When On Running co-founder Olivier Bernhard was a child, running made him feel whole. He had trouble focusing in school, and says that in today's society he would have probably been given medication to help him focus. Luckily, his parents saw the energy he needed to expel and put him in a running club. That changed everything. The experience of moving his body and running gave him a sense of belonging and place and eventually he would grow up to be a pro Swiss athlete.
"I've been a runner all my life," he says. "I would say I've had this DNA in me. I started racing when I was 5 or 6 years old, and I enjoyed it. Maybe not so much to climb the podium and claim a medal. It was more the feeling of running, the breathing and heartbeat."
Bernhard--a multi-championship Ironman--never intended to be at the helm of a disrupter or challenger brand, nor did he intend to create a running shoe company. The idea sort of found him when he was looking at ways not to create new running products but to create a different kind of running experience and feeling.
"I always felt there was room not for another running shoe but for a different running feel," he says. "I had no clue how to build or manufacture a running shoe, but I had this vision or dream that stuck with me [where] I really wanted to bring that different feel to life in a running shoe."
At the time, Bernhard was sponsored by Nike, and he first approached the company with his idea. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, he was rejected and that resulted in his beginning his own project and, later, company. Bernhard admits that had he been in Nike's position at the time, he might have laughed himself out of the room as well, because the shoe prototype he presented was, in his own words, hideous.
The first prototype for the On Running sneaker was a Frankenstein of sorts. Bernhard says he glued pieces of a garden hose to a traditional running shoe to create a softer landing and a springboard-like mechanism to push off from while in motion, sort of like shocks on a car. It might have looked a bit slapdash when he put the sample together, but the sensation when using the shoe was exactly what he was looking for.
Bernhard describes his current career to me as "surfing a dream," and says he's always been happy because he's always done what he loves. Even after Nike said no to him, he was determined to get his idea off the ground. Years of professional athletics had taught him that no often meant not right now, so he stayed the course.
Bernhard presented his concept to two friends, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, and while these two men thought the shoe prototype was terrible, they were converts once they ran in it. The three friends formed the company On Holding AG in Zurich in 2010 and quickly developed a somewhat cult-like following among runners. Once people tried the shoes, they were hooked and had no problem paying whatever the price tag to get their hands on a pair.
Bernhard says that many people warned him not to compete against established juggernaut brands like Nike, Adidas, or New Balance, but he had spent years training in the Swiss Alps and he's not one to shy away from an uphill battle or discomfort. He says he liked to go to the mountains to test himself and improve, so it's no wonder that he'd end up in a similar position with a product--pushing it to its limit to see how it could be better.
The On Running founders were less worried about competing in their chosen market and more concerned with creating a great product that they themselves would want to buy. By focusing on the product more than the market, they were able to not only find their unique niche in the athletic space, but also create a superior product and find immense revenue success.
Just starting your own business and having it be successful is a win, but On Running was in motion and things were about to get even bigger. After some time, the guys were approached by tennis legend and fellow Swiss athlete Roger Federer. Federer wasn't just a fan. He was interested in getting very involved. Was this a Michael Jordan Jumpman moment for On? Maybe. Federer is arguably the G.O.A.T., and collectively the Swiss countrymen had a lot in common in terms of vision and competitive DNA.
"He kind of knocked on our doors by posting Instagram pictures about going into tournaments wearing our shoes, and what we often do with celebrities like him or actors, we send a care package," Bernhard says. "He came back and said, 'Hey, can we go out for dinner in Zurich?' and of course we didn't say no! And that's how we met and talked, and it was nice, but only a week later he said, 'Hey, could I actually be a partner?'"
Federer came on board and even invested his own money in the brand. Along with the On Running team, Federer started designing a tennis shoe and spent most of his pandemic lockdown working on that. I ask Bernhard if it was a planned trajectory to go from running shoes to tennis shoes, and he says that it sort of just happened. To him, any kind of body movement is good, and it seems that On Running is poised to jump in where the team sees opportunities.
Bernhard tells me that On Running's mission is to ignite the human spirit through movement and that was put to the test in 2020. Like most active/athletic companies, On emerged from the pandemic well in the black, and its 2021 IPO proved the company is a top-tier competitor in the athletic market.
Noting that Bernhard started his company shortly after the recession, I ask if he has advice for entrepreneurs starting out now during uncertain financial times. He says it's all about products that are recession-proof. He notes that even during tough financial times, people will invest money in their health, and he's not wrong. Now more than ever, people want to spend more time outside versus on their sofa and are finding more ways to work out and stay healthy.
"If things get tough, then you prove if you're made out of steel or a little plastic piece," he says. "I loved to compete in [difficult] conditions. Even in 2010, we knew that it was going to be super tough. But we looked at each other as athletes. We said, 'We want to found the company right now, and if we can survive this, we can take any storm that hits our boat.'"
On has proved that it's a brand that can weather the test of time. It began in a recession; it thrived during a global pandemic. The founders have shown that their products are the kind that people will invest in even during troubled times. But what troubles Bernhard these days now that he's been in business for more than a decade? He tells me it's knowing that his company contributes to waste. Bernard impressed me with his connection to the outdoors and care for the land that has given him so much. Our interview took place a day before his birthday, and I asked him how he was planning to celebrate. He let me know that his kids had planned a beautiful day together hiking in the Alps. No wonder he wants to walk the talk and do his part to help preserve what's most important.
"I always had a hard time being an athlete and knowing that everything I have on my feet and everything I wear is actually ending up in a landfill," he says. "And I didn't think that was going to change. When we founded the company, I was super excited, but I also felt bad because I felt that now I'm playing into that. We are producing more waste."
Bernhard says that he brought this up to his partners mostly thinking that things would remain the same as they always had, but these days the company is taking seriously its pledge to contribute less to waste and is starting to experiment with recycled materials. Bernhard also tells me that On is experimenting with the concept of a subscription service wherein a consumer can return a pair of shoes when they've worn them out and once On gets the pair back, the company will send the customer a new pair and recycle the old pair and put the materials toward new products. He describes this as the products becoming circular, and it's not a bad idea.
The market has shown that consumers are comfortable with subscriptions. We pay for streaming services, subscription boxes, even subscribe and save on items on Amazon. Why not on our footwear? On is successful because it is evolving with the times. The founders have watched the world and the market change in the 12 years they've been in business, and wherever the trends are heading, they'll be running right after them.
"We spend a lot of time in nature, training and moving, and we are very thankful that we can do that," Bernhard says. "We want to help the planet to make sure that it's going to stay for generations to come."
More with Olivier Bernhard here.