“ShoeDog – Am I on the right track?” PART ONE

“We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is – you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.” These days everyone is a motivational speaker. Every second post on social media is a war story, rags to riches saga with an inspirational message to the reader. There’s nothing wrong with these, and of course, it’s good to share success and recognise others. The reader’s decision whether to ingest or not usually stems from the author. Who do you decide to listen to? Who really understands the message they are preaching?

‘Shoedog’ has an undeniably solid source. The founder of one of the biggest brands in the world and has been going strong for 50 years – Nike. Phil Knight is not only an incredibly successful businessman worth around 10 billion dollars but is an inept storyteller and produces a fascinating rollercoaster ride through the journey of how the sports giant came to be. He steers away from hammering home the cliché of ‘just work hard’ and reveals an incredibly honest, vulnerable, and humble side to himself and his work. There are some fantastic almost ‘too good to be true’ anecdotal nuggets such as the woman who designed the world-famous ‘Swoosh’ logo being paid 35 dollars for her work at the time, the idea for the ‘waffle iron’ pattern found on the bottom of almost every sports shoe nowadays comes from… looking at an actual waffle iron in Knight’s business partner’s kitchen, and the dramatic last-minute the naming of the company. To think Nike might have been named… Dimension Six? As well as giving you bite-sized facts to bring up around the dinner table, books like these are written to impart wisdom, and motivation and help you find a little bit of the real-life protagonist in your own work.

The book starts with Knight on a run in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and his ‘Crazy Idea’ of traveling to Japan to try and import running shoes into the USA. The one thing you can say about him is that his vision was consistent from day one. Today Nike has grown bigger than anyone could have imagined back in 1964, but at its heart has always been putting the best running shoes in the world on people’s feet and encouraging them to push the boundaries in sports and in life. Here’s what I personally took from the book.

1. Aim big. 

Ironically the slogan ‘Just do It’ wouldn’t be coined until 1988, but a strong theme throughout the book is taking risks and just going for that metaphorical 3-pointer. What’s the worst that can happen? Right at the start of the journey Knight borrows a large sum of money from his dad and travels to Japan with the aim of striking a deal to import Tiger running shoes into the USA. A huge gamble. Ridiculous (as his dad points out). It seems so obvious now and things look great in hindsight, but if your best friend told you they were going to travel around the world to set up a global company would you not have a few questions? If you don’t at least try to open these doors, then how will you get through?

2. It’s ok to be anxious.

One of the most surprising and reassuring things about the story is Knight’s constant anxiety and insecurity. It’s easy to look at multimillion-dollar deals and be impressed or even intimidated, but there are real people behind the paper, and what goes on in their minds before the final handshake? If you believe what you see in films then it’s a mixture of morning yoga, orange juice, croissants, and powerwalks toward the camera. In reality, however, it’s undoubtedly a bit different. On the plane to every single business meeting Knight shares his anxiety and doubts. What if they say no? What if the company folds? What if he goes bankrupt? If the CEO of Nike can get nervous, then I can too.

3. Keep Going.

The solution to all this anxiety for Knight of course is to just keep going. The other option is to give in to your fears and fold. If he had given up after every setback or doubt, then you might only know the name Nike today from Greek history books. It’s staggering the number of setbacks and obstacles that occur on the way. Nike should not have made it as a company. Bankruptcy, lawsuits, and product recall to name a few. But it did. Because of Knight’s runner’s attitude. No matter how bad the stitch, how steep the incline, you just… keep… going. Slowly but surely, you will get there.

4. Believe in your product.

At one point with next to no money in the bank and on the verge of going under, Knight does the unthinkable. He places an order for thousands and thousands of new shoes to be delivered to the USA. More than ever before. Because he knows they will sell. They have to sell. He truly believes they have a superior shoe and the demand across the country will grow exponentially. Their sales double next year.

5. Innovate or die.

The waffle iron story is a great one. But the real innovation comes later when Knight meets with two scientists who have invented the concept of putting air in a shoe. These days? Every shelf in every sports shop in the world. In 1977? Absolutely stark raving mad. But he believes in it. The air shoe is something so simple but so crazy that it was truly innovative. Every year Knight’s business partner and sports coach tapes all kinds of things to his runner’s feet to get new results. There is a burning desire to get better, constantly fail, and constantly change until the results get better. The turning point I felt in the journey (and you are well invested by this point) is when Nike shoes become everyday wear. Again, in 2022 people wear Nikes to the office, to the cinema, on the bus. You can almost hear the wheels whirring in Knight’s head as he comes to this realisation and orders thousands of blue-colored shoes to match denim jeans. They instantly sell out. Great stories. Great advice. But how do we try and apply these every day at Global Talent 2020?

Go and put the kettle on, quick toilet break, and join us soon for part two…

Knight, P. 2016. Shoedog, a memoir by the creator of Nike. New York. Simon and Schuster.