Review: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

December 10, 2020

Who is Phil Knight?

Phil Knight is the creator of Blue Ribbon Sports. Well, that’s what the small company that developed into the world’s largest sneaker and sports apparel supplier used to be called. These days, you probably know them as Nike, Inc. As an author, philanthropist, and business executive, Knight has changed the sports apparel industry forever. Shoe Dog shows how one of the world’s most recognized brands was created.

As a track athlete at the University of Oregon in the 1960’s, Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman became partners and started what would become Nike. Initially, their mission was to design and create an effective running shoe for athletes. However, as the business grew, they decided to diversify and expand their products beginning in 1971.

Shoe Dog is the story of Phil’s journey from Blue Ribbon Sports and his car trunk, to the absolute behemoth that is Nike Incorporated. As one of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs of the last century, Knight’s memoir and journey provide invaluable lessons for those of us that want to start a business.

Whether it was partners across the world, a weak supply chain, or a tense political climate, the story of Nike is one about overcoming adversity. Shoe Dog is a masterful illustration of the professional and personal obstacles that stood in the way of Nike’s success.

Aside from being an extraordinarily successful and influential business executive, Phil Knight is also a gifted storyteller. Shoe Dog will not disappoint. 

What will you learn in Shoe Dog?

Behind the Scenes of Entrepreneurship

Most of us know that starting your own company is very difficult and that your odds of succeeding are slim. What I don’t think we hear enough of, however, are the stories and examples of the true chaos of a startup.

Knight pulls back the curtains and shows the reader that success is not a straight up-trend. Instead, it involves movement in every direction, much like a roller coaster.

Shoe Dog does not include specific lists or bullet points containing lessons. Instead, the reader learns through the stellar storytelling ability of Knight and the events that shaped Nike’s success.

“Grow or die, that’s what I believed, no matter the situation… I was forever pushing my conservative bankers to the brink, forcing them into a game of chicken. I’d order a number of shoes that seemed to them absurd, a number we’d need to stretch to pay for, and I’d always just barely pay for them, in the nick of time, and then just barely pay our other monthly bills, at the last minute, always doing just enough, and no more, to prevent the bankers from booting us. And then, at the end of the month, I’d empty our accounts to pay Nissho and start from zero again.”

Knight, pgs. 257-258

The Team

Blue Ribbon Sports, and now Nike, would not have survived if it wasn’t for the team of people around Phil Knight. Shoe Dog includes each person who was instrumental in Nike’s success. The reader learns about each person who helped Knight develop the brand and products that it has today.

Spoiler: There were many people involved in the initial success of Nike. Many of these individuals sacrificed a great deal of time and energy for what was, ultimately, a leap of faith and belief in the vision of Nike. Their unique stories and influence on the brand we know and love are apparent throughout the book.

“…each of us recognized that this small task of finding a bigger office meant we were succeeding. We were making a go of this thing called Blue Ribbon, which spoke to a deep desire, in each of us, to win. Or at least not lose.”

Knight, pg.147

Belief

One thing that stands out in the story of Nike is the unwavering belief that Knight and his team had in themselves, their product, and their vision. Knight ensures that the reader understands just how important this confidence was in their success. To foster such a level of commitment, Knight ensured that the mission & vision of the brand were at the forefront of decision-making processes. Additionally, he reinforced these principles through his own actions and the risks he took to ensure Nike’s progress.

For example, they were often strapped for cash and extremely over-leveraged financially. During these times, it was their confidence in one another and their product that allowed them to make swift and sound business decisions. Nevertheless, while confidence can help you stay optimistic, a constant feeling of uncertainty is hard to keep away for long.

“I scraped together the twenty thousand dollars from our receivables, paid off the bank, and took delivery of the order from Onitsuka [tiger]. Another sign of relief. Followed by a tightening in the chest. What would I do the next time? And the next?”

Knight, pg. 160

More than a Job

A consistent theme throughout Shoe Dog is the sacrifice and commitment required for a start-up (especially in a competitive industry) to succeed. Many of us have heard stories about entrepreneurs sleeping at the office or not taking adequate breaks. While not all entrepreneurs experience this, most of the successful ones would probably say they would’ve been willing to. 

While this is a traditionally unhealthy work environment, it works because the focus is on the output and not on the energy and time required to get there. If a team can set a vision, prioritize getting there, and can each commit to excelling in their respective roles, they’ll be unstoppable. That’s because it will then no longer be a job, and instead be a calling.

“I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties 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.”

Knight, pgs. 381-382

Final Verdict: 9.2/10

One of my first thoughts upon finishing Shoe Dog was just how remarkable it was that Blue Ribbon, and later Nike, Inc., survived. Knight does a great job of demonstrating the emotions and obstacles that can lead to a start-up’s failure. 

Getting others to “buy-in” to your company’s mission and vision, in its early stage, can be extremely difficult. Knight’s ability to assemble a team of people, willing to sacrifice their time and energy for the success of Nike, was remarkable. In an era without cell phones or instant communication, Nike depended on a product line that traveled across states and continents. This incredible feat could not have been possible without the support of Knight’s team.

Also, I absolutely loved how Knight incorporates historical context into the story. Knight doesn’t let the reader forget just how difficult it was to build a business and find an effective/loyal team in the ’60s and ’70s.

Shoe Dog is more than just a guide, it’s a story about how one of the world’s most recognized brands came to be. I recommend this book to every aspiring entrepreneur as it demonstrates the true power of faith and vision.

You can learn more about Nike’s mission and business here. If you enjoyed this review, you’ll love my others!

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