The entrepreneurial path leading to the development of Allbirds — the ultra-comfy shoes that over the last several years have taken Silicon Valley, and the country, by storm — turns out to have surprising relevance for health tech entrepreneurs.
(Disclosure: I own several pairs of Allbirds and have great affection for them; however, I have no equity in or relationship with the company.)
Interviewed on the always-captivating Guy Raz “How I Built This” podcast, the founders of Allbirds — New Zealander Tim Brown and American Joey Zwillinger – highlighted two related considerations with which I think many health tech entrepreneurs can relate.
Are You Solving Something Customers Care About?
First, it’s critically important to understand what your customers actually want, and to tease apart stated and revealed preference. For Brown and Zwillinger, a critical insight came from a conversation they had with Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method, known for stylish, eco-friendly cleaning products.
After Brown and Zwillinger pitched their plan for stylish, eco-friendly shoes, Ryan (according to Brown) responded, “People don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great products.”
Ryan (says Brown) continued, “The only reason there’s an opportunity for you to do this is because the rest of the world is far behind where they need to be. Get on with doing it. Don’t make sustainability a part of your brand, make the attributes of the product — of the sustainable material — the story.”
Reflecting on this advice, Brown explained that he and Zwillinger recognized that “comfort was the problems to be solved. We were going to solve comfort through sustainable materials that enabled the comfort experience, and we were also better for the environment.”
Brown concludes, “In hindsight it seems obvious – comfort is number one reason why people buy shoes.”
I often push health tech entrepreneurs to deeply understand the actual problems with which their customers are wrestling; it’s critical to deliver what your customers really want, something that offers them palpable benefit (eg you push the Uber button on your phone, and a car shows up), rather than some perceived, perhaps even socially applauded or widely perceived good that in practice may not really drive adoption. Don’t confuse a superficial understanding of expressed sentiment (think Twitter) with the necessary deeper appreciation for the revealed preferences that actually drive usage.
Incumbents Want Faster Horses
The second resonant lesson from the Allbirds founders involves a previous experience Zwillinger had selling what I’d characterize as virtuous disruption into large companies.
Zwillinger was working at Solazyme, a company seeking to make biofuels from algae oil, offering what was envisioned as a more environmentally-friendly alternative that could compete with oil.
During the course of this experience, Zwillinger said he had quite a few opportunities to sell to big multinational oil companies, who professed a commitment to sustainability. As Zwillinger describes it,
“I had a very consistent experience — I’d have an idea, I go talk with the right people you’d want to talk to if you had an amazing new material that happened to be really sustainable for the planet … I pitched it in, have multiple meetings. Everyone at first is like ‘this is amazing, it’s an exciting idea, we love the sustainability mission,’ and then you’re like ‘great, well let’s do this.’“
But instead, Zwillinger says, after much internal discussion and presumably, endless process and deliberation, the decision that would eventually emerge from each large company was essentially the imperative to ‘just do what we’re doing now, but do it cheaper.” Even as incumbents ostensibly aspired to consider radically different technology, in the end, as in the apocryphal Henry Ford quote, what they really wanted was faster horses.
Unfortunately, Zwillinger’s experience is sure to resonate with anyone pushing to get their startup’s data and digital technology integrated meaningfully into pharma workflow, as I’ve frequently discussed (here, here, here); and sorry – selection for demonstration pilots and “innovation initiatives” doesn’t count.
Not only is this true – large organizations are essentially not built for radical change — but it may also reflect another version of the first point: understand your customers. If your customer is an incumbent, then you need to remember that most every person in that company is going to be most comfortable doing the job they were hired to do, in the way they’ve learned to do it. Help them do their existing jobs slightly better and you’re a hero (and if you can achieve this by utilizing a powerful enabling technology on the backend that allows you subsequently to enter relevant adjacencies – as Veeva did – so much the better). Propose to redefine their work, on the other hand, and you’ll most likely get Zwillingered.