Our summer series of book recommendations to empower talent and fuel brands.
Review by Traci Gentry
Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog is a business book masquerading as a memoir that reads like a novel.
Nike is an omnipresent brand today, but it is worth remembering that the brand was literally built one pair of shoes at a time, one coach, one athlete, one retailer at a time, over the course of the past 50-plus years. In this memoir, Phil Knight takes you from the genesis of his “Crazy Idea” in 1962 as an undergraduate at Stanford through finally, reluctantly, taking Nike public in 1980. During this time the original Blue Ribbon Sports, founded in 1964 selling a brand called Tiger from Japan, grew from a company selling hundreds of pairs of shoes a month for $6.95 a pair to nearly $270 million in annual sales when they went public. The Nike Swoosh was born in 1971 when Blue Ribbon Sports broke ties with Tiger (which is now Asics), and Phil Knight didn’t even like the logo.
In 1962, Phil Knight often couldn’t afford to buy a cup of coffee; when the company went public on December 2, 1980, he was personally and instantly worth $178 million. Along the way, he was nearly bankrupt more times than he could count, he was sued and sued others, the US government nearly brought the company to its knees, and more than a few banks refused to do business with him.
Having spent 7 years at Reebok in the ‘90s, chasing Nike’s tail in the same way that Nike chased Adidas, for me this book brought back strong and deep memories of the industry and the shoe dogs who make it run.
So, what does the story of Nike teach us?
Without a deep and utter belief in your mission, success is unlikely. When there is no apparent Plan B, you figure out how make Plan A work. You will get knocked down. People will be unethical. You risk it all, every day. Just like track phenom, Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, who features prominently in the book, Phil Knight notes that “No matter the sport – no matter the human endeavor, really – total effort will win people’s hearts.” After watching Pre not only take first place, but break an American record in the 1972 Olympic trials in Eugene, Knight thought, “…we’d be like Pre. We’d compete as if our lives depended on it. Because they did.”
Point of difference
You must have a point of difference in product and brand, in go-to-market strategy, and in how you do business. Knight and his team, particularly his first partner and investor, the famed track coach Bill Bowerman, were relentless in the pursuit of a better shoe, for everyday athletes and for elite athletes. The “waffle runner” was the result of Bowerman ruining his wife’s waffle iron in order to bring his idea to fruition. The team also consistently innovated beyond product. They opened their own stores with culturally connected salespeople. They created the first true community for runners, years before Bill Rodgers created the Bill Rodgers Running Centers in Boston. They broke through barriers by converting first one athlete, then a coach, then a team, and finally “won” at the Olympics. Foundationally for the footwear industry, they created the concept of “futures,” whereby retailers placed orders 6 months in advance of delivery to ensure they would receive the top shoes. This changed the game from a cash-flow standpoint and helped the company survive their doubling and tripling growth until they ultimately went public. Finally, Knight discovered that “telling the truth” in his business dealings actually differentiated him and his team from other companies and other players.
Building a culture
Having the right team proved to be a critical key to success, even though Knight didn’t know it at the time. In fact, he blatantly ignored communications from some of his early employees when they clearly needed encouragement, mentorship, or to know that they had a voice. Despite these early missteps, he ultimately assembled a motley crew of athletes and non-athletes whose passion, loyalty, and intelligence helped him navigate through waters he could not have navigated on his own. When Knight hired 280-lb non-athlete Rob Strasser as Nike’s first in-house counsel, after Strasser successfully settled their trademark lawsuit with Onitsuka, he said “You are one of us.” Knight writes, “We were the kind of people who simply couldn’t put up with corporate nonsense. We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play… We were trying to create a brand, but also a culture… More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea – a spirit.”
A hallmark of high-performing teams is the rituals they develop, those pieces of how they do business that are unique to them. For the Nike leadership team, their biannual gatherings, a retreat of sorts, became known as Buttface. The phrase was coined by his first commissioned salesperson, Jeff Johnson, at one of their earliest retreats, when Johnson said, “How many multimillion-dollar companies can you yell out, ‘Hey, Buttface,’ and the entire management team turns around?” It became part of their vernacular, referring to the retreat and the retreaters, where “it not only captured the informal mood of those retreats, where no idea was too sacred to be mocked, and no person was too important to be ridiculed, it also summed up the company spirit, mission and ethos.” Knight talks about looking around the table and being overcome by emotion. “Camaraderie, loyalty, gratitude. Even love. Surely love.” As he put it, his management team consisted of “a paralyzed guy, two morbidly obese guys, and a chain-smoker.” Yet, their eccentricities and strengths, taken together, created a formidable team. Knight talks about how he trusted his team wholly, and didn’t look over their shoulders, which bred a powerful two-way loyalty.
Knight talks more about loyalty near the end of the book, when he talks about LeBron James asking for a private word with him and presenting him with an engraved Rolex from 1972, the year Nike was born. The engraving says, “With thanks for taking a chance on me.” Knight reflects, “Taking a chance on people – he’s right. You could argue that’s what it’s all about.” He mentions how Pete Sampras tossed his racquet to him at Wimbledon, how Andre Agassi won the U.S. Open and said to him, in tears, “We did it, Phil!” and how Tiger Woods hugged him after draining the final putt at Augusta. He shares these private moments with the reader, as well as noting that these people, and Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, and their families are all like sons, brothers – family – to him as well. He shares how when he and his wife tragically lost their son in a diving accident, every Nike athlete wrote and called. He shares his regret at not having protected his employees and resorting to layoffs on three separate occasions. While the old phrase says, “It’s just business” Knight reminds us that “It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.”
As a memoir, I give this book four stars out of five. If you are someone who enjoys reading about real-life experiences of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, this is a great way to learn through storytelling. You may enjoy the following recommendations as well
- The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joël Glenn Brenner or Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury
- Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time by Howard Schultz
- Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh (Zappos)
- Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise Through Dramatic Change by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. (IBM)