When 3 different people are kind enough to recommend the same book to you in less than a fortnight, you’ve got to read it.

Shoe Dog is the exceptional memoir of Phil Knight, co-founder and creator of Nike.

Nike is one of those ubiquitous brands that I have happily worn but knew nothing about it. It’s not a “famous face” brand like Microsoft or Virgin. I might have been able to name Phil Knight at a push but knew nothing about his journey.

If I’d had to guess at Nike’s story prior to reading this book, I’d have guessed at a well-funded company run with an iron fist and a founder with a strong marketing pedigree. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Nike was born of a love of running, and strong knowledge of accountancy and a roomful of Buttfaces…

It’s as much a story about Phil’s personal and geographic journey as it is about what it takes out of a senior team to strap yourselves to a rocket like Nike.

A friend texted me this morning and suggested I read Shoe Dog (that’s number 4!) When I said I had just finished it, and how incredible the story was, she replied that she’d found Phil Knight so humble in the way he tells his story. It’s a great point.

He tells a great, wide-ranging, philosophical story and yet subtly underplays his role and his dedication to whatever he does. For example, it’s only in reading the final credits you realize that he re-enrolled in writing classes at Stanford to be able to knock the storytelling part of this book out of the park. And he does.

So here are my top 5 takeaways, and top 5 quotes from Shoe Dog. I’ve narrowed in on the useful lessons for the business folks amongst us. But it’s a rollercoaster tale of a life lived to the max too. I can’t possibly do it justice here, so please read Shoe Dog. You’ll thank me!

Shoe Dog: Top 5 takeaways

  • Be your customer. Phil runs. A lot. Often he and his management team would run before or after meetings. Phil would always run to clear his head. He also uses the running as a metaphor for business. Running (and business) are not about the destination but just about keeping going. Phil and his team’s love of running put them at the heart of that community at a time when it was tiny. Phil himself says that when he founded the company it was seen as weird to go out and run for fun. But in being a runner, he uncovered a need for better shoes, and was right at the heart of a buying community he could sell to and grow. I was reminded of Seth Godin’s Otaku concept a lot while reading this book.
  • A vision is stronger than hands-on management. I was frequently surprised by the way Phil ran the company. He was seemingly a very hands-off manager, letting his team get on with things on the other side of the country with very little guidance beyond selling shoes. In place of management, Knight focused on a strong vision about winning; you can see in chapter after chapter that he and his team thrilled and toiled in equal measure as the underdogs: against their manufacturers, against the government, against the industry.
  • Investment in growth and self through reading. From classics by Sun Tzu through to Patton. From Dante to Da Vinci. From Churchill to the Zen poets. Knight has a strong thirst for knowledge that drove him to take a round-the-world trip to a bombed out Japan and a still-dangerous East Germany. Phil read all the time and used books to prepare for everything from travel to his first business dealings with his Japanese manufacturing partner. That investment in himself, and constant learning, is subtly described but is clearly a strong factor in Knight’s success.
  • How a lack of funding can strangle growth. As someone who gets a call a month from a VC asking to if they can invest, reading about funding in the seventies, where funding was only doled out by banks seems a world away. Nike’s biggest problem was that demand seemed to always outstrip supply. You can feel the team’s pain on every page. They know they could sell a ton more sneakers but need the cash to pay the manufacturer first. It’s clear they could have grown even faster if they’d had access to cash. It’s a very strong argument for the kind of investment companies and scale-up support groups that exist now.
  • How misfits can fit. In Shoe Dog, Knight is at pains to point out how much the core team at Nike saw themselves as misfits. Their management retreats were called Buttfaces because one of the guys joked they were the only team where you’d call out “hey Buttface” and they’d all look round, so it stuck. Phil felt that they’d all had something go wrong, or some way in which they didn’t feel they fit in life, and that made them stronger. He says that each of them had been “misunderstood, misjudged, dismissed. Shunned by bosses, spurned by luck, rejected by society, shortchanged by fate…” He felt they’d each been ‘forged by early failure’ and were ‘born losers’ but together they could win. I found myself wondering, who doesn’t feel forged by early failure in some way? What’s really clever is that they used it as a common theme to beat the world and come out on top.

Shoe Dog: Top 5 quotes

  • “My sales strategy was simple, and I thought rather brilliant. After being rejected by a couple of sporting goods stores (“Kid, what this world does not need is another trackshoe!”)”, I drove all over the Pacific Northwest, to various track meets…The response was always the same. I couldn’t write orders fast enough.”
  • “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.”
  • “Despite our hijinks, despite our eccentricities, despite our physical limitations, I concluded in 1976 that we were a formidable team. (Years later a famous Harvard business professor studying Nike came to the same conclusion. “Normally”, he said, “if one manager at a company can think tactically and strategically, that company has a good future. But boy are you lucky: More than half the Buttfaces think that way!”)”
  • “Some customers freely volunteered their opinion about Tigers [Tigers were Phil’s brand name prior to Nike], so Johnson began aggregating this customer feedback, using it to create new design sketches.”
  • “God how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals, might be inspired or competed. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on. It’s all the same drive, the same dream.”

Where next?

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2 replies
  1. Jeff Borello
    Jeff Borello says:

    I listened to Shoe Dog on Audible – and it really is a great, fascinating book. I was shocked how good it was (and that is all I have heard anyone say). The Audible narrator was also great as well. I would highly recommend the read.

  2. Lindsay Willott
    Lindsay Willott says:

    That’s a great tip about the Audible version, thank you Jeff. I will definitely want to reread this book and that will provide a new twist on it. As you say, it really is better than I could ever have hoped, and with no ghostwriter – he clearly put all the effort in himself to become a superb writer storyteller.

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