Book Review: Shoe Dog

Shoe Dog is the autobiography of Phil Knight – Nike founder. It is both an entertaining and inspiring read. It follows Phil from pre-Nike days in the early 60’s through to the present day. Perhaps what is most striking about it is how many times it seemed that Nike was on the edge of disaster or destruction. How fragile the company was in the early years. It may simply be the way he remembers things, but it feels like the first decade of the companies existence was living on the edge. Very helpful context, as most of us simply grew up with Nike as a household name, a brand juggernaut. But, like everything, they had simple roots.


I love this quote:

“The cowards never started,” he’d tell me, “and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.” Us. Some rare strain of pioneer spirit was discovered along that trail, my teacher believed, some outsized sense of possibility mixed with a diminished capacity for pessimism—and it was our job as Oregonians to keep that strain alive.

Here are a few takeaways I found quite interesting about Phil and Nike:

  • He took a chance on something new, long before it was popular (running)
  • Keep going… don’t stop… he had an incredible persistence to make Nike fly once he got started on it
  • Notice that he was super deep in the world of running given his career in track and field – arguably he was on the leading edge of new running technology with his partnership with Bill Bowerman
  • He had an unwavering confidence in his vision for the future
  • When he hit on some measure of success, he slammed the pedal to the metal to drive things harder
  • He was constantly pushing the company’s finances to the edge because his main constraint was cashflow to be able to grow
  • In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it seems having simple connections with an Asian manufacturer, and establishing some lines of credit for business were a huge advantage for him… things that today seem trivial. The idea being that the edge of innovation have been pushed out from where it was then, but what he was doing at the time was nothing short of revolutionary

Hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. A great read for anyone looking to realign their life’s path.


On persistence:

So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy . . . just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.

After posting eight thousand dollars in sales in my first year, I was projecting sixteen thousand dollars in my second year, and according to my banker this was a very troubling trend. “A one hundred percent increase in sales is troubling?” I asked. “Your rate of growth is too fast for your equity,” he said. “How can such a small company grow too fast? If a small company grows fast, it builds up its equity.” “It’s all the same principle, regardless of size,” he said. “Growth off your balance sheet is dangerous.” “Life is growth,” I said. “Business is growth. You grow or you die.” “That’s not how we see it.” “You might as well tell a runner in a race that he’s running too fast.” “Apples and oranges.” Your head is full of apples and oranges, I wanted to say.

Bill Dellinger, said Pre’s secret weapon was his confidence, which was as freakish as his lung capacity. “Usually,” Dellinger said, “it takes our guys twelve years to build confidence in themselves, and here’s a young man who has the right attitude naturally.” Yes, I thought. Confidence. More than equity, more than liquidity, that’s what a man needs. I wished I had more. I wished I could borrow some. But confidence was cash. You had to have some to get some. And people were loath to give it to you.

Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t care if he died crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first. No matter what Bowerman told him, no matter what his body told him, Pre refused to slow down, ease off. He pushed himself to the brink and beyond. This was often a counterproductive strategy, and sometimes it was plainly stupid, and occasionally it was suicidal. But it was always uplifting for the crowd. No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavor, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.

On selling belief:

Driving back to Portland I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling. I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.

On seizing opportunity:

Any dollar that wasn’t nailed down I was plowing directly back into the business. Was that so rash? To have cash balances sitting around doing nothing made no sense to me. Sure, it would have been the cautious, conservative, prudent thing. But the roadside was littered with cautious, conservative, prudent entrepreneurs. I wanted to keep my foot pressed hard on the gas pedal.

I walked back to my hotel and spent a second night pacing. First thing the next morning I received a call summoning me back to Onitsuka, where Kitami awarded me exclusive distribution rights for the United States. He gave me a three-year contract. I tried to be nonchalant as I signed the papers and placed an order for five thousand more shoes, which would cost twenty thousand dollars I didn’t have. Kitami said he’d ship them to my East Coast office, which I also didn’t have. I promised to wire him the exact address.

