By Peter van Aartrijk
Who knew an ordinary waffle iron could result in innovations for running shoes?
That’s 1960s technology for you.
I just completed a dazing memoir by Phil Knight, founder of Nike (that’s Betty, the office dog, taking a look for herself). Shoe Dog is inspiring for entrepreneurs, but not in the ways you may have seen before. There are no hackneyed snippets such as, “All will turn out okay if you just keep working hard.”
A track star himself, Knight did run hard — no doubt about that. But there was something else going on. It wasn’t the “journey” — another cliché that fails. This story is more about mistake-making and pressing on to create a better state of affairs for customers, about keeping alive at all costs an innovative culture and finding your true north.
Knight, 80, spent half of his life leading Nike and its precursor names.
Obviously, Nike is an American success story. But from 1962 to the day before an IPO in 1980, nobody here was rolling in the dough. Quite the opposite: Just as they were a few fries short of a Happy Meal, Knight and his quirky band of brethren were nickels away from bankruptcy. Each time they escaped the angry bankers by tenaciously pursuing yet another way out.
That fear drove Knight, as it should drive other entrepreneurs. When things are going well, you get lazy. Even if the bankers aren’t knocking at your door for money — as they literally did to Knight — the best brands embrace a sort of paranoia about improving. Breaking things that aren’t broken. Failing, sometimes badly, and yet learning from failures and trying again. Surrounding yourself with people who are equally dissatisfied with the status quo.
Knight doesn’t brag about success; he’s not humble, either. This kid first traveled the world in 1962 by borrowing money from his parents and brashly talking his way to representing a Japanese shoe company. Because he never settled, he ultimately got most of what he wanted. Eventually. Most entrepreneurs would have bailed on this project. (Again, nearly two decades of money troubles!) A lot of his problems were self-inflicted, which is what entrepreneurs do.
Ironically, Knight wasn’t a believer in advertising. He came to that table reluctantly. Shoe Dog offers no mention of the back story on the tagline, “Just do it.” But Knight didn’t have to even mention it. Effective branding always stays true to a company’s essence. The tagline was born out of Nike’s original exuberant, can-do spirit. And it’s perfect.
Knight encourages young entrepreneurs in their early 20s 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 40 years.” And: “Don’t 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 nothing like you’ve ever felt.”
This epic company was built by a messy series of events. I’m sure many people with whom Phil Knight interacted would have an alternate perspective on how events went down with the shoe dog. But lessons here abound, and I heartily recommend this read.