Caspar Coppetti tells us how a shoe
goes around the world

Journalist: Tabea von Ow | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Bigger, better, stronger – December 2023

From Zurich to São Paulo, New York and Singapore: more and more people around the world are wearing running shoes made by Swiss firm On. Established 13 years ago, what was a start-up is now listed on the stock exchange in the US and has passed the billion sales mark. In this interview, company co-founder Caspar Coppetti tells us about On’s success, which has been partly based on some very unconventional marketing methods.

Mr Coppetti, a year ago you and On moved into your impressive new headquarters in Zurich, where we are now. What was your vision when you founded the company twelve years ago?

When we started, we had no idea how big the company might grow to be. We hoped one day to achieve about 20 million in sales so that On could be self-sustaining. Things turned out a bit different.

That’s right, in 2022 you passed the billion mark. At what point did you realise that On was going to be much bigger than you’d ever imagined?

That happened during the Corona pandemic. We grew a lot in the US. At first, we didn’t really notice because we weren’t allowed to travel. Then, over a year later, when we were back in New York in 2021 preparing for the stock market flotation, at first we thought someone had hired actors to walk around with our products on their feet. People were wearing On shoes everywhere. We’ve sort of got used to it now. In the US, our shoes are worn by people from all walks of life, from hardcore runners to fitness fans and college kids.

«I thought someone had hired actors to wear our shoes»

How did this sudden growth come about then?

I can’t say that there was one single magic moment. But our research shows that every person who wears On shoes recommends the brand to ten other people. That’s how exponential growth comes about. Since day one, we’ve been growing by about 80% a year on average. A little less, the bigger we’ve become.

It sounds like you didn’t even need marketing …

We work with influencers and we also advertise. But the things that’ve had the biggest impact we didn’t plan. When actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson took to the stage at the 2019 Super Bowl wearing a pair of our shoes, that particular model was constantly sold out for the next two years. A lot of people think we set that up, but Dwayne Johnson is signed to another brand. It was just luck. And we didn’t know anything about it until it’d happened.

«Since day one, we’ve been growing by about 80% a year on average.»

In the clothing industry, it’s not exactly easy for new brands to make a name for themselves. Why did On succeed?

Thanks to innovative technology and our strategy. We were able to sell our brand to the right opinion leaders in the world of running. In addition, we’re the first sports brand to move into the premium segment. So we’re more like Louis Vuitton than Adidas. You can also see that in our gross margin of almost 60%. Our competitors work on the basis of 45% on average.

But let’s go back to the very beginning. How exactly did you acquire customers without a big marketing budget? 

There were two approaches: we wanted the best runners to wear our shoes, and we also wanted to sell our brand to running retailers. In the beginning, we were particularly successful with runners who’d been injured and were able to get back running wearing our shoes. Former triathlete Nicola Spirig is one example. Luckily, a few runners then won European or world championship titles wearing our shoes. This led to other athletes finding out about On.

«Roger Federer’s involvement and going public took us to a completely new level of recognition.»

And what about the retailers?

Convincing them was the hardest part. In the beginning, we sent them a pair of shoes and asked them to go jogging in them because we were so confident about our special sole technology. But that didn’t work. That’s why, for about the next three years or so, we went jogging ourselves with about 1,000 people a year.

You just went into the shops and said to the managers, “come on, let’s go for a run together”?

Exactly. Sometimes I rang up retailers in New York or Hamburg and pretended that I was in the vicinity and wanted to go for a jog with them. When someone took the bait, I booked the next flight and the cheapest hotel and I went there. One retailer ordered twelve pairs of shoes after our first jog. Today, they sell 20,000 pairs a year. I think the impact we had then and our total belief in persuading one person at a time probably made the difference.

On has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 2021. By going public, what doors has this opened for you that would otherwise have remained closed?

Doors opened giving us access to the US capital market as well as expertise. In the beginning, we’d have preferred to list in Switzerland. But here we’d have been the only sports goods manufacturer, whereas in the US – which is also our largest sales market (with around 60% of group sales in 2022; editor’s note) – we’re one of many. The questions that analysts and investors ask us there help us to move forward. And competing with the most successful companies in the world makes us better.

«It’s important to have a dream and be able to achieve it.»

And listing in the US will undoubtedly also help you further increase brand recognition in what is so far your biggest market, will it not?

There were two things that took us to a completely new level of recognition. The first was the involvement of Roger Federer as an investor, the second was going public. Searches on Google jumped 50% after both these events – and they didn’t drop back down afterwards.

Roger Federer getting involved in 2019 also meant entry into a new sport – tennis. Do you plan to expand into other sports?

We actually entered the tennis arena out of the blue – through Roger Federer. It’s a real success story. But for us, professional tennis is more of a vehicle for building brand awareness and gaining a foothold in youth culture, because white leather shoes are one of their most important lifestyle accessories. Runners, rather than tennis players, still make up the largest part of our customer base though. Our declared goal is to become the world’s number one for running. We’re currently in fifth or sixth place.

How do you know that?

Twice a year, we count shoes on the most popular running routes in the 60 biggest cities in our markets, using a specially developed app. That’s how we calculate our market share. But we also make outdoor products: clothing, trail running shoes and hiking shoes. We’re a big hit with people who work out at the gym, too. Probably almost half of the people jog on a treadmill and not outside, which we’re familiar with in Switzerland. In the fitness market, where On shoes are already well represented in the best gyms, we’re aiming to achieve significant growth for clothing and special training shoes.

So you want to become the biggest running shoe manufacturer?

Size in itself is not our ambition. Becoming the most admired and the most profitable, that’s our goal.

With regard to profitability, it’s said that you turned a profit for the first time last year. Is that right?

No, that’s a common misconception. We broke even back in 2014 and have become more profitable every year since then. When we went public, things changed because we switched to IFRS international accounting standards. In addition, there were special effects due to the public listing, such as share-based remuneration. We’re very conservative when it comes to finances and have always said that we’re only entrepreneurs when we’re earning money.

You’ve often been accused of that attitude abroad …

Funny enough, we hear the opposite in Switzerland: that we’re far too pushy and too American. I think it’s the balance that makes the difference.

«We aim to become the world’s number one for running.»

On was founded in Zurich in 2010. The founding trio acquired a patent from an ETH engineer for a particularly well-cushioned shoe sole, creating the basis for the company. In 2019, tennis star Roger Federer, who later also played in On shoes, joined the company. Since 2021, the company has been listed on the New York tech exchange NYSE, where it has a stock market value of just under CHF 10 billion. On now employs more than 2,000 people and moved into new offices in Zurich’s creative quarter ‘Kreis 5’ in 2022.

Caspar Coppetti (47) founded the company On in 2010 along with David Allemann and former top triathlete Olivier Bernhard, who Mr Coppetti also supervised as a manager when he was studying. Mr Coppetti holds a doctorate in economics from the University of St. Gallen. While studying, he also worked as a journalist, including for the Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in which he published an interview with his subsequent co-founder Olivier Bernhard. Since 2021, a management duo has been in charge of operations at On. However, Mr Coppetti and his co-founders continue to be responsible as executive directors for strategy, innovation and product development. Caspar Coppetti is married and has two young children.