Reading Shoe Dog, I’m early-on reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers. In Outliers, Gladwell argued there were many key external factors that helped propel some of the world’s most successful people forward. The most notable being the success of Bill Gates, who had an unusual amount of access to a computer at a young age. Gates, with this access, was able to gain more experience coding than his peers were capable of.
I can’t help think about how many chances Knight had to make Nike a success. How many bailouts did he receive from family, and friends? How many connections did he use to grow the business? It’s not that he didn’t work hard, but there was always a solid “floor” if things went awry.
… and perhaps this is a credit to Knight. How many (now successful) businessmen out there are humble enough to admit to their mistakes? How many would admit the amount of support (re: financing) provided by their parents? Another reviewer on Goodreads suggested another name for this book could have been “Buck Naked” with the way Knight shared all. And after Shoe Dog, I think Buck Naked would’ve been the second best title for this book.
I — and I don’t think Gladwell — intend to take away from the success of Gates or Knight. Beyond sheer capabilities, it takes much more to start a successful business. Quite frankly, you need to have the right mindset, and not everyone has that. As we know today, clearly Gates & Knight do.
Shoe Dog starts in 1962, immediately after Nike Founder & CEO Phil Knight, graduated from Stanford. Knight describes his unique path he took to founding Nike, first called Blue Ribbon Sports. From a journey around the world to find himself, to then bluffing his way into a distributor agreement with Onitsuka, the Japanese shoe manufacturer Nike initially re-sold in the United States.
Knight’s humble – perhaps even tough on himself in Shoe Dog. There’s clearly a lot of retrospective thought, and I suspect perhaps even some guilt. He’s especially critical of his handling of Nike’s first employee, Jeff Johnson. Johnson would write letter after letter, to which Knight would ignore. And perhaps this wasn’t so much Knight’s fault. Not only was he working a 2nd job to keep Nike afloat, but from Knight’s description, I don’t think it would be unfair to call Johnson a needy employee. With that said, Johnson especially deserves credit for being the one to give Blue Ribbon Sports the name of Nike.
While Johnson was neglected by Knight, I enjoyed hearing the stories of the Nike athletes. We all know Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Tiger Woods – but Steve Prefontaine was long before I was born. Prefontaine was killed in a car wreck at just 24 years old, but I found that Knight gives Prefontaine, and Bill Bowerman, a co-founder of Nike, much credit for Nike’s success. The admiration that Knight has for Prefontaine comes through so clearly in Shoe Dog. And while Bowerman was the coach and mentor for Prefontaine, it’s clear there was a strong bond from Knight as well.
Finally, while Shoe Dog doesn’t leave you with any kind of “lasting tips for business success” or a check list to create the next Nike, he did leave me with one quote I took away.
It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.Phil Knight, Shoe Dog
I initially took this from a very short term, and shallow standpoint. That business was bad, in the sense that your own business is failing. And in those instances it’s okay to de-humanize the business world. In fact, even Tom Hanks used it in the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, where he says “You’re at war. It’s not personal, it’s business.”
Clearly Knight was saying this in more a metaphorical sense. That is, if you can’t be a human in business, then business itself is bad. It’s important to remember this quote – beyond myself, but also anyone managing and communicating with employees. Everyone is a human first. Removing that is doing a disservice to yourself, and everyone else involved. In the post-Jack Welch world, if you can’t be a human when you lead a business, then perhaps you’re not cut out to lead a business.
I’ll end my thoughts with a quote from Gates on his opinion of Shoe Dog.
He tells his story as honestly as he can. It’s an amazing tale. It’s real. And you’ll understand in the final pages why, despite all of the hardships he experienced along the way, Knight says, “God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing.”Bill Gates, An Honest Tale of What it Takes to Succeed in Business.