Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE
by Phil Knight
I just finished Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog. It’s a thoroughly enterntaining read, and I highly recommend that you read it.
Besides its entertainment value… what business insights might one glean from it?
Unwavering Conviction in your Ability to Get Things Done
“The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way. That leaves us.”
Knight grew up in Portland, Oregon. Many times through the book Knight brings up that quote from his old teacher, referring to their common ancestors, those hardy souls who made it through the Oregon Trail: “The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way. That leaves us.”
This belief is with him through the entire book. He and his associates are tough. They are tougher than regular men. Whatever life puts in their way, they will overcome it. They can do this.
This reminds me of one of the principles Jeff Collins identified in Good to Great: “Confront the brutal truth of the situation, yet at the same time, never give up hope.” I think that’s the gift of belief in that strong Oregonian heritage comes in - it imparts an unwavering belief that you are strong, and that whatever the challenges before you, if anyone can overcome them, it is you.
Knight summed up his thoughts on the importance of passion like so: “I’d tell [people] 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.”
Yes, I think that’s it. Knight sucked at selling encyclopedias, and was ok-ish at selling mutual funds, and hated both. Shoes, on the other hand, he sold almost on autopilot. He was just telling the truth, and people could feel his passion, feel his earnestness, and wanted more of that in their lives.
Nietzsche wrote “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I’d wager Phil Knight would agree.
Have the Experts
Bill Bowerman, the Oregon and US track coach, was Knight’s ace in the hole. He was passionate about running and running shoes, had a keen mind, always experimented, and had a great lab for his experiments in the Oregon track team that he was coaching. He was able to quickly iterate on ideas, find out what worked, and then put the Nike team to work to scale and produce it.
Have a great R&D team that’s as passionate as you, and able to quickly put their work to the test in the real world.
Hire Great People and Set Them Free
Knight repeated the General George S. Patton quote a few times: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
Nike’s key employees enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and grew to new heights because of it. I think the insight here is to hire great people and them let them put their talents to work - don’t micromanage.
Jim Collins would agree - in Good to Great he stresses the importance of first getting the right people on the bus first. Figuring out where to drive the bus is easier when you have great people around you.
Aside: I don’t like the bus analogy. If half the people on a bus fall asleep, the bus still ends up in the same place. That’s not how business works, obviously. Would a rowboat make for a better analogy? If any one person doesn’t row in time, the boat’s in trouble.
Final Notes - Read This book!
Just to be clear: I’ve just finished Phil Knight’s memoir. Before reading it, I knew very little about Nike. I haven’t read any business studies on Nike, though I’m told there are many of them. I am not an authority on Nike.
These are just some notes on lessons on business one might draw from the book.
Honestly, though, even if you’re not interested in the business aspects of the book, or in Nike, or in sports… the book is a great read. It’s very well-written and an entertaining ride. If you’re an entrepreneur or just happen to be running a small business, you’ll just relate to the book on one extra level.
5/5 - read this book!