On page 17 of Originals a book documenting how non-conformists move the world, is this startling stat: “Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.” Originals author Adam Grant establishes that stat’s validity by using Nike co-founder Phil Knight as an example: Knight started selling shoes in 1964 as his 5-9 but his 9-5 was being an accountant until 1969.
An avid runner, Knight who ran track and field in university was selling running shoes in the mid-60’s because he believed runners would benefit from better footwear. Those shoes were not Nike… not yet. However his role as provider having a wife and a son dictated he should have a steady income stream.
Preceding Nike, before the billions Knight lived with that tension: having a dry but stable 9-5 and a passionate but insecure 5-9. That tension is crisply documented in Knight’s inspiring memoir Shoe Dog. Thanks to all the online opportunities many of us have a boring 9-5 and fervent 5-9 that unfortunately doesn’t pay enough. Yet.
With running coach Bill Bowerman, Knight’s company was founded on January 25, 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports and officially became Nike, Inc. on May 30, 1971.
This was before a running culture existed. Individuals only ran if they were athletes, destined for the Olympics. Why would a non-athlete (i.e. a regular person) who was not being chased want to run?
This was the start of Bill Bowerman, a well respected running coach, taking shoes apart and attempting to enhance their soles and experimenting with better materials.
This is where Shoe Dog excels. Nike advertising is based on winning, and that culture doesn’t come solely from the athletes and their successful sports endeavours, it flows from the company. Sports is wonderfully crystal clear …you are either a champion or you mumble something about “getting ’em next year.” Business, like life, is complex. There are no clear definitions of winning. Success is not always closing a multi-million dollar deal. It’s consistently paying your employees and keeping the lights on in your office. There is no trophy for that. Knight had to learn how to be resilient in business, how to overcome adversity, how to get back up (eventually) from defeat. Knight’s shoe business is a Nike ad as much as it’s true story.
Granted, business doesn’t generate the same spirited images as sports; it does come with the same pressures as the shot clock winding down and you have to make smart decisions. What do you do when you have limited funds? What do you do if the bank turns you down? What if you believe you can succeed, when you are right there and nobody else believes in you or your vision? You play through it.
Some of Shoe Dog’s greatest hits as Philip Knight builds his running shoe business:
Page 181: The Swoosh (graphic designer Carolyn Davidson’s checkmark becomes Nike’s logo for $35)
Page 183: The Nike name (the company is renamed Nike)
Page 196: The infamous waffle story
Page 309: Sonny Vaccaro joins the Nike party
Page 357: Nike goes public … the same week as Apple, some fledgling computer company in California.
That sadly is where the book ends. That it took 181 pages before the Swoosh is created should tell you we are not going to witness the birth of Air Jordan. There is one small mention of Tiger Woods. Bo may know sports, but Knight doesn’t know Bo in this memoir.
Shoe Dog documents Knight’s shoe business from 1962 to 1980. Seriously? Shoe Dog’s frustration is it ends in 1980. If anything Nike’s story has just begun: Wieden+Kennedy form in 1982 the same year Nike started television advertising. In 1984 Nike signed Jordan. In 1987 the Nike Air Max shoe debuted along with the iconic slogan “Just Do It.” The Air Force 1 and so many other extraordinary shoes are still to come. When Nike goes public, the public can’t even begin to understand how this company will transform sports, business, fashion, advertising and so much more.
The strangest story in the book is it’s genesis… not the company, the actual memoir. During the 2007 holidays Knight and his wife Penny went to the cinema to see The Bucket List, a “comedy” featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s OK, no need to put it on your bucket list). When Knight and Penny emerged from the cinema they encountered Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who’d also been watching the film. (Why is this not a podcast… 3 billionaires going to see generic movies?) And it got Knight thinking about his life, his business experiences and his team.
The great irony of Nike advertising is the singular focus and celebration of the individual player often in a team sport like basketball or soccer. Yes: Michael Jordan is one of the greatest NBA players (and all his Nike marketing effectively branded his status) yet Jordan still needed Rodman to rebound, Paxon or Kerr to hit those threes and Pippen to draw the D. Jordan truly became successful when he had a legitimate and capable team. Knight’s Nike story is no different than building an NBA contender. He succeeded in business because he surrounded himself with the right team. He invested in the people who believed in his vision and did not waste time trying to convince those who did not.
If you want to succeed in business, if you want to make your 5-9 your 9-5, if you need some encouragement as if Just Do It is not enough, then read Shoe Dog.