support Kiwi athletes with this transition.
‘Life after sports’ is a common theme in New Zealand. As Kiwis we are known for our ingenuity almost as famously as we are our sporting prowess, and many professional sportspersons move into a career in business post retirement from sport.
Tim’s advice for those who do? Prepare, prepare, prepare.
“Sportspeople have so many transferable skills to business but they first have to work out how those skills can be polished and refined to be attractive to an employer.
“That will most likely involve some period of reset and training. The sooner you start the better.”
By Lydia Truesdale