On managing others:

One lesson I took from all my home-schooling about heroes was that they didn’t say much. None was a blabbermouth. None micromanaged. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results. So I didn’t answer Johnson, and I didn’t pester him. Having told him what to do, I hoped that he would surprise me. Maybe with silence.

then he looked off and asked the walls or the shoes or the Great Spirit why he shouldn’t just shut up and do it, do whatever I asked, and be down-on-his-knees grateful for the damn opportunity, when anyone could see that he was—he searched for the exact words—“a talentless fuck.” I might have said something like, “Oh no you’re not. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I might have. But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut and waited. And waited. “Okay,” he said, at last, “I’ll go.” “Great. That’s great. Terrific. Thank you.” “But where?” “Where what?” “Do you want me to go?” “Ah. Yes. Well. Anywhere on the East Coast with a port. Just don’t go to Portland, Maine.”

If I had any doubts about Blue Ribbon’s management team in 1976, they were mainly about me. Was I doing right by the Buttfaces, giving them so little guidance? When they did well I’d shrug and deliver my highest praise: Not bad. When they erred I’d yell for a minute or two, then shake it off. None of the Buttfaces felt the least threatened by me—was that a good thing? Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results. It was the right tack for Patton and his GIs. But did that make it right for a bunch of Buttfaces? I worried. Maybe I should be more hands-on. Maybe we should be more structured.

On negotiating:

Owen stared. It was a fierce, tough stare, honed during many intense negotiations. A lot of Dictaphones had moved out the door after that stare. He was waiting for me to bend, to up my offer, but for once in my life I had leverage, because I had nothing left to give. “Take it or leave it” is like four of a kind. Hard to beat.

The loud voice took the lead. It gave a long and careful explanation of Kuhn, Loeb’s reasoning on the stock price, which was jabberwocky. And so, the loud voice said, we can’t go any higher than twenty-one dollars. “No,” I said. “Our number is twenty-two.” We heard the other voices murmuring. They came up to twenty-one-fifty. “I’m afraid,” said the loud voice, “that’s our final offer.” “Gentlemen, twenty-two is our number.” Hayes stared at me. I stared at the speaker. Cracking silence. We could hear heavy breaths, pops, scrapes. Papers being shuffled. I closed my eyes and let all that white noise wash over me. I relived every negotiation in my life to that point. So, Dad, you remember that Crazy Idea I had at Stanford . . . ? Gentlemen, I represent Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon. You see, Dot, I love Penny. And Penny loves me. And if things continue in this vein, I see us building a life together. “I’m sorry,” the loud voice said angrily. “We’ll have to call you back.” Click. We sat. We said nothing. I took long deep breaths. The clerk’s face slowly melted. Five minutes passed. Fifteen minutes. Sweat ran down Hayes’s forehead and neck. The phone rang. The clerk looked at us, to make sure we were ready. We nodded. He pressed the button on the speaker. “Gentlemen,” the loud voice said. “We have a deal. We’ll send it out to market this Friday.” I drove home. I remember the boys were outside playing. Penny was standing in the kitchen. “How was your day?” she said. “Hm. Okay.” “Good.” “We got our price.” She smiled. “Of course you did.” I went for a long run. Then I took a hot, hot shower. Then I had a quick dinner. Then I tucked in the boys and gave them a story.

On living your authentic life:

I wanted to dedicate every minute of every day to Blue Ribbon. I’d never been a multitasker, and I didn’t see any reason to start now. I wanted to be present, always. I wanted to focus constantly on the one task that really mattered. If my life was to be all work and no play, I wanted my work to be play. I wanted to quit Price Waterhouse. Not that I hated it; it just wasn’t me. I wanted what everyone wants. To be me, full-time.

On relationships:

But this thing with Penny was unique, unprecedented. This alliance was life-altering. It still didn’t make me nervous, it just made me more mindful. I’d never before said good-bye to a true partner, and it felt massively different. Imagine that, I thought. The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.

On luck & faith:

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. And since no one has ever adequately defined Tao, I now try to go regularly to mass. I would tell them: Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your heart.

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