The running shoe reinvented
From garden hose to sporting innovation: former top athlete Olivier Bernhard and his friends David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti are united not only in their love of running but also in their aspiration to create a perfect product. As a result, and through countless experiments (some of them involving pieces of cut-up garden hose), they have created the ’On’, a shoe that first amazed and has since delighted the running world. Ons are not just a new running experience: they are far more than that. And the company’s three co-founders have become ambassadors of a new running sensation whose success has far outpaced their expectations.
Olivier, in your days as a professional athlete you were the world duathlon champion several times over and also won the Ironman title no fewer than six times. What kind of running shoes were you wearing before you started developing the On?
Olivier Bernhard: That was the problem. In my pro years I tried out almost every brand and model that was available on the market to try and get over the chronic inflammation I was suffering of my Achilles tendons. I was convinced that there must be some kind of shoe that would help make this better. Luckily I got to know an engineer at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology who felt the same way. And he came up with the idea that we then developed together.
David Allemann: It was a perfect symbiosis of engineering science and practical running experience. And gradually, over several years and in countless smaller steps, the original idea was steadily evolved and refined. We have whole cupboards full of prototypes. But even as we continue the shoe’s development today, it’s all still clearly focused on the basic running sensation.
Have you always been an inventor, Olivier?
Olivier: Not exactly. But I’m certainly not the type to give up without trying every possible angle! I remember once when they came up with new handlebars for triathlon cycles. I just couldn’t understand why they should be so heavy. So I got a set made out of titanium. As you can imagine, they attracted a fair bit of attention from my fellow athletes: ’That Bernhard guy’s got something new again!’
Was there a particular key moment in the development of the On as we know it today?
Olivier: I think one key moment was when we realized that the sole cushioning had to be more sophisticated. The soles in use at the time only offered cushioning for the vertical impact of the foot on the ground. But for me as a runner, that was never really right. If you’re running, you’re not just jumping up and down on the spot; you’re moving forward, too. In tennis you have the shale on the court to absorb this horizontal motion. So what we felt we needed for our new shoe was a cushioning system that absorbed both vertical and horizontal forces. At the same time, we wanted this cushioning to disappear by the time the runner pushed off again. As a runner, I don’t want a cushion to push off from: I want to feel the ground as much as I can, as if I was running barefoot. The first prototype we made by slicing up a garden hose and supergluing the cross-sections onto the soles. That one only lasted a few steps, of course.
So it was a simple garden hose that launched a sporting revolution?
Olivier: Yes: that original principle has been maintained ever since. I well remember my very first steps with one of the prototypes. The cushioning elements fell off pretty quickly and were left lying around all over the place, but the experiment was a success: for the first time in ages, I felt no pain. That was when I knew: this is the way to go! Today, you’d recognize a pair of Ons if you wore them blindfolded. They simply give you a totally different running sensation.
Did the running world agree?
Olivier: They were curious at first. I remember selling our first models from a wooden table at an orienteering event. I took 24 pairs with me, and sold twelve. We even had our own ’Lazarus moment’, too. One runner, a woman, came up to my table on crutches and asked to try the shoe. She’d been told not to run again for another two months. But she came back to my table with tears in her eyes, because she’d been able to do a little light jogging without her crutches and hadn’t felt any pain.
No marketing pro could have staged that better! David and Caspar, were you as convinced as Olivier right from the outset?
Caspar: I was actually very sceptical at first. I’d got to know Olivier when I’d been media spokesman for the Ironman Zurich event, and I’d later become his manager. But when he came to me with his new shoe idea, I had a lot of misgivings. Those all disappeared, though, as soon as I saw the first model. The On is an innovation that’s visible, tangible and appreciable in a way I’ve rarely witnessed elsewhere in my professional career. And after I’d put a pair on and run a few kilometres in them, I was totally converted.
David: To gauge how runners felt about our new shoes, we rented a stand at the Zurich Ironman event in summer 2009. The people who tried them out came back with a real gleam in their eyes, and almost wrenched the prototypes out of our hands! That’s when we knew we had a product people would love, and a product we were prepared to put all our business energies into. And that’s how we came to forge the three-man team which is still behind On today.
Did the Ons back then look like they do now?
David: No. The running sensation was there, but visually the shoe was still a prototype. We wanted to make sure, though, that the positive On experience didn’t just start when you put the shoes on and ran; we wanted it to begin the first time people saw them. So the Ons of today are not just new in functional terms; they look different, too. It’s a product that makes people curious, and makes them want to try it out. The On is minimalist Swiss design, where every detail has a function. So the On not only looks lighter; it feels lighter, too.\n\
Was it clear from the start which of the three of you would do what?
David: Yes, that was pretty self-evident. Olivier already had his role as the developer, especially as that’s a process which never really ends. Olivier’s deep and extensive roots within the sports community are very important to us, too. Caspar is responsible for developing our markets internationally: he takes the On out into the world, and he also heads up our sales team. My job has been to develop the production side. And I also look after marketing and design. Having said that, the three of us will all sit around the table for all the big decisions.
You got off to a fanfare start by winning the Innovation Award at the ISPO sports trade fair.
Caspar: Yes, that was a piece of luck. When we sent a few prototypes to the ISPO, we didn’t really know how highly regarded this award is. In fact, a number of sports brands that are very well known today, like Crocs or Nixon, had won the ISPO BrandNew Award before us. So our success here did generate a lot of interest in our product among sports retailers and the media.
