When On Running co-founder Olivier Bernhard was a kid, running made him feel whole. He had trouble concentrating in school and he 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 five or six years old, and I loved it. Maybe not so much to get on the podium and claim a medal. was more the sensation of running; the breathing and the heart rate…”
Bernhard – a multi-championship Ironman never intended to be the head of a disruptive or challenger brand, or build a running shoe company. The idea came to him 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 thought 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 them with his idea. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, he was rejected and this led him to start his own project and later his own business. Bernhard admits that if he had been in Nike’s shoes at the time, he himself might have burst out laughing because 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 he 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 formed On Holding AG in Zurich in 2010 and quickly developed a 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 On Running team was less concerned with competing in their market of choice 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 they were able to 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 wanted to be involved a lot. Is this a Michael Jordan Jumpman moment for On? Maybe. Federer is arguably the GOAT and collectively the Swiss compatriots have a lot in common in terms of vision and competitive DNA.
“He kind of knocked on our doors posting Instagram photos about going to the tournament wearing our shoes and what we often do with celebrities like him or actors, we send a care package,” Bernhard said. “He came back and said, ‘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 started designing a tennis shoe with them 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 they see opportunities.
Bernhard tells me 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 out of the pandemic well in black and their IPO in 2021 proved they were top notch. competitors 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 still invest money in their health, and he’s not wrong. Now more than ever, people want to spend more time outdoors on their sofas and are finding more ways to train and stay healthy.
“If things get tough, 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 take any storm that hits our boat.'”
They have been proven to be a brand that can stand the test of time. They started in a recession; they thrived during a global pandemic. They have shown that their products are the kind of products that people will invest in even in times of trouble. But what’s troubling Olivier 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 was a day before his birthday and I asked him how he was planning 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 produce more waste.”
Bernhard says he talked to his partners about it mostly thinking things would stay the same, but these days the company is taking its pledge to contribute less to waste seriously and is starting 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’ve worn them out and once On gets the pair back, they’ll send the customer a new pair and will recycle the old pair and put the materials towards new products. He describes this as their 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, we subscribe and we even save articles on Amazon, why not on our shoes? We are successful because they evolve over time. They’ve watched the world and the market change over the twelve years they’ve been in business, and no matter which direction the trends go, they’ll be chasing after them.
“We spend a lot of time in nature, training and moving and we are very grateful to be able to do so. We want to help the planet ensure that it will remain for generations to come.”
More with Olivier Bernhard here.