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Shoe Dog by Phil Knight(book review)

One of my direct reports recommended this book in the third quarter of 2019. Honestly, I had never heard of it. It came out in 2016, so maybe because I was in Ireland, I was out of the loop? I’ll admit that I’ve only recently gotten into biographies, but I would have expected this to catch my attention before now…

What did I think? I would recommend the book for runners and entrepreneurs alike! If you don’t know or haven’t guessed, the book is written by the founder of Nike and it’s about himself and how Nike got started. The book is a wonderful balance of running and business: not too much running to lose interest if you’re not into it and not too much business to lose interest if you’re not an entrepreneur or thinking of becoming one!

After traveling the world, Knight started out by selling Tigers out of the back of his car. He actually became a CPA and maintained a job at an accounting firm for quite a long time, before committing himself fully to shoe selling. I loved this! It doesn’t feel like it’s the finance/accounting folk who create something super sexy like Nike. Sure, we have our Warren Buffets and TurboTax and Quicken Books. These all contribute to society and have helped many people, but when you think of world success, one normally thinks of the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Tommy Hilfigers of the world...not the CPAS.

Anyway, Knight was hugely successful selling Tigers, successful enough that he hired a bunch of people to help him sell them and manage the business. Tiger was a Japanese shoe. Knight fell in love with Japan while traveling the world and thought the US needed a Japanese shoe. Apparently, he was right!

There is a ton to learn about the history of running shoes. Knight worked his behind off to be successful, but his timing was also excellent. Around the time he was starting to sell those Tigers, running as an every-man sport was starting to take off. Prior to this, in the late 1960s early 1970s, runners were thought of as weird and only those who competed, did it. Apparently, there weren’t running clubs and you wouldn’t pass your neighbor going out for his morning jog, before that. As such, his partner and prior coach, Bowerman, was the brains behind the evolution of the running shoe. He was a mad scientist, a dog with a bone so to speak, trying to create a shoe that would give his runners a bit more edge. Knight talks about how, because he wasn’t one of the best, he was often Bowerman’s guinea pig, running in “sneakers” that looked like they may fall apart at the drop of a hat. Bowerman was also a key player in the creation of the rubber track.

There is also lots to learn from reading about someone else’s forming of a business. Knight has entertaining stories around trips to find new office space, negotiating with the Japanese, buying, fitting & running shoe factories, quality control or a lack there of it flow. I found it surprising that the company operated with a zero balance until it’s IPO. Knight just kept recycling his money to buy more inventory to sell more product. He seemed to make payroll(although sometimes it was close) and that was about it. He didn’t put money in reserves or savings or aside for R&D or anything. The stories of his interactions with the banks are surprisingly quite good, as are his interactions with the Japanese and the US government.

I don’t know that there is much to learn about leadership. Knight admits several times that his management and leadership style was unique. To say that he was very hands off would be an understatement. Keep in mind that when they first started, there was no email or cell phones. His first employee was a friend of his and he wrote Knight physical letters at least once a day, for years. He would write to tell Knight how many shoes he’d sold, what he needed and asking advice. Knight never got back to him. In his defense, he said he got overwhelmed because before he could send a reply, at least one more letter would arrive in the mail. I’m not sure if Knight would have been better or worse off if email existed at the time.

Knight would basically tell people what the problem was or what he wanted them to do and then let them figure it out on their own. He did it intentionally. He never provided praise or support to his team. It worked. The core team that really made Nike what it is, were a bunch of guys who needed something to believe in and Nike gave them that. Most of the core employees weren’t even runners, but they thought they were helping the world by enabling others to run better.

However, near the end of the book he starts to talk about what happened after they went public. He talks about the relationship he had with all of the different athletes supported by Nike. I never thought about or realized what support from a company like Nike might mean for an athlete. From Tiger to Michael, they were all incredibly grateful to Knight and Nike and treated him like he was family. Their successes, the way Knight describes it, weren’t just their own, they thought Nike & Knight were a big part of what enabled their success.

“I thought of that phrase, ‘It’s just business.’ It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.” (pg. 370)

Even if you’re not heavily into running or thinking of starting your own business, that’s a story most people enjoy and can relate to and admire.

“I’d tell men and women in their twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re falling your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.” (pg. 382)

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