Shoe Dog is a memoir by the co-founder of Nike. In it, Phil Knight writes about his life from childhood and the challenges he overcame in both personal and business aspects, naysayers and detractors as he runs one of the world’s largest public listed company i.e Nike Inc.
Shoe Dog is one of the recommended books by Bill Gates in 2016. You can read his review at his Gates Notes Blog here.
Before Nike was incorporated, Phil Knight started a shoe company named Blue Ribbon Sports. Phil Knight never gave up on his dream of starting a shoe company. His idea first came about during his undergraduate years at Stanford University where he pitched his idea to his schoolmates and professors. After graduation, he found a job as an accountant – a job his father approved of. However, Phil did not find any satisfaction and subsequently took a break from his accountant job to travel the world. In his memoir, he talks about his travels to Asia and how different the culture is from the USA.
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Unlike most entrepreneurs, he did not quit his stable accountancy job immediately to start up his shoe firm. He continued his job till the company he grew demanded more of his time and attention did he left to become a teacher at a university hoping the reduced workload will allow him more time to work on his shoe company. While teaching at the University, he met his wife, Penny who was his student. He talks about how he continued to grow the company till it requires even more of his time did he left his teaching position to go full time into Blue Ribbon Sports .
Though Phil took on many risks to start his shoe company, he mitigates the risk by having a full time stable job and working on his shoe company as a sideline. This is also partly due to the fact that he wants to give his wife and two sons a stable environment to grow up in. This is not a life that his father approves of. Thankfully, he has his mother’s support who persuaded Phil’s dad to loan him the money in order to pay for the first shipment of Onitsuka Tigers shoes.
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Blue Ribbons Sports was a name that came up randomly when he travelled to Japan as a twenty plus year old kid planning to become the exclusive shoe distributor for Onitsuka Tigers in USA . Phil showed his quick thinking even as a young adult. He lied to Onitsuka Tigers that he already has a company back in the USA which allowed him to secure the deal with the Japanese. He then returned to the USA to start up the company thereafter, bringing on his track and field coach, Bill Bowerman as his business partner.
Though he was successful in becoming a distributor for the US markets, Phil encountered many obstacles along the way from facing off fellow competitors to dealing with late shipments/ wrong orders sent by the Japanese counterparts and difficulty in securing funding for the business. Though their sales increased month on month, Blue Ribbon Sports is in debt every month, surviving on float, using the payment received from their customers to pay off their suppliers.
How Blue Ribbon Sports evolved to become Nike Inc was when Phil Knight decided that he cannot continue to be at the mercy of Onitsuka Tigers. The latter did not plan to renew their distributorship deal and instead went to America to scout for potential distributors, effectively planning to cut off Blue Ribbon Sports When their distributorship deal was up. Another reason was Bowerman and Knight, being passionate about shoes suggested many new models/ modifications to the shoes to Onitsuka Tigers which were rejected/ met with lukewarm response. Onitsuka Tigers simply did not take their suggestions seriously and merely see them as distributors to expand their reach globally. Nike was a name came up by one of the pioneer employees of Phil. It was chosen because it represents the Goddess of Victory which is what the company embodies.
Phil and the buddies that he hired continued to bring Nike to greater heights though they faced many detractors along the way such as manufacturing problems, securing athletic endorsements and getting bad press about their sweatshops. To their credit, Nike invented a technique to combine the rubber soles and the shoe without releasing toxic fumes and this technique is currently being employed by their competitors as well.
Phil was known to hire only accountants or lawyers for his company only to place them in a non related area of expertise in his company. His reason for doing so? He thinks that if you are able to master a tough subject in school, you will be able to excel in any role that he puts you in because the candidate has proven to overcome the challenges presented in school. He should be able to use the tenacity to overcome the challenges a growing firm is facing.
Perhaps the only regret Phil has in life is that he did not spend enough time with his family and failing to be emotionally close to his two sons as he was focusing on growing his company. His oldest son Matthew dropped out of school, ran away from home and rebelled and just went Phil thought his son had found his place in life, he and his wife received news that their oldest son drowned in a scuba diving accident.
All in all, he is grateful for his wife who is always by his side, who never fails to encourage him, always believing in him and being the caretaker of the family while he spends most of his time and energy growing Nike. Also, he counts his lucky stars that he was able to work with capable people with no ego or personal agenda who all have a single goal to grow the company to where it is today. He has come a long way growing Nike to a 32.4 Billion USD firm in 55 years at the time of writing. Founded in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports, from 1971 onward as Nike. To think that Puma (Founded in 1948) and Adidas (Founded in 1924) were bigger competitors back then with a longer history.