Super Cities №65 — Three Lessons from Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog”

Brendan Hart

One Big Thing

Phil Knight wrote an incredible business book (link)


Most business books are terrible. Thankfully, Shoe Dog is not a dull retelling of Nike’s quest for global domination or Knight’s penetrating business insights. Its tone is so understated that it rarely mentions Michael Jordan or famous athletes.

Instead, Knight takes readers on a journey through the early, challenging days of what the world would know as Nike.

Three themes are worth mentioning:

  1. Knight did not build a company around an object — shoes — but rather around a community of runners. Like all communities, runners have certain rituals and quirks. Knight was a runner, so he knew the community, its needs, and its intricacies. His early team — an eclectic group of misfits who found a home with each other — were equally young and brash.

My takeaway: Anyone can produce shoes; few can build, harness, and scale community.

  1. Nike was originally called Blue Ribbon, and it started as a small company that imported Tiger sneakers from Japan and resold them in the western United States. Although the company was successful and growing, Knight had to battle local bankers for credit, competitors for distribution rights in America, and Japanese shoe suppliers. As Knight tells it, no one had any idea that Blue Ribbon would turn into Nike (the story is funny) or that its early employees would become millionaires and billionaires.

My takeaway: Knight and his team started with a simple solution to a persistent problem. Innovation begins small.

  1. Because of circumstances and personality, Knight constantly believed — until its IPO — that Blue Ribbon was on the verge of failure. It didn’t matter that Blue Ribbon’s revenue doubled every year; from threats real and perceived, Knight was paranoid about failure. But like a competitive athlete, he channeled fear of failure into risk-taking and growth.

My takeaway: Failure — personal and professional, internal and external — is a prominent theme in Shoe Dog. What we do with failure is a topic worth considering and revisiting often.

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