Reflection: Shoe Dog
This book makes you question how things get made and what control means in our lives.
I’m half way into “Shoe Dog” — a story about the founder of Nike, Phil Knight.
It reads more like a novel than a business book, which is compelling except sometimes it jumps into too many details about girlfriends or food. And his meetings are too poetic in nature, which makes you question their truth.
But when someone builds a brand as big as Nike, as prolific as Nike, I gotta see what’s behind the curtain. Nike might as well be water in U.S. culture.
But maybe I shouldn’t have looked. It’s got me confused if this whole game of business has any real rules.
Aimlessness as a path to a target.
Phil was an average runner and a slightly above average student. He went to Stanford for his MBA. During that time was when he first began thinking of a crazy idea to buy shoes cheap from Japan and sell high, following the FujiFilm model of entering the U.S. market.
After a bit of time slogging in “the real world” in a day job he decided it was time for something else. And If he didn’t do it now, he’d never take the shot.
He was an introvert, but he wanted to do the most-un-introverted thing possible: Backpack the world.
At the time (the 50's/60's) this was harder than it looks. Sure, life was cheap “in-country” but plane travel was rare and we had just left a world war with many of the countries he planned to visit.
Like many of my heroes: Steve Jobs, Kevin Kelley, Tim Ferris, Cal Fussman, he began with aimlessness. And, like them, he began by traveling the globe for an extended period of time.
I’m not saying travel is a requirement for self-mastery, but I do see a pattern among those who are able to think different. And it’s not about the money, Kevin Kelley lived on rice and beans for years, sleeping in hostels abroad before founding Wired Magazine.
It’s about refreshing your paradigm, gaining sociological insight, and getting to a place where you’re comfortable without the parachute.
And that’s when his idea came back to him. How do you think he came up with the name Nike? He had gone to the Temple of Athena Nike, in Athens. Nike means Victory, and Phil HATED to lose. Which was instilled by his famous running coach and business partner BillBowerman.
He and Bill founded “Blue Ribbon Sports” in 1964 but didn’t change the name to Nike until 1971. Seven years later!! Hard to imagine today’s startup world.
While on his trip, he bought his first shoes from a chance meeting in Tokyo. The city was decimated by WWII and there was still an air of tension. But after setting up a meeting with Tiger Shoe Manufacturing, he made his pitch, lying that he already had a company set up in the U.S., with distribution!
This was the old days. He lied many a time but there was no internet to back him up. And mostly they were white lies he could make true later. Break the rules then ask for forgiveness later.
In Person Selling
Like any grassroots effort, all of Nike’s selling was in person. His salesman went Track-meet to Track-meet pawning the shoes off and boasting about how they’d improve your times.
Then the first store became a hub for runners. It wasn’t just about the shoes, it was a PLACE TO MEET. It was a community. They were all obsessed with running and spoke about it like religion.
Many important meetings negotiating happened in Japan. Phil personally flew to Tokyo any time there was a miscommunication or error. It was a slog back then. Makes me wonder if we’re all hiding behind our computers today?
Bill Bowerman was a DIY king. He was making his own shoes before they bought supply from Tiger. Every race he’d test out some new tweak to a shoe on one of his team members and see how they performed. The idea was simple, if you had an idea for an improvement, you just made it.
It’s obvious, but it’s the influencers that really pumped up the brand for Nike. They lead the charge on endorsements, and it’s because they were in the “scene.” Bill was famous enough globally that it’s half the reason Tiger wanted to sell to them.
And it’s big business. Influencers aren’t cheap. Nike is shelling out an easy $20Million for individual campaigns.
I’m skipping ahead in their story. But there are two more things about Nike that stood out to me.
The first is how masterful and simple the brand is. Is there anything like it?? It’s Fucking beautiful. The swoosh. “Just Do It.” They whittled away at the stone for a long enough time that they got to purity. They reached a truth. My sense is this was in part due to Phil’s travels, to his interest in the no-fluff nature of eastern philosophy, and obviously pulling inspiration from something from 450B.C. It’s mind blowing what they’ve done from a brand standpoint.
So far as I can tell, Phil really did “Just Do It.” Anytime it needed to be done...
Ruthless about values.
There was a time where Nike sold at Sears department stores. The story goes that this is why they stopped.
Nike had a “no-coupon” policy for all of the major chains they worked with. You could not run any ad, with a coupon for Nike shoes. Supposedly, some lowly manager didn’t heed this advice and ran an ad with a coupon at his local store.
Phil Knight immediately called to the top of Sears and pulled all of their supply. No questions or comments about it, this, to him, was a massive break of trust. This would cost Nike a this would lose money ( at least in the short term).
So the executives from Sears flew out to Portland to see if there was anything he could do to change their mind. Phil told them to wait in the lobby downstairs for the entire day, and never gave them a meeting.
Many stars aligned for Phil to create his multi-billion dollar venture, from the people he met to some breaks.
But one thing is for sure. He just did it, again, and again, and again…
*Oh, and apparently “Just Do it” was pitched by Dan Wieden, who admitted that it was borrowed from something a Utah murderer uttered as he faced a firing squad.