When I wrote about my favorite VC-backed company last year, my pick was Le Tote, the subscription clothing rental service. Well, with no disrespect to Le Tote (I still love you, particularly that navy striped sweater you sent a few weeks back), a different company has hopped into the top spot.
These days, I'm all about Allbirds. I'm certainly not the first person to proclaim my love for the sneaker startup, but because Tuesday is National No Socks Day, I have an excuse to tell you all about it.
By now, most people—particularly those immersed in the tech world—are acquainted with Allbirds. I learned about the company about a year and a half ago, when people around the PitchBook office started rocking these comfy-looking sneakers. They looked different enough from a typical athletic shoe to catch my attention. Then, last September, the company raised $17.5 million in VC funding at an estimated valuation of $385 million. That made it one of the more valuable private ecommerce companies on the scene and prompted me to do some research. I learned the shoes were made from wool and meant to be worn sans socks.
But it wasn't until I owned my first pair of Allbirds that I really got it. This past October, I went over to a friend's house and saw a pair of dark gray sneakers sitting in the entryway. It took a few minutes for me to realize they were Allbirds, the shoes I'd seen around the office from the company that had raised a VC round the month before. I asked my friend if they were as comfortable as they looked. She assured me they were and recommended I buy a pair "right now, if not sooner," with the caveat that I purchase any color except gray because that particular shade was her "thing."
About a week later, I received my beautiful gray wool runners in the mail. I tore open the package and slipped the shoes on just as they were meant to be worn. As soon as my bare feet met the plush wool, I had a new favorite shoe—and a new favorite VC-backed company. In the months that followed, I wore my Allbirds to work often enough that a co-worker asked if I wore them every day. The next day, slightly embarrassed by the recent lack of variety in my footwear, I walked to work in a different brand of sneakers, put Band-Aids on my blisters and ordered a second pair of Allbirds—white wool runners this time.
A brief history of the company
Allbirds was launched out of San Francisco in 2015 by Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger. As a New Zealand native, Brown was aware of the wonders of merino wool, one of the mainstays of his home country's economy. He wondered why shoemakers weren't taking advantage of the material and started researching its place in the footwear industry. Several years later, he partnered with Zwillinger. The two of them created the flagship Allbirds shoe and launched the company.
The company originally made wool sneakers with laces, then created a slip-on version. Earlier this year, it branched out into another material and introduced a shoe line made from the fibers of eucalyptus trees. They're similar in aesthetic to the original: Both are simple and feature zero branding. They're also the same price: "Tree runners" cost $95 per pair, the same as the wool version.
The company started out with a direct-to-consumer business model, though it's since opened two storefronts, one in New York and one in San Francisco, and it's currently operating pop-up shops in nine Nordstrom locations across the US (including one in the Nordstrom five blocks down from the PitchBook office, which I have been studiously avoiding for fear of spending all my money on wool).
Here's a look at the startup's funding history:
February 2014: $119,000 crowdfunding round
March 2016: $2.7 million seed round led by Lerer Hippeau | $7.3 million valuation
September 2016: $7.3 million round led by Maveron | $32.3 million valuation
September 2017: $17.5 million round led by Tiger Global | $385 million valuation
The valuations above are estimated
Long live Allbirds
Allbirds has received more than its fair share of media attention since it burst on the scene. Allbirds shoes have been called "shockingly comfortable" by Forbes, "lightweight wool wonders" by BuzzFeed, and "ridiculously soft, breathable and supportive" by Business Insider.
The shoes have also become something of a techie staple: Esquire named them "the sneaker of choice for the Silicon Valley elite" and The New York Times quipped, "If there's a venture capitalist nearly, there's probably a pair of Allbirds, too."
As with most trendy products, there's a lot of scrutiny on Allbirds. And around the office, I've become one of the go-to sources of Allbirds information. Below, I've collected some of the more common inquiries I've received about the shoes, along with my responses:
Q: If you don't wear socks with them, don't they start smelling bad?
A: You can put them in the washing machine! And even if you couldn't, the smell is totally worth it in exchange for feeling like you're walking around on mini cloud mattresses all day.
Q: But we live in Seattle. Doesn't the wool get all wet and gross in the rain?
A: First of all, did you know that New York, Atlanta, Houston and Washington, DC, all get more rain each year than Seattle? But I get that's not what you're asking. Allbirds are so lightweight that I can carry them comfortably in my backpack, so when it's raining, I wear a pair of rainproof shoes on my walk to work and change when I get there.
Q: Wow, those shoes are super white. Don't they get dirty?
A: Glad you asked. I've designated the white Allbirds as a 100% indoor shoe. See above for how easily they travel in a backpack.
Q: I'm nervous to order shoes online because I don't know if they'll fit. Should I just go to the store and buy a different, less comfortable pair of shoes that I'm forced to wear with socks?
A: Just order a size 7. They'll probably fit; they stretch. And if not, I know someone who'll put them to good use.