How Allbirds Became Silicon Valley’s Favorite Sneaker


SHARP-EYED STYLE The tech-bro formula: specs, hoodie, Allbirds sneakers.

ALLBIRDS ARE the squint-and-you’ll-miss-’em shoes that ate the tech world. Tejas Priyadarshan, 22, a data scientist for a website in Berkeley, Calif., estimated that over half of his colleagues wear these spartan wool sneakers, completely free of stripes, swooshes, pixelated patterns and other design flourishes. Jotham Ndugga-Kabuye, 32, a social media director in Oakland, Calif., recalled that when he worked for a plant-based meat substitute company headquartered in the Bay Area, “every single engineer and accounting person” wore Allbirds.

Four years after humbly launching its sneakers as an online-only disrupter product, the San Francisco-based Allbirds brand has gone relatively mainstream. It now has 22 stores in cities across the world, including Berlin, Shanghai and Auckland. Many people who wouldn’t know iOS from Intel own a pair of its $95 lace-up Wool Runners or $135 ankle-high Mizzles. Yet no one favors Allbirds more compulsively or reflexively than “tech bros”—a loose term for those digital zealots, male or female, who clock time at a startup or internet-focused company, clutching smartphones, begging for a Clubhouse invite and worshiping Elon Musk.

These tremendously understated, nearly style-agnostic shoes set the tone in the tech world, though some startuppers might prefer the slightly more distinct offerings from Greats, Atoms and Vejas. That said, tech bros don’t embrace just any sneaker that shouts “subtlety.” In a baldfaced grab for techsters’ dollars, Cole Haan this October partnered with Slack, the startup that's transformed interoffice chat, on a low-key sneaker design. It flopped— Twitter users mocked the shoes mercilessly and they’re still available in most sizes and colors on Cole Haan’s website. (A Cole Haan representative declined to comment.)

How did Allbirds become the keyboard jockey shoe du jour? For starters, they have a “root-for-the-hometeam” hook. The vertical-retail sneaker company burst out of the Bay Area, the epicenter of disruptive startup culture, better known for Apple, Uber and Facebook than shoe brands. Allbirds had “a different type of business model, a different approach to materials,” said co-founder Tim Brown, which appealed to app developers and venture capitalists obsessed with innovation. The allegedly more eco-friendly wool fabric also reeled in nature-loving coders who might pride themselves on taking walks through the Redwoods or biking in Napa on weekends.

While Allbirds’s restrained design turns off those who default to splashy Nike s (or even a pair of logoed New Balances), it drew in many. “They were so minimalist, with no logo, no flashy colors, very minimal branding,” said Michael Gu, 25, who works in strategy and growth for a health care startup in New York and owns a pair of Allbirds Wool Runners. Their design echoes the pared-back look of other Silicon Valley exports like Roku media players, Fitbits and Nest thermostats.