NIKE & Top Shoe Dog Phil Knight: Entrepreneurial Lessons, Great Phrases & Interesting Tidbits

[This blog is Part 1 of 4 blog posts on Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by The Creator of NIKE (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016)]

Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by The Creator of NIKE (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016) is an interesting and candid glimpse into the early days of the founding and growth of NIKE. Given that NIKE is one of the world’s best-known brands, and does $32.4 billion per year, and Phil Knight is listed as one of the world’s wealthiest business leaders at US$26.9 billion it’s worth reading.

Shoe Dog goes along chronologically per chapter from 1962 to 1980 and then ends with a short chapter in 2016. So, it’s a memoir of his early days, rather than an attempt to be a balanced history of NIKE through all the years.
With an autobiography, the benefit is that the reader gets the protagonist’s perspective and insights and struggles. The downside is that readers are not sure what they are whitewashing or not covering. A quick internet search always turns up another perspective, such as with relationships with key executives or the sweatshop saga.

Knight is very self-deprecating, admitting his shortcomings, seemingly with the air of that’s just the way he is. He talks of all the risks he took, the amount of debt they had for the longest time, the role of family, his personal struggles and angst, the near-crippling issues he faced, government challenges, betrayals, law suits and the death of one of his sons.

GREAT PHRASES
Shoe Dog is a good read. Knight has a wry sense of humor which enlivens the book, including funny comments about situations and actors along the way.

  • He says of his parents: “My father turned to drink. My mother turned to stone.” [53]
  • When his father met Penny, who later became his wife, he “asked a series of probing questions…which made him sound like a cross between a loan officer and a homicide detective.” [127]
  • He compares M. Frank Rudy, who pitched the idea of air pockets in shoes, to “a long-lost member of the Addams Family.” [306]
  • At one point, NIKE had three key leaders who were 330, 320 and 350 pounds respectively – one person joked that they were “half ton of upper management” [342]


ENTREPRENEURIAL LESSONS

A lot of great lessons are revealed. Knight simply recounts his tale, but his experiences scream out for self- reflection by any entrepreneurial reader.

  1. He talks about the interesting dynamic of dealing with bankers and trying to grow the company—lots of growth, but no equity. And bankers want to see equity.
  2. He talks about dealing with Japanese business men. Knight began in the 1960s by importing Japanese shoes, and then later branched out with the NIKE brand and having the shoes made at factories around the world.
  3. His tale seems sadly stereotypical in many ways: he regrets not spending time with his wife and kids; dinner was cold and the kids wondered where he was; daddy is building a company so you can go to college; he regrets absences but he was wired to be obsessive so he doesn’t really know if he could have done it any other way.
  4. He started small. He kept working as a full-time accountant until he generated enough cash flow to leave and pay himself a salary.
  5. He was after growth. He took big risks—and then took more. At many junctures, the company could have imploded. He poured everything back into the company.
  6. He hired great people with strong personalities along the way, not afraid to be seriously challenged.
  7. He got a lot of advice from a lot of people
  8. He was fiscally conservative – never spending the money on overhead.
  9. He was open-minded and international. He talks about his first trip around the world. Later he was constantly going to Japan. Then, when China opened up he was there getting a foothold for NIKE.
  10. He provides great insight into the emotional toll of the entrepreneurial process—the stress, the angst, the anguish and the personal demons. Entrepreneurs all face this to differing degrees—he is simply some one who succeeded on a massive scale at the end of the day.

INTERESTING TIDBITS

  • His idea for Blue Ribbons, the predecessor of NIKE, originated in a seminar class on entrepreneurship at Stanford. He wanted to import Japanese running shoes which he thought might be the next big thing in the US market [9]
  • He started with very little down - a $1,000 loan from his dad
  • The famous swoosh logo was designed for $35. He met a young artist at Portland State and asked her to come up with a design that evoked a sense of motion – she got paid $35 [181]. Knight thought: “I don’t love it. Maybe it will grow on me.” [181]
  • One of his key leadership team members came up with the NIKE name. He said the name came to him in a dream one night [183]. The name is derived from the Temple of Athena; nike is the name of the Greek goddess of victory [37]
  • NIKE’s first athlete endorser signing was Ille Nastase, the Romanian tennis player, in 1972, for $10,000. Knight recounts that, “I felt that I was being robbed.” [215]