When Tim Brown co-founded Allbirds, he didn't know much about company culture.

He did, however, know a lot about team chemistry. The 38-year-old New Zealander spent 17 years as a competitive soccer player in New Zealand and the U.S., including 30 games with his country's national team and a 2010 World Cup roster spot. For many of those appearances he served as the team's captain or vice captain.

So, when it came to building culture at his now-3-year-old San Francisco-based shoe startup, Brown didn't copy any entrepreneurial heroes. Instead, he set out to replicate the type of culture that helped his team qualify for soccer's biggest prize. "I've had to lean on this professional sporting experience because I didn't have anything else coming into this," he says.

The result is a company culture where employees are expected to eschew ego and embrace opportunities for discussion of decisions both large and small. That starts from the top down: The company has co-CEOs--Brown and co-founder Joey Zwillinger--rather than a single chief executive.

The leadership structure "set the tone for ideas being debated and asking what was best for the organization, not what you wanted to do or what you thought was best," Brown says. "In the interview process, if someone asks, 'Who's the ultimate decision-maker?' they're probably not right for the culture."

Other successful entrepreneurs such as Arianna Huffington, as well as superstar athletes like NFL wide receiver Julio Jones, also have promoted the benefits of a low-ego team culture. Online reviews, too, indicate that Brown's theory of management is working: Allbirds boasts four- and five-star reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed.

Brown says culture has been a major factor in Allbirds's business growth as well. The company generated $100 million in total revenue over its first two years, which led to a reported $1.4 billion valuation in October 2018. It now counts more than 350 employees, up from 150 last December.

Here are Brown's top three lessons--from both his playing days and the startup experience he's gained since--on achieving a positive team dynamic:

1. Highly value your lowest-rung employees.

In any team sports setting, nobody can win alone. You need a variety of talents, play styles, and mental approaches, as well as cooperation among people who are different from one another. In business, that means hiring for diversity in age, race, gender, experience, and other traits--and actively encouraging ideas to come from anywhere in your organization. Brown particularly emphasizes the value of hiring young employees and giving them significant responsibilities, noting that "the next great performance can come from everywhere."

He points to one particular moment in his soccer career as proof: The best motivational speech he ever heard wasn't delivered by a star player or coach. It came from New Zealand's third-string goalkeeper, right before the national team qualified for its first World Cup in 28 years. The player spoke about his family, his children, and how much the team meant to him.

"He became, in many ways, the most important part of the culture of that team," Brown says. "Because if you can get the guy who's never going to play bought into what you're doing and respected by the larger team, that's the sign of a pretty good culture."

2. Foster a self-led culture.

That same moment helped crystallize another company culture lesson for Brown. The best cultures, he says, aren't dictated by coaches or CEOs. Rather, they're self-led by the rank and file. Leaders should strive only to create an environment in which the culture can organically evolve.

"Culture is not something that one person owns," Brown says. "If it's done the right way, it's morphing and changing and evolving and getting a little bit better on any given day. I think that's quite an important thing: You can't set it and forget it. And you've got to be open for it being different tomorrow than it was today."

At Allbirds, that takes the form of extreme transparency. After each board meeting, Brown and Zwillinger gather the entire company at a roundtable to break down what transpired. The co-CEOs also host biweekly all-hands meetings, where they share the business's most recent positive and negative developments. And there's a monthly companywide newsletter called The Gazette, which helps leadership share their thoughts--again, both positive and negative--in real time. Topics range from new hires and product launch updates to an ongoing tracker of business goals. All this information, Brown says, helps the team "understand what we're trying to achieve--and better do their jobs." 

3. Break big goals into small chunks.

A version of this axiom exists in just about every sport: There's a reason games aren't played on paper. Strong, well-prepared teams can still lose to inferior opponents on any given day. That's why Brown preaches the importance of focusing only on what you can control--knowing there are many external factors you can't. If you concentrate on the process, he says, the outcomes will take care of themselves.

One key strategy for doing that is to break big goals into bite-sized pieces. In a startup, you never run out of items on your to-do list. That can be daunting, especially in the face of ambitious quarterly or annual targets. To counter that feeling, Brown often sets daily or weekly objectives, both for himself and the entire organization. He particularly likes a weekly basis, saying, "I'll start that Monday, build up with accelerated pace throughout the week, and reflect on things at the end of the week so that I can reset and come back with a fresh set of eyes."

Published on: Sep 17, 2019