David: The flipside of that was that we had to start our production in a hurry! All the people who’d been congratulating us at the show suddenly wanted action, or, more precisely, shoes. So Olivier and I found ourselves spending a lot of time in Asia after that.
Talking of which: why manufacture in Asia? Why not Switzerland?
David: We don’t have the manufacturing expertise, either here or anywhere else in Europe. So Ons are developed in Switzerland but made in Vietnam. The materials come from all over the world, though, and we take great care in selecting them.
The On has been such a success. Is there much left to further develop?
Olivier: Oh yes. What we want is the perfect running sensation. And we’re still a long way from that. We’re just at the beginning, actually.
But many of the biggest On fans do come from the professional running scene: people like world marathon champion and world record-holder Tegla Loroupe.
Caspar: Well, when Tegla contacted us one day and told us that the On was the best shoe she had ever run in, we were bowled over. Tegla isn’t just one of the best-known runners out there; she’s a fascinating individual whose interests and influence extend far beyond the running world. But we have had a number of other well-known athletes, too, who have contacted us on their own initiative and expressed interest in our shoe.
Olivier: The feedback always tends to be the same. In Ons they run better and feel lighter; their times tend to improve; and they recover faster, too. I now receive at least one mail a day from a runner who’s delighted with their Ons. We’ve also heard from several top pros who’ve been keen to give them a try. And when they do, many of them go on to record new personal bests.
Caspar: Caroline Steffen, the Swiss triathlete, has certainly had a big impact here. We were able to convince Caroline to try our Ons. And, since she started wearing them, she’s steadily improved her times and won race after race. Her Ons have helped her to come second overall in the Ironman, the toughest contest of them all. It’s an event where so much depends on the third element, the running race. And Caroline’s success here hasn?t gone unnoticed in the triathlon community.
David: We’ve even had some athletes asking us not to promote our Ons quite so much!
Caspar: The feedback from the specialist sports stores was really important, too. They were surprisingly positive about the On right from the start, even though our technology was totally different from anything else they’d sold up to then. One of the things the retailers appreciate is that you can feel the On sensation for yourself after just a few steps in the shop. They’ve even told us that once it’s on a customer’s feet, the On tends to sell itself!
But you still promote them, too, in campaigns featuring individuals like top French runner David Hauss.
Olivier: When we first got to know him, David was sixth in the world rankings. With his Ons he’s steadily improved from there, right up to number one. Seeing all the effort and energies we’ve devoted to this project pay off in such a way make me tremendously proud. It’s a wonderful confirmation that the product works, even at the highest level. And in this summer’s London Olympics triathlon, his Ons helped David run the third-fastest time.
David: David Hauss once said to Olivier that the On isn’t a shoe, it’s a feeling. I think that really sums it up well. We’ve taken the running shoe and turned it into an emotional experience. It’s not just about wanting to win; it’s about enjoying sport. And that’s something that the pros and the amateur runners all share. Ons make running fun, even for the occasional jogger.
Does this ’fun’ sports shoe have medical benefits, too?
Olivier: It seems to! I have a whole stack of mails from people who’ve found that their running aches and pains have gone away after they started wearing Ons. I’m pretty amazed at this myself. I keep thinking:
But it isn’t, as a scientific study has confirmed.
David: That’s true. In fact, it was the many runners who said they simply went faster in their Ons that prompted Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology to conduct a study of the shoe’s effects. They found that On wearers save an average of two pulse beats a minute. And they also found that the shoe reduces the levels of lactate in the blood. So yes: Ons do make you run better!
It’s hardly surprising, then, that more and more people are turning to the On all over the world. Have you started a global trend’?
Caspar: Well, we are seeing a steep rise in the numbers of specialist stockists. We’re very selective here, though: we will only sell our product where we know the customer will get good guidance and advice, and will be told precisely how the On technology works. Ons should only be available from people who really care about running.
Olivier: We want the On to be taken seriously as a running shoe.
David: That’s also why we don’t tend to publicize the fact that Ons can be worn as casual shoes, too. We’re no different from a pair of sneakers here. And quite a few of our customers do tell us that once they’ve put their Ons on, they don’t want to take them off.
Things have really taken off for you three in the last two-and-a-half years. What is it that still keeps you going’?
Olivier: The latest sales figures from New York! Actually, I’m more interested in hearing what our customers think. When I get a mail from a guy who weighs 130 kilos and has found that his Ons have got him back jogging, that makes me very happy. And it motivates me to carry on developing and refining what we have.
Caspar: There’s a whole transformation going on right now in the running community, away from passive-support shoes with their built-in insoles and towards shoes that actively involve the runner and put them at the centre of the action. And being able to help shape this revolution is a genuine privilege.
David: More and more people are coming to experience the On sensation. We’ve even heard of On wearers saying ’hi’ to each other when they meet on a course or in the park. Ons are all about optimism and enjoyment. And it’s in this same positive spirit that the On community is growing, the family of On runners, and the international team of On employees all over the world.
Olivier: I always say that running in Ons is like running over freshly-mown grass. It’s a wonderful feeling that so many of us will recognize from our childhood. Ons make running fun. In the past, I was happy when I reached the finishing line. With my Ons, I look forward to the start!