When On Running co-founder Olivier Bernhard was a kid, running made him feel whole. He struggled to concentrate in school and says that in today’s society he would probably have been given medication to help him concentrate. Fortunately, his parents saw the energy he needed to expel and put him in a running club. It changed everything. The experience of moving his body and running gave him a sense of belonging and place and eventually he grew to be a Swiss professional athlete.
“I’ve been a runner all my life,” he says. “I would say I have that DNA in me. I started running when I was 5 or 6 years old, and I loved it. Maybe not so much to get on the podium and claim a medal. was more the feeling of running, breathing and heart rate.”
Bernhard – a multi-championship Ironman – never intended to lead a disruptive or challenging brand, or build a running shoe company. The idea came to him when he was looking for ways not to create new racing products, but to create a different kind of racing experience and feel.
“I always felt there was room not for another running shoe, but for a different running feel,” he says. “I had no idea how to build or make 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 this led him to start his own project and later a business. Bernhard admits that if he had been in Nike’s shoes at the time, he too might have laughed at the play, as the prototype shoe he presented was, in his own words, hideous.
The first prototype of the On Running sneaker 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 springboard-like mechanism for pushing off in motion, much like shocks on a car. It may have felt a little sloppy when he put the sample together, but the feel 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 has always been happy because he has always done what he loves. Even after Nike told him no, he was determined to make his idea a reality. Years of professional athletics had taught him that Nope often meant not immediately, so he stayed the course.
Bernhard pitched his concept to two friends, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, and while these two men thought the prototype shoe was terrible, they converted once they ran in it. The three friends founded On Holding AG in Zurich in 2010 and quickly developed a somewhat cult following among runners. Once people tried the shoes, they were hooked and had no problem paying the price to get their hands on a pair.
Bernhard says many people have warned him not to compete with established behemoth brands like Nike, Adidas or New Balance, but he’s spent years training in the Swiss Alps and he’s not one to hesitate in the face of an uphill battle or discomfort. He says he loved going to the mountains to test himself and improve, so it’s no wonder he found himself in a similar position with a product – pushing it to its limit to see how it could be better. .
The founders of On Running were 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 more on the product than the market, they were able to not only find their unique niche in the sports space, but also create a superior product and find immense revenue success.
Just starting your own business and making it successful is a win, but On Running was on the move and things were about to get even bigger. After a while, the guys were approached by tennis legend and fellow Swiss athlete Roger Federer. Federer was not just a fan. He was interested in getting involved a lot. Was it a Michael Jordan Jumpman moment for On? Maybe. Federer is arguably the GOAT, and collectively the Swiss compatriots had a lot in common in terms of vision and competitive DNA.
“He kind of knocked on our doors posting pictures on Instagram of competing in tournaments wearing our shoes, and what we often do with celebrities like him or actors, we send a care package,” said Bernard said. “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 said, ‘Hey, is that I could really be a partner?'”
Federer came on board and even invested his own money in the brand. With the On Running team, Federer began designing a tennis shoe and spent most of his pandemic lockdown working on it. I ask Bernhard if it was a planned trajectory to go from running shoes to tennis shoes, and he says it kind of happened. For him, any kind of body movement is good, and it looks like On Running is about 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 has come out of the pandemic well in the dark, and its IPO in 2021 has proven the company to be a strong contender in the sports market.
Noting that Bernhard started his business shortly after the recession, I ask him if he has any advice for entrepreneurs starting up now in times of financial uncertainty. He says these are recession proof products. 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 than on their couch and are finding more and more ways to train and stay healthy.
“If things get tough, then you prove whether you’re made of steel or a little piece of plastic,” he says. “I liked to compete in [difficult] conditions. Even in 2010, we knew it was going to be super tough. But we thought of ourselves as athletes. We said, ‘We want to start the business right away, and if we can survive this, we can weather any storm that hits our boat.'”
It has been proven to be a brand that stands the test of time. It started during a recession; it thrived during a global pandemic. The founders have shown that their products are the kind people will invest in even in times of trouble. But what’s troubling Bernhard these days, now that he’s been in 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 his concern for the land that gave him so much. Our interview took place a day before his birthday, and I asked him how he planned to celebrate. He let me know that his children had planned a great day hiking together in the Alps. No wonder he wants to lead by example and do his part to help preserve what’s most important.
“I’ve always struggled with being an athlete and knowing that everything on my feet and everything I wear actually ends up in a landfill,” he says. “And I didn’t think that was going to change. When we started the company, I was super excited, but I also felt bad because I felt like now I was playing in it. We’re producing more waste.”
Bernhard says he talked to his partners about it mostly thinking things would stay the way they always have been, but these days the company is taking its commitment to contributing less to waste seriously and is starting to experiment with recycled materials. Bernhard also tells me that On is experimenting with the concept of a subscription service where 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 will recycle the old pair and put the materials into new products. He describes this as products going circular, and that’s not a bad idea.
The market has shown that consumers are comfortable with subscriptions. We pay for streaming services, subscription boxes, even to subscribe and save on items on Amazon. Why not on our shoes? We are successful because it evolves with the times. The founders have watched the world and the market change over the 12 years they’ve been in business, and no matter which direction the trends go, they’ll be right after it.
“We spend a lot of time in nature, training and moving, and we’re very grateful to be able to do that,” Bernhard said. “We want to help the planet make sure it’s going to stick around for generations to come.”
More with Olivier Bernhard here.