Nike Creator Phil Knight recently published his memoirs and Shoe Dog has to be one of the best business books published this year. The story takes the reader on the journey from a start-up business to one of the worlds most recognised brands. There has been much written about the company’s success which didn’t always truly reflect the experience of the founder. It is therefore refreshing that the book has been written by Phil Knight himself and gives a detailed account of the struggles that the business had in its early years. He talks about the hundreds maybe thousands of bad decisions that he took and how the team was created. It is most striking to learn about the unique and successful culture that was created within the organisation and help the business through the tough times. Many universities such as Stanford and Harvard have the Nike story as one of their case studies and it is often touted as a success that will rarely be repeated. It is much more than a business book and it draws upon the values within sport and competition.
A big part of the success of the business can be down to the team that was put together in the most unlikely fashion. Properly the most influential character is Bill Bowerman who was a track and field coach and the other co-founder of Nike. Bill was coach of the University of Oregon for over 24 years during which time he trained 31 Olympic athletes, 51 all Americans, 12 American record holders, 22 NCCA champions and 16 sub four-minute milers. Phil Knight said that one of the best decisions he ever made was to partner with Bill Bowerman. There was at the cutting edge of coaching and understood the importance of running shoes to an athletes performance. Many of the innovations that were introduced by Nike were a result his experimentation and determination.
Nike started life as blue ribbon sports in January 1964 at which time the company operated as a distributor for Japanese shoemaker Tiger (who are now known as ASICS). The early success was fully reliant on the distribution agreement which would eventually finish in controversial fashion. As Phil Knight discovered he was about to lose the distribution rights for America for Tiger he had to quickly respond and secretly launch his own brand of running shoes. This decision ultimately saved the business and led to one of the most iconic sporting brands in the world. The pace of growth at the business was phenomenal which led to a number of problems including cash flow. The determination of Phil Knight to keep going through all the adversity is a testament to his competitive nature. He was not driven by money that had something to prove especially to get the respect from his father.
The thing that strikes me most about the success and how the business overcame adversity and difficulties was its culture. It is very difficult to create such a unique culture and this was influenced by the founder and also the founding team who all came from unusual backgrounds with points to prove. The opportunity which the team was given and their belief in the founder and the company led them to have a strong sense of loyalty and dedication to the business. It was somewhat about being unconventional and away from the corporate world which often stifles innovation. Many of the original team were paid below the market rate but still they gave everything and more to their jobs. Many of the team were previously athletes and fanatical about running. The culture was also about having fun and could be described as a David and Goliath story. Even as the business grew at a phenomenal rate the culture was still maintained and many of the original team continued with the business long after they made significant sums of money in the company’s public offering.
Phil Knight was certainly a well-educated and could have chosen many other careers but was determined to make a crazy idea a reality. The idea was born during a university project whilst taking a semester on entrepreneurship. The business wasn’t born straightaway and it was an idea that took time to develop and put into action. Phil thought it was important to travel the world before he started and spent time in Hawaii enjoying the surf. During this time he had a number of sales jobs which initially involved selling Encyclopaedias. His first attempt at selling was a difficult and painful one particularly as he was shy in character and not your typical extrovert. He quickly moved on to a sales role selling securities and this allowed him to have the evenings free for surf and drinking in the dives by the beach. These two sales roles developed a number of skills which were used to good effect later in his career. He also discovered the joys of commission and was able to earn enough money to continue his trip and head to Japan in search of running shoes to sell into America. The other job that proved invaluable in the success of Nike was an accounting role which taught him many fundamentals that assisted in growing his business. A switch to lecturing also proved life changing giving him more time to devote to the business and also met his wife was giving a lecture in accounting 101.
On the subject of money he said it had an effect on him and everyone else but not for long. This is partly down due to the fact that nobody in the team was ever driven by money and they had a cause which was much bigger and longer lasting. “whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it”. As a philanthropist Phil Knight now gives away over 100 million each year and has promised to give away most of what’s left when he has gone. He talks about the many races that each of us have to run and hopes his story will inspire and help people to see through the difficult times.
He says “there is no finish line” so perhaps we should all try to enjoy the journey!