I wish I had understood these things better when I left school.
Many books I’ve read about entrepreneurs follow a common, and I believe misleading, storyline. It goes like this: A sharp entrepreneur gets a world-changing idea, develops a clear business strategy, recruits a crack team of partners, and together they rocket to fame and riches. Reading these accounts, I’m always struck by how they make their achievements appear to be the inevitable result of some great prescience or unusual skill. It’s no wonder publishers churn out “how-to” titles packed with tidy checklists, 5-step programs, and other simplistic recipes for entrepreneurial success.
Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir about creating Nike, is a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. It’s a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey riddled with mistakes, endless struggles, and sacrifice. In fact, the only thing that seems inevitable in page after page of Knight’s story is that his company will end in failure.
Failure, of course, is about the last thing people would associate with Nike today. The company’s sales top $30 billion and Nike’s swoosh is one of the most universally recognized logos across the globe. Walk down almost any street in the world and you’ll likely find someone wearing a pair of Nikes. But Knight brings readers back more than 50 years to the incredibly humble and fragile beginnings of the company when he started selling imported Japanese athletic footwear out of the back of his Plymouth Valiant.
I’ve met Knight a few times over the years. He’s super nice, but also very quiet. Like many other people who’ve met him, I found him difficult to get to know. As famous as his company has become, Knight was a mystery among Fortune 500 executives.
In the pages of Shoe Dog, however, Knight opens up in a way few CEOs are willing to do. He’s incredibly tough on himself and his failings. He doesn’t fit the mold of the bold, dashing entrepreneur. He’s shy, introverted, and often insecure. He’s given to nervous ticks—snapping rubber bands on his wrist and hugging himself when stressed in business negotiations. It took him weeks to tell Penny, the woman who would become his wife, that he liked her. And yet, in spite of or perhaps because of his unusual character traits, he was able to realize the “Crazy Idea,” as he calls it, to do something different with his life and create his own shoe company.
Knight’s interest in shoes started at the University of Oregon, where he ran track for legendary running coach Bill Bowerman. He then went to Stanford for his MBA, where he wrote a paper about the potential market for importing Japanese athletic shoes to the U.S. At the time, Japanese cameras were making a dent in the German-dominated camera market. Why not do the same with Japanese running shoes which he thought could compete against leading German athletic shoe makers Adidas and Puma?
So far, this storyline may feel familiar. It’s the myth of the young entrepreneur with a world-changing idea who is headed down a straight path to success. But the rest of Knight’s journey rips that myth to shreds.
Much of the suspense in the book is built by the precarious nature of Knight’s finances. He started his shoe import business, known then as Blue Ribbon Sports, with $50 from his father. It was the beginning of many years of living in debt. Year after year, he goes on his knees to his bankers to beg for more credit so he could import more Japanese shoes. He rarely had any savings in the bank because he would plow all of his profits back into the company to order more shoes from Japan. Even as sales of his shoes took off, his business was constantly on life support. Meanwhile, he had a rocky relationship with his Japanese shoe supplier, whose executives were constantly eyeing other potential U.S. partners, despite Knight’s success selling and helping to improve the designs of their shoes. Eventually, Knight broke away and started Nike, beginning another round of uncertainty.
Knight is amazingly honest about the accidental nature of his company’s success. Consider the famous Nike swoosh. He paid an art student $35 to design it, but he didn’t recognize what a special logo it would become. “It’ll have to do,” he said at the time. The decision to call the company Nike was also not Knight’s top choice. He wanted to name it Dimension Six, but his employees pushed him to choose Nike. At the time, Knight agreed but he was not convinced. “Maybe it will grow on us,” he said.
When I was starting Microsoft I was fortunate enough that I was entering a business that didn’t have such tight margins. I didn’t struggle with banks to get financing as Knight did. I also didn’t need to struggle with the large factories, which I wish Knight spent more time explaining. After reading close to 400 pages about the shoe business, I was disappointed that I didn’t learn more about what it takes to manufacture an athletic shoe: what are all the parts of the shoe? which ones are difficult to manufacture and why?
What I identified most with from his story were the odd mix of employees Knight pulled together to help him start his company. Among them, a former track star paralyzed after a boating accident, an overweight accountant, and a salesman who obsessively wrote letters to Knight (to which Knight never responded). They were not the people you would expect to represent a sportswear company. It reminded me of my very early days at Microsoft. Like Knight, we pulled together a group of people with weird sets of skills. They were problem solvers and people who shared a common passion to make the company a success. We all worked hard, but it was also lots and lots of fun.
Readers looking for a lesson from Knight’s book may leave this book disappointed. I don’t think Knight sets out to teach the reader anything. There are no tips or checklists. Instead, Knight accomplishes something better. He tells his story as honestly as he can. It’s an amazing tale. It’s real. And you’ll understand in the final pages why, despite all of the hardships he experienced along the way, Knight says, “God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing.”