Thank You, Santa Claus, for making this the best gift ever! Allbirds trend in Silicon Valley is over!
The Wall Street Journal reports, “Allbirds customers’ average annual spend has dropped by more than $31 since 2018.” Which means slowing revenue growth and increasing losses. And a primary reason, as Journal points out, is that tech bros and brogrammers have moved on from the near-ubiquitous shoe brand and its bland sneakers. “Tech bros ditching their Allbirds? It’s like tigers tossing aside their stripes,” the Journal quips.”Few fashion items are as closely associated with the coding crowd as the muted kicks from this San Francisco startup.”
Fashion is a reflection of a culture’s values and beliefs. And for most of the past decade, technology and all its symbols were part of the cultural zeitgeist. With the near ubiquity of technology, its societal impact, and the outrageousness of its leaders, Allbirds’ fading popularity symbolizes how modern society views technology and its role in culture. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes, a shoe is not just a shoe.
For as long as I can remember, I have despised Allbirds. I felt they were tasteless and pointless. Despite popular claims, they weren’t that comfortable. Despite the founders’ claims that they were eco-friendly, the sheer lack of longevity proved it otherwise. They symbolized intellectual laziness.
Allbirds came out of nowhere and were on the feet of every brogrammer in Silicon Valley. (See Note Below) Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown,
two alumni of who are said to have met at Stanford Business School, launched Allbirds in March 2014 as an online-only footwear company. They launched on Kickstarter, and got early interest.Their original pitch was that their shoes would be ethically-sourced, comfortable, and made of renewable materials.
Given that virtue signaling trumps virtues in Silicon Valley, those three words were like catnip. The company at one time was valued at $1.4 billion, though these days, the air has come out of the balloon. In November 2021, it closed its first day of trading at $26-a-share. It is now trading at just south of $3-a-share, giving the company a valuation of around $395 million. Growth is slowing, and the road to profits looks bumpy as well.
Somehow, they became part of the “tech uniform” starter pack. And they were everywhere, and the joke was on me! Some of my friends trolled me by sending me those shoes; they are not on my Christmas card list.
The primary reason I hated Allbirds is that they represented an utter lack of taste. But my distaste went beyond that. To me, they are a symptom of a disease that afflicts and is ultimately going to destroy the technology industry: conformity.
Right through the mid-nineties, non-conformists dominated the technology industry. The first uniform for the valley was: no uniform. It was a place where misfits fit together. The emergence of the internet was the start of conformity. A perfect symbol of that was the Gap Khaki. Until then, a smattering of venture capitalists, their Silicon Valley bankers, and lawyers adorned the khakis. They wanted to fit into the “casual dressing” ethos of the time.
The Internet 1.0 boom attracted many tech tourists looking to cash in on the bubble. Khakis were the perfect way to look “the part” and appear to be part of the Internet crowd. It so happened that Gap was trendy during the 1990s, so it made it even more acceptable. Allbirds, in many ways, was the Khakis of this generation: arrivistes trying to pass themselves off as insiders.
Whether it was Gap Khakis, Patagonia vests, or Allbirds, the counter-cultural ethos that applauded individuality has been replaced by herd thinking. In Silicon Valley, we use a better marketing term for herd: team. One of the biggest trends of the past twenty years has been the rise of corporate swag. Wearing a Google t-shirt, an AirBnB backpack, or a logo-festooned Hydra bottle are all symbols of belonging to a herd called “work.” These logos advertised where you worked and thus gave you a place in Silicon Valley’s social hierarchy.
As the technology industry became the cultural zeitgeist, it became necessary to advertise to the world that you were part of the tech set. And the easiest way to do so was through a uniform. And I don’t mean uniform in the strictest sense, just as pinstripes and bold red suspenders were the look for traders and bankers in the heyday of Wall Street. By embracing a uniform, we are echoing being part of the tribe. Uniform is a great leveler, and it shows what team you are on. It is a symbol of power, affiliation, and hierarchy. Its underlying ethos: us versus them.
Carlos Bueno, a programmer, puts it best.
The problem is that Silicon Valley has gone completely to the other extreme. We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.
And more often than not, the dress cues for this uniform come from the industry’s leaders. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed in 2014 that he wanted to minimize decision-making around dressing, which is why he preferred grey hoodies. Almost overnight, that became the uniform. Just as many wore black turtle necks favored by Steve Jobs, most forget that dressing like someone doesn’t make you them, but the fashion industry and human race work on self-delusion. And in Silicon Valley, the only thing cheaper than self-delusion is self-respect. “[Silicon Valley types typically] honor the style of their champion. It’s part of a herd mentality,” Joseph Rosenfeld, a personal stylist, told the Financial Times.
During the late 2000s, I would often be on stage during my conferences. Around that time, I had a penchant for weird, whimsical socks. I found them an amusing way to add a personal touch to my daily outfits. They were a way for me to signal my mood for the day. Onstage, when I was interviewing super VC Michael Mortiz, we talked more about socks than other weighty topics. A year or so later, I saw others wearing such socks, and it became a trend. The New York Times wrote about it. So much so that ‘whimsical socks’ became part of the corporate swag. Everyone missed the point of the “whimsical socks” and the need for individuality. By the way, logos on colorful socks are a tasteless trend surpassed only by Allbirds.
Allbirds were just another version of that herd thinking. “The initial idea of Allbirds was all about the reduction of the shoe down to its simplest form, which is the opposite of the streetwear model, with small changes and a million different models,” co-founder Tim Brown told the Glossy. Using public relations and hype that could only be generated on social media platforms, Allbirds became a thing for the tech set. As a cynic, the simplified product was also ideal for the “direct-to-consumer revolution” that would allow Allbirds to eschew expensive real estate investments needed to sell sneakers. I will give Allbirds this: they nailed the DTC model perfectly by going after the most obvious buyer: the newly minted tech-bro.
A lot has changed since the mid-2010s. Tech is no longer the beloved child. It has become a four-letter word. As a startup founder told the WSJ, “It’s certainly less desirable to be so openly identified…as working in tech.” This quote sums up everything about the tech industry, which has gone from aspirational to abhorrent. Allbirds are a perfect totem of that transition.
As I said, sometimes, a shoe is not just a shoe.
December 26, 2022. San Francisco
Update: I incorrectly noted that the two founders were GSB alumni. Tim Brown attended London School of Economics & Joey Zwillinger attended Wharton. They met through mutual connections according to some published accounts. Twitter friend David Klein brought my error to my attention.