Business With a Swoosh

Book Review: ‘Shoe Dog: A Memoir By The Creator of Nike’

Back Web Only Dec 9, 2016 By Michael Scott

Success in business often involves lacing up one’s shoes and hitting the ground running. In his memoir released earlier this year, Nike founder Phil Knight explores how his deep obsession with athletic footwear evolved into arguably the most highly-recognized sports brand in history.

Shoe Dog, a 400-page book, offers an engaging narrative on Knight’s journey from struggling entrepreneur to prized business owner, having built a shoe company with worldwide repute. For the reader, the book delivers a poignant message about courage and persistence, along with priceless wisdom regarding the curation of products, brands and creativity. Chapters are introduced chronologically by year, from Nike’s birth in 1962 to when the company went public in 1980.

According to Knight’s account in the book, his crazy, unconventional path to being coined “Shoe Dog” began with an epiphany of sorts: “At twenty-four I did have a Crazy Idea, and somehow, despite being dizzy with existential angst, and fears about the future, and doubts about myself, as all young men and women in their mid-twenties are, I did decide that the world is made up of crazy ideas. History is one long processional of crazy ideas. The things I loved most — books, sports, democracy, free enterprise — started as crazy ideas.”

From this flash of insight, Knight committed to a “playful” life. As a former runner from his undergraduate days at the University of Oregon, he decided that a business importing high-quality, inexpensive running shoes from Japan might fit the bill. Having completed an MBA at Stanford, he convinced his sceptical father that pursuing this “crazy idea” was his calling. Upon securing some funds from his old man, he made his way to Japan, hell-bent on convincing Onitsuka, a major shoe manufacturer, of the efficacy of his idea. Ultimately, Knight successfully wooed the Japanese executives he met to sell him 12 pairs of “Tiger shoes” for $50.

Jazzed about the prospects of his new venture, Blue Ribbon Sports, Knight returned home to Oregon and soon reconnected with his former track coach Bill Bowerman, an encounter that led to a business partnership where each ponied up $500 in startup money.

Once the shipment arrived from Japan, Knight focused on making a dent with the inventory of shoes nestled away in his parents’ basement. Selling them out of the back of his car, a Plymouth Valiant, Knight in 1963 grossed a first year haul of $8,000. Today, Nike’s has annual sales of over $30 billion. According to Forbes magazine, Knight himself is valued at about $25 billion, which places him among the richest business moguls in the world.

Knight is considered by many to be a brand-marketing genius, symbolized by the ubiquitous swoosh logo that’s instantly recognized in every corner of the globe. The Nike name is derived from the Greek goddess of victory in both war and peaceful competition.

While offering key insights on the inner-workings of Nike, the book is not prescriptive like others of this genre. In fact, it reveals Knight’s discomfort with the ever-present “profits at all costs” mantra that holds sway in the business world. He even finds annoyance with those who characterize him as a “businessman” — which in his mind implies an exclusive focus on the bottom line. Above all else, it’s a life story on the follies, synchronistic encounters and vicissitudes of life that entrepreneurs often experience on their road to success.

In this way, the book is eerily similar in flavor and tone to the adventurous tales explored in Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Virgin Group CEO and founder Richard Branson. Knight provides a refreshingly forthright look at his life meanderings, replete with grit and an unrelenting passion for his work.

Knight stepped down as Nike chairman in June 2016 but his legacy lives on as a benefactor for his alma mater. The vestiges of this are apparent with the University of Oregon football team. Reflecting the contrarian brand that Nike is known for, “Duck” players don new, freshly designed uniforms and shoes for each game — an effort on the part of Knight to showcase the creative and  the innovative approach for which Nike has long been recognized.

In the spirit of play and daring to be different, Knight concludes in his book “Like it or not, life is a game. Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that.”