At the age of 24 a young runner fresh out of college borrowed $50 from his dad to start a small shoe company that would sell shoes to his kind of people, runners. At first, Phil Knight would sell high-quality shoes at a low price from Japan out of his own van at Track meets. After years of ups and downs, getting sued, and unable to generate profit, Phil Knight turned his small family run company into an empire.
Shoe Dog is a fantastic book written by and about Phil Knight’s journey in the 1970’s to build a business people would be happy to buy from.
Here are 5 Leadership Lessons from one of the most successful companies ever: Nike.
Knight is a native Oregonian who ran track under the famous coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon, with whom he would co-found Nike with. He became a sales rep for the Tiger shoe made by a Japanese Company, Onitsuka Co. Knowing he could make a shoe that was perfect for his type of people, runners, he assembled a team of other runners to make a shoe that they would love. Bowerman would even experiment with rubber in waffle irons for a better sole to their shoes. Nike shoes were inexpensive and developed a reputation that his company (Blue Ribbon at the time) would do whatever it took to ensure that the culture of running could have their own shoe.
“At the time, our culture did not see running as a recreation activity. No one ran for fun.” Phil was creating a shoe for a culture that didn’t exist except for those few athletes that ran for sport. With no promise of success, Nike was built by runners for runners. They cared about their product and they cared about who they sold their product too.
Finding the Right Moment with the Right People
In 1972 after years of trying to work with Onitsuka, Phil took his best friends and employees out to break the Big News:
“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Our moment. No more selling someone else’s brand. No more working for someone else. Onitsuka has been holding us down for years. Their late deliveries, their mixed-up orders, their refusal to hear and implement our design ideas—who among us isn’t sick of dealing with all that? It’s time we faced facts: If we’re going to succeed, or fail, we should do so on our own terms, with our own ideas—our own brand. We posted two million in sales last year . . . none of which had anything to do with Onitsuka. That number was a testament to our ingenuity and hard work. Let’s not look at this as a crisis. Let’s look at this as our liberation. Our Independence Day. Yes, it’s going to be rough. I won’t lie to you. We’re definitely going to war, people. But we know the terrain. We know our way around Japan now. And that’s one reason I feel in my heart this is a war we can win. And if we win it, when we win it, I see great things for us on the other side.”
Phil had a vision and it was shared by his closest friends and colleagues.
"Often I’d walk into my house and Matthew and Travis would meet me at the door. 'Where have you been?' they’d ask. 'Daddy was with his friends,' I’d say, picking them up. They’d stare, confused. 'But Mommy told us you were working.”
Do the most important work with people you respect, love, and care for – friends.
Letting People Do Their Jobs
Knight hired well. More importantly once hired he let people do their jobs. Phil admits that he purposely would not respond to letters and calls from his team if they needed help. He let his people figure it out and they did because they cared about the product as much as he did.
A famous Harvard business professor studying Nike came to this conclusion about Nike. “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 [Core Leadership group of Nike] think that way!”
The people of Nike, because of Phil, were given freedom, his trust, and space to figure out the work. Ironically, Phil even didn’t like the Nike name and logo at first, stating “I guess it will grow on me,” but his team did like it so he went with it.
How to be Competitive
Adidas and Converse dominated the shoe world in the early 70’s. At the time, Phil sold the Japanese shoe, Tigers, and learned he needed to be competitive with these big companies.
“People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that’s only true of people who can forget the competition. The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past. You must forget that internal voice screaming, begging, “Not one more step!” And when it’s not possible to forget it, you must negotiate with it.”
Phil and his team never gave up. They had many opportunities to stop, sell, go public early, but they didn’t. They continued because they knew what they were doing mattered.
Success is in Legacy
Some of the biggest successes Nike has ever had, according to Phil, has not been with how much money that made rather who they did it all for. Nike, started out as a family run business with friends and wives in the front office. This philosophy continues even today. Some of the biggest endorsements Nike had are family.
When Andre Agassi, won the U.S. Open, unseeded, he came to Phil’s box after the final shot, in tears and said, “We did it, Phil!”
When Tiger’s father, Earl, died, the church in Kansas held fewer than one hundred, and Phil was honored to be included.
When Jordan’s father was murdered, Phil flew to North Carolina for the funeral and discover with a shock that a seat was reserved for him in the front row.
Phil’s son, Matthew tragically died in a diving accident when he was 34, and the first person to call the Knight’s was Tiger Woods. “His call came in at 7:30 a.m. I will never, ever forget.”
For Phil Knight, “it was never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad. I keep thinking of one line in The Bucket List. ‘You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.’
“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.”
I highly recommended Phil Knight’s book Shoe Dog. Link below: