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How Does an Eco-Friendly Footwear Startup Scale Up to its First Major Space?

Office Insight | December 3, 2018 by Mallory Jindra

A startup company’s move from first to sophomore offices is often a drastic one. Exponential square footage, and so many possibilities to think through and directions to take.

We’ve heard many tales of startups diving too fast and deep into an office that quickly cast aside their humble beginnings – the very kernels that hold the magic of the company. What the strongest startups tend to have in common is an unwavering bond to those few important

kernels that rocketed them upward in the first place.

Allbirds, an eco-friendly footwear company, launched its first product in March 2016 – a shoe called the “Wool Runner”, made of a superfine New Zealand Merino wool hybrid textile, 100% recycled laces and a super lightweight sole. The Wool Runner was dubbed “the world’s most comfortable shoe” by TIME Magazine, and over a million pairs were donned in Allbirds’ first two years of business.

Allbirds’ product – a shoe thoughtfully developed using renewable, sustainable design – connects with customers because of its honest, open form of design, development and material sourcing. That open, honest altruistic culture was expertly expressed in Allbirds’ new San Francisco headquarters, designed by MBH Architects.

A bit more about the shoes (we’re big fans):

“A merino sheep’s wool fibers clock in at 20% the diameter of human hair, meaning they’re sporting one superfine coat. We source nothing but 17.5 micron superfine New Zealand Merino wool, which we developed into our very own material with a premium Italian mill. It’s temperature-regulating and moisture-wicking, all without an irritating scratchiness…Soft and itch-free on the inside, durable and water-resistant on the outside, and comfortable all over.”

“One old plastic bottle becomes one pair of durable, sleek shoelaces, designed with inspiration from nautical rope…For supreme comfort and cushioning, we use castor bean oil,

which also cuts carbon output when compared to petroleum-based foam…Our proprietary low-density foam helps us make the lightest, most comfortable shoe possible, complete with expert cushioning and friction control…The unique S-curve tread array is designed to mimic the anatomical flexibility of your feet and give you natural weight distribution as you stroll.”

Since Allbirds took flight in early 2016, its two co-founders and co- CEOs, New Zealander Tim Brown and American Joey Zwillinger, have guided the company toward its status as a Silicon Valley cult favorite.

The company got its start in a tiny little building accessed through an alley in San Francisco – with a staff of two with plans to grow to 20, about 3,000 square feet of workspace, and a 200 square foot basement pop-up space.

Allbirds’ product development team has expanded its wares to include a few carefully considered new styles, materials and of course, limited edition colors that its loyal customers quickly scoop up each season.

Today, Allbirds employs around 600 people, and that number includes its retail personnel. For its new headquarters, Allbirds select a dual-level 13,000 square foot space in Jackson Square, one of San Francisco’s oldest historic districts. The new offices in Jackson Square

support 150 employees.

Allbirds’ open, honest culture and mission – “Shoes inspired by natural materials and an ongoing mantra to create better things in a better way” – is reconstructed into a high-functioning workspace.

“In the retail space, they don’t want to be on 5th Avenue,” said Tom Dulik, project architect at MBH Architects. “That will never be who they are or the message they want to send to customers They want to keep that underground, gritty pop-up feel, and that helped us shape their workspace.”

Existing millwork and exposed brick were preserved and restored on the site, honoring the district’s history and signature architectural elements.

At the heart of the office is a new central stair, which MBH added to enable Allbirds staff to move between levels without needing to exit and re-enter the office by going outside

or using the building’s side stairwell. Allbirds also uses the exposed central stair as its town hall gathering space.

Downstairs on the ground floor, MBH designed the lobby to be an active space for both Allbirds staff and visitors, with tables and seating for communal gatherings, and glass-enclosed breakout spaces for both collaborative and solo work pursuits.

At the rear of the ground floor space, the R&D and product development teams work with product atop high work tables, offering a combination of physical separation and visible transparency.

“A lot of the decisions we made were about opening the space up, keeping it clean and simple,” said Mr. Dulik. They wanted to open up their operations to the public, and on the lower level, where their R&D and product development teams have space to spread out, visitors have an eye into the design process, which is really true to how open they are culturally.”

Branding moments throughout the new offices center around the signature Merino wool used to create Allbirds shoes, as well as a series of line drawings and colored graphics that Allbirds’ branding team had developed when it was founded. On the ground floor, visitors and employees are greeted by the whimsical doodles of the New Zealand illustrator Toby Morris, and a wool wallcovering featuring the Allbirds logo and crafted from the same Merino wool used in the brand’s Wool Runner shoe.

“It’s a new company, but they have a very strong brand statement that guides everything they do, and they’ll never lose that, said Mr. Dulik. “Honest, authentic, simple, clean. They didn’t want to junk it up. The two CEOs sit in open office workstations right next to the other staff. And their colored graphics add so much to their space.”

The top floor holds an open office with deconstructed Herman Miller workstations, glass enclosed meeting rooms, “callbirds” phone rooms, and other open spaces for staff to work and socialize. Exposed brick and original street signage taken from the building’s exterior add textural depth the top floor space.

MBH’s previous work with Allbirds in the retail space expanded into more projects and a deeper work relationship between the two, including their new San Francisco and New York

City flagship stores.

“The firm is also slated to partner with Allbirds at the International Retail Design Conference in Seattle on October 3rd for a discussion on defining the built-aesthetics of a new brand, including brick-and-mortar locations and the transformation of spaces into lifestyles.”

A great working relationship between design firm and client, leading to new work, and an elevated message from client to customer.


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