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.

1980 – Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Shoe Dog: A memoir by creator of NIKE

Shoe Dog is a memoir by the co-founder of one of the greatest brands ever built which fundamentally changed running. Phil Knight tells how his passion for running lead him to sell shoes out of his vehicle’s trunk and, as the time passed by how he tackled the obstacles while remaining on the verge of bankruptcy and facing lawsuits by giants like Converse on a shoestring budget, and built one of the most iconic brands present today. Nike was the word chosen by one of the first employers of the company which was initially operating under the name of Blue Ribbon Sports.

While it’s not a business book, there are lots of insights about running a successful business. In the snail-mail era how he managed Japanese partners half-across the globe, later shipments and conservative bankers who preferred equity over reinvested growth. Even after Nike was created as a brand there were problems with capital availability and manufacturing capacity as they struggled to keep up with the growth.

It gives us an insider peek into the personal and professional life of an entrepreneur and focuses mainly on the initial decade in a very candid way, unlike other books which present their protagonists in a demi-god form. For the first five years, Mr Knight has to work full time at Price Waterhouse and then at Coopers & Lybrand to support him and his family. He used nights and all the time he can get in between to get Blue Ribbon Sports up and running. How we financed the company for the first decade is just incredible, his only source of the financing were traditional banks and there was no equity available, but the rate it was growing would put today’s VC backed cash-burning startups to shame.

Mr Knight gives much credit of his success to people he worked with throughout the years and rightly so. He not only tells us what actions, though sometimes counterintuitive, he took along the course but also the motivations behind those actions.

A small note on India. It is intriguing to note though, that entrepreneurs like Phil typecast India as a land of polluted landscapes and corrupt individuals. It might be because of the fact that in earlier days people visited only places in or surrounding religious spots which might have reinforced their pre-conceived notion about India and might not be true today.

I was never a Nike fan as such, but this peek into the history of Nike and people who led it on it’s way to success has increased my appreciation for the brand. Campaigns like “There is no finish line” and “Just do it” are not merely statements but represent the spirit of its founding fathers.

I’d tell them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties 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 following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.

Night – Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Some of my favourite quotations from the book:

  • On General Management:
    • Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that.
    • I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.
    • I knew then that the only answer to such poverty is entry-level jobs.
    • “When goods don’t pass international borders, soldiers will.”
    • Trade is the path of coexistence, cooperation.
  • On Self Management:
    • 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.
    • Maybe the cure for any burnout, I thought, is to just work harder.
    • I’d tell them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I’d tell men and women in their mid-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 following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.
    • I’d like to warn the best of them, the iconoclasts, the innovators, the rebels, that they will always have a bulls-eye on their backs. The better they get, the bigger the bulls-eye. It’s not one man’s opinion; it’s a law of nature.
    • Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.
  • On Team Management:
    • 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.
    • We were trying to create a brand, I said, but also a culture. We were fighting against conformity, against boringness, against drudgery. More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea—a spirit.
    • The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.
  • On Relationship Management:
    • Imagine that, I thought. The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
  • On Marketing:
    • Johnson had pointed out that seemingly all iconic brands—Clorox, Kleenex, Xerox—have short names. Two syllables or less. And they always have a strong sound in the name, a letter like “K” or “X,” that sticks in the mind.
  • On Risk Management:
    • Nissho was infusing me with cash, but I couldn’t let that make me complacent. I needed to develop as many sources of cash as possible.
  • On Philosophy:
    • 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.
    • To study the self is to forget the self. Mi casa, su casa.
    • Oneness—in some way, shape, or form, it’s what every person I’ve ever met has been seeking.

Interested in reading the book? Get it on Amazon

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