When On Running co-founder Olivier Bernhard was a kid, running made him whole. He had trouble concentrating in school and says that in today’s society he probably would have 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 he would eventually grow up to become a professional Swiss athlete.
“I’ve been a runner all my life,” he says. “I would say I have this DNA in me. I started racing when I was five or six years old and I enjoyed it. Maybe not so much to get on the podium and claim a medal. It was more the feeling of racing.” ; breathing and heartbeat…”
Bernhard, a multi-champion Ironman, never intended to be at the helm of a disruptive or challenging brand, nor did he intend to create a running shoe company. He found the idea when he was looking for ways, not to create new running products, but to create a different kind of running experience and feeling.
“I always felt like there was room, not for another running shoe, but for a different running feel,” he says. “I had no idea how to build or manufacture a running shoe, but I had this vision or dream that stayed 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 first approached them with his idea. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he was rejected and that resulted in him starting his own project and then his company. Bernhard admits that if he had been in Nike’s position at the time, he might as well have laughed across the room because the prototype shoe he presented was, in his own words, hideous.
The first prototype of the On Running shoe was a kind of Frankenstein. Bernhard says he glued pieces of a garden hose to a traditional running shoe to create a softer landing and a trampoline-like mechanism to propel yourself while in motion, somewhat like the shock absorbers on a car. He may have seemed a bit sloppy when he put the sample together, but the feel of wearing the shoe was exactly what he was looking for.
Bernhard describes his current career to me as “surfing a dream” and says that he has always been happy because he has always done what he loves. Even after Nike told him no, he was determined to get the idea off his feet. Years of professional athletics had taught him that No often meant not now so he stayed the course.
Bernhard pitched his concept to two friends, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, and although these two men thought the shoe prototype was terrible, they were converted once they wore it. The three friends formed the company On Holding AG in Zurich in 2010 and quickly developed something of a cult following among brokers. Once people tried the shoes, they were hooked and had no problem paying whatever price it takes to get their hands on a pair.
Bernhard says many people warned him not to compete against giant established brands like Nike, Adidas or New Balance, but he spent years training in the Swiss Alps and isn’t one to shy away from an uphill battle or discomfort. He says that he liked to go to the mountains to test himself and improve, so it’s not surprising that he ends up in a similar position with a product, pushing it to the limit to see how it could be better.
The On Running team was less concerned with 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 rather than the market, they were not only able to find their unique niche in the sports space, but were also able to create a superior product and achieve immense revenue success.
Starting your own business and being successful is a victory, but On Running was on the move and things were about to get even bigger. After a while, tennis legend and fellow Swiss athlete Roger Federer approached the boys. Federer wasn’t just a fan, he was interested in getting very involved. Is this a Michael Jordan Jumpman moment for On? Maybe. Federer is arguably the GOAT and collectively the fellow Swiss have a lot in common in terms of vision and competitive DNA.
“He knocked on our doors posting Instagram photos of going to the tournament wearing our shoes and what we usually do with celebrities like him or actors, we sent a care package,” says Bernhard. “He came back and said, ‘Hey, can we go out to 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 was like, ‘Hey, could I really be a partner?'”
Federer joined and even invested his own money in the brand. Along with the On Running team, Federer began designing a tennis shoe with them and spent most of his pandemic lockdown working on it. I ask Bernhard if it was a planned path from running shoes to tennis shoes and he tells me it just happened. For him, any type of body movement is good, and it seems that On Running is ready to jump where they see 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 came through the pandemic and its 2021 IPO well. It showed that they are top notch. competitors in the sports market.
Considering that Bernhard started his company shortly after the recession, I ask if he has any advice for entrepreneurs starting now in times of financial uncertainty. He says these are products that are recession-proof. He points out that even during tough financial times, people will continue to put money into their health, and he’s not wrong. Now more than ever, people want to spend more time outdoors, verses on their couch, and are finding more ways to exercise and stay healthy.
“If the going gets tough, test if you’re made of steel or a small piece of plastic,” he says. “I loved competing in [difficult] conditions. Even in 2010, we knew it was going to be very difficult. But we look at each other as athletes. We said ‘we want to start the company right now, and if we can survive this, we can withstand any storm that hits our ship’.”
On has proven that it is a brand that can stand the test of time. They started in a recession; they thrived during a global pandemic. They have proven that their products are the kind of products that people will invest in even in tough times. But what worries Olivier these days now that he’s been in the business for over a decade? He tells me it’s knowing that his company contributes to waste. Bernard impressed me with his connection to the outdoors and the care of the land that he has given so much to. Our interview took place the day before his birthday and I asked him how he planned to celebrate it. He let me know that his children had planned a beautiful day of hiking together in the Alps. It’s no wonder he wants to lead by example and do his part to help preserve what’s most important.
“It always took me a long time to be an athlete and to know that everything on my feet and everything I wear is 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 like now I’m playing with it. We’re producing more waste.”
Bernhard says he brought this up with his partners primarily thinking that business would be business as usual, but these days the company is taking its commitment to contribute less to waste seriously and beginning to experiment with recycled materials. He also tells me that On is experimenting with the concept of a subscription service where consumers can return a pair of shoes when they have worn out and once On retrieves the pair, they will send the customer a new pair and recycle the old one. pair and put the materials towards new products. He describes this as making his products 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 items on Amazon, why not in our shoes? On is successful because they are evolving with the times. They have seen the world and the market change in the twelve years they have been in business and wherever the trends lead, they will run after them.
“We spend a lot of time in nature, training and moving, and we are very grateful that we can do it. We want to help the planet to ensure that it will remain for generations to come.”
More with Olivier Bernhard here.