After Ignoring Everyone's Advice, This Sports Entrepreneur Is Now Racing to Catch Nike
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
The co-founder behind shoe company On shares insight into the worst advice he ever received, why he is thankful he ignored it and how he stays productive.
Starting a new company is always a risk, especially in a competitive environment with a new approach. But that’s just what On founder David Allemann did back in 2010.
With his co-founders Olivier Bernhard and Caspar Coppetti, Allemann launched sports company On, combining a love for the outdoors and a passion for design to build a whole new line of shoes for serious runners.
“Several experts told us that it is impossible to enter the running shoe market with a new technology and brand. They told us not to do it,” Allemann told Entrepreneur. “Thank god we were even crazier than them and did it anyhow.”
On is Allemann’s first company, but as co-founder, he puts his background working at big advertising and marketing firms to use, focusing on product design and branding.
The business has a presence in more than 50 countries and is available at more than 3,000 retailers.
The fast growing company boasts the no. 1 selling running shoe in its home country of Switzerland, and has served more than 2 million runners around the world, including professional athletes like Olympian Nicola Spirig and Ironman World Record holder Tim Don.
We caught up with Allemann to ask him 20 Questions and find out what makes him tick.
1. How do you start your day? I love to walk to work in the morning. It’s down a hill and a beautiful walk along the river to the On Zurich office. I do it in any weather. These short 20 minutes let me experience the change of the seasons, lift my spirit and allow me to think about what I want to achieve during the day. I travel around 100 days per year and no matter what city I'm in, I like to start the day with a run to shake off jet-lag and explore the neighborhood.
2. How do you end your day? Our daughter is 3 years old and whenever possible we have family dinner together. It’s all about sharing what we experienced during the day and answering a lot of “why” questions. After putting our daughter to bed, I catch up on important emails followed by reading a book or straight to bed.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why? Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri. He changed my perspective on what is a true fact and what is human fiction. He also left me wondering: Are we the most aggressive species on earth that will destroy the planet? Or are we programmed for survival and will rise to the challenge? The answer might play out in our lifetimes.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why? Mostly the one that I read recently and that left a strong impression. So right now, Sapiens. I think it should be read in school, yet, it would probably be too provocative.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused? To get quality work done, I have to unplug. I find a quiet room and two hours of uninterrupted time, sometimes literally a white paper and a pen to focus on thinking and content. My home office is the ultimate retreat for this.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? As a teenager I wanted to study history or become an architect, designer or film director. Unfortunately, I took the safe route and went to law school. I made up for it and jumped right back to a more unconventional career right after my studies.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had? I learned that traditional corporate management with a focus on hierarchy and process is not for me. It made it very clear that I wanted to build something together with a curious team.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work? My Boy Scout friends between the age of 8 and 20 had probably the biggest impact on my work ethic. In my native Switzerland, the Scouts are a self-guided organization without close adult oversight. We were free and it was a true "learning by doing.” We learned from each other that having a bold idea, taking responsibility and learning along the way often leads to great outcomes. We also learned to fail. I feel the environment that our kids face is much more controlled and that we should create more space for independence, including failure.
9. What’s a trip that changed you? There is not one trip; it’s the sum of trips. I find traveling to be the best way to open my radar and look back at my home with a a lot of distance. I see traveling as a cure against narrow mindedness and as a source of new ideas. When I was a kid, coming to California from Europe changed my world. In recent years, many trips to Asia opened a new frontier. There is a saying that your travels are the memories of the future.
10. What inspires you? I have always been fascinated by physical spaces or objects that can change your mood. Spaces that deliver a visceral experience. This can be a building, a space, an art piece, a landscape, the world created by a movie or even the beauty of an object. Hence my love for architecture, design, film and travel.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it? During our studies, we started a party series that became a runaway success and is still running today, more than 20 years later. I believe it is now the sixth generation of students who stage it. I secretly drop by once a year just for the old times sake but usually sneak out pretty quickly again.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful? In my teenage years, I landed a job as teacher for the first Macintosh graphic design courses. I had to teach adults about the so-called desktop publishing back then. This not only gave me a head start into digital and web design but also gave me my first teaching experience.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took? My parents urged me to follow my heart and truly do what I love. There was no pressure to fulfill their expectations but a strong encouragement to fulfill mine.
14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got? Several experts told us that it is impossible to enter the running shoe market with a new technology and brand. They told us not to do it. Thank god we were even crazier than them and did it anyhow.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by? I am bit of a perfectionist. Starting something that I want to get truly right can therefore become overpowering and delayed. I trick myself into just starting for half an hour, almost a casual try. Finishing then often takes care of itself.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track? I need a clean desk to keep a clear mind. So I got a fast document scanner a few years back and went paper-free. Means that everything is in the cloud, searchable and always accessible -- and not on my table.
I took this idea when designing the On HQ Zurich layout as well. We have a clean desk policy, meaning no one has a designated desk, but can hop around different each day. Leaving the desks clean at the end of the day and starting fresh the next morning allows more opportunity for interdepartmental learning and productivity.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you? I am fortunate to love my work and therefore work becomes part of life. So many people contribute to On as a movement including our families. The boundaries are less clear and less necessary.
18. How do you prevent burnout? Once a year, I take a two to three week vacation with my family and switch off email. No need for a bad conscience. I have the privilege of having a great team and great partners at On. They carry the torch. After one week unplugged, new ideas start to flow and when I am back, the world still stands and I have a new sense of where to focus.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating? On attracts people with broad radars. We have more than 40 nationalities at On with a wide range of experiences and impressive backgrounds. We bounce ideas back and-forth all the time and creativity block is rarely the problem -- but execution is. This is why we work hard to turn creativity into reality.
20. What are you learning now? On is adding new fans faster than any other running shoe brand. We knew that this is a transformative phase as an organization and as a team. How do we maintain the spirit of a fast-moving young company without knowing all the names anymore? How do we continue to empower everybody to go out and shape the company in line with our culture? How do you do this across locations from Portland to Zurich, Tokyo, Melbourne and Sao Paulo? We learn a lot and fast.