Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Whenever I go shopping, Nike is the one store that I always visit. I love Nike’s simplistic logo along with its casual and sporty look. However, when it comes to Nike’s history, all I do know is it’s the largest supplier of athletic shoes and apparel and it sponsors many of the NBA players I follow.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight is a memoir on how Phil founded Nike and grew it to the empire we know today. As one of the most successful entrepreneurs, Phil didn’t emphasize his contributions. On the contrary, he simply tells the story of Nike and might even give you the impression that he was just lucky to be surrounded by geniuses who propelled him. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Luck plays a big role. Yes, I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome. Some people might not call it luck. They might call it Tao, or Logos, or Jñāna, or Dharma. Or Spirit. Or God. Put it this way. The harder you work, the better your Tao.

Phil Knight

Phil Knight was lucky. When Phil asked to be the US distributor for Onitsuka, a Japanese shoe company, they agreed to it based on Phil’s lie that he represented Blue Ribbons, a company he made up on the spot. His track and field coach at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, was a mad genius at experimenting with shoe designs who was also the Olympic track and field US head coach. His reputation and charisma alone garnered respect in the shoe industry and his constant pursuant of a more performant shoe was a competitive advantage which set Nike apart from its competitors. Phil didn’t approach Bowerman to be his partner. Bowerman was the one who asked to be in on the partnership after Phil sent Bowerman shoe samples from Onitsuka.

Phil’s first full time employee, Jeff Johnson, happened to be another mad genius who worked tirelessly and took care of sales, advertising, customer retention, store opening, you name it with minimum leadership and oversight from Phil. These are just a few examples of how lucky Phil was.

However, if you read closely, you will see the brilliance of Phil Knight. Phil was a kid who loved running whose final year entrepreneurship project claimed that Japanese running shoes can make deep cuts into the shoe market similar to how Japanese cameras did. Unlike the majority of us, his crazy idea didn’t end with the course. He did his research, understood the shoe market, and identified Onitsuka Tiger as the shoes he wanted to distribute. Then he flew to Japan alone.

Bill Bowerman saw Phil as someone he wanted to partner with and asked for Phil to have controlling stakes of the company. His number one full time employee, Jeff Johnson, had nonstop ideas on how to improve the business. Phil unlike many managers we see today, did not micromanage and instead allowed Jeff the autonomy to maximize his impact. Phil greatly appreciates and values those around him and you can clearly tell from how he described each of those he worked with.

For all the great qualities that Phil possess, one of the most important is his persistence to accomplish his dream. There were the times when Onitsuka did not deliver the initial Tiger shoe samples for more than a year, when Kitami, Onisuka’s export manager, went behind their agreed contract and planned to replace Nike with a different US distributor, and when Onitsuka was looking for a distributor who had a store on the east coast which Nike didn’t have. These were all valid excuses that nearly all of us would have used to give up. But Phil didn’t, he pushed forward, got a group of people to work together and resolved one challenge at a time.

Shoe Dog is by far my favorite memoir. Phil Knight is an excellent writer and was able to reflect on his past with such truthfulness. I learned a lot about the type of challenges that come along with starting a company. Shoe Dog is one of my top book recommendations and I hope you will enjoy it.