Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people, in their own words.
Tim Brown is a former professional football player whose achievements include helping New Zealand to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. While playing in the United States, he studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati. It was during his sporting career that he came to the conclusion running shoes were “over-logoed and over-coloured” and set out to find a comfortable alternative made from sustainably sourced materials. With $120,000 raised in five days through a Kickstarter campaign, he began working on a prototype. Shortly after, in 2016, he and US biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger founded Allbirds, and raised US$27.5 million from venture capital firms and investors such as Leonardo DiCaprio. Their footwear – described by Time magazine as “the world’s most comfortable shoe” is a favourite of the likes of Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Mila Kunis and Oprah Winfrey. The company now has more than 20 stores overseas, including in the US, England and China, and has branched out into performance activewear apparel. Last week Allbirds applied to list on the Nasdaq.
I was born in England. My father is English – he has worked in non-profits his entire life – and mum is a Kiwi nurse. We moved to New Zealand when I was about three years old. I grew up in Karori, Wellington, and I’m very, very proud of where I come from.
As a recent parent of two kids, I've got an incredibly tough act to follow in terms of the example that was given to me. It wasn’t poor and it wasn't luxurious, but it was full of love and it doesn't get much better than that. I feel very lucky.
I had a love for school, I had a love for learning and for sport. I was determined to try to do well. I was quite quiet and reserved; that was maybe what I had to work on.
I started at Victoria University to study architecture and I was a little bit lost at that time, I would say, so I ended up taking a soccer scholarship to America. That was quite instructive in forcing me to grow up and get out of my comfort zone. That was really the start of me coming out of my shell.
On November 14, 2009, New Zealand beat Bahrain to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa – the first time we had earned a place in the finals in 28 years. That had been a dream for a long time. I always knew it was never going to get any better than that. I was very fortunate to be a part of a very high-performing, focused group, and many of them have become lifetime friends. But I was determined not to be the last person at the party. So it was really about going back and pursuing some of the things that I had put on hold.
The entrepreneurial journey became a bit of an antidote for filling the time – having something else going apart from sport. I found that really helpful. Allbirds started off as a side project. I started making the first 1000 pairs of shoes. I sold them to teammates, who actually made fun of me. It was really a curiosity project in the beginning.
Allbirds was a bad idea before it was a good one. It started off with a Kickstarter campaign and I nearly didn't do it. The marketing campaign was shot on a friend's phone, with help from my brother, who encouraged me to do it. Even when that Kickstarter campaign was really successful, my father and my brother drove around New Zealand to deliver the shoes. There have been some high-profile moments, but it really comes back to friendships and family.
I've had some good fortune and some success along the way, in sport and business, but I never got too carried away in thinking that I was good. I’ve worked hard and I've had some luck and a lot of support.
If you're not seeking feedback in your life and in your professional career, then you're dumb. You have to develop an instinct to listen and cultivate feedback and use it somehow.
You mustn’t confuse purpose and passion. I'm passionate about Manchester United and chocolate biscuits. But purpose is something different: it’s a problem in the world worth solving. If you are lucky enough to connect to something like that, it will be a multiplier in terms of the quality of work you do and the satisfaction you take from that work.
I believe in working with people who are different from you in the way that they view the world, and I think you will have a greater chance of success. And that oftentimes means walking into criticism, but if you can do it, it’ll lead to better success.
I'm a reader; that's a big thing for me. I read on a bunch of different topics and that brings me a lot of joy. I’ve got a three-year-old and a two-year-old, so I read a bit less often now.
I like to exercise and stay super active. That’s what I miss most about my sporting career. If I’m stressed, I just go for a run and whatever was worrying me has usually disappeared when I come back. It kind of resets the system.
The last thing I bought was a book called Walter the Farting Dog, for my two-year-old son.
As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.
This interview has been edited for clarity.