It’s unusual for a high-profile figure like Phil Knight to remain unseen for so long. The only time I remember researching who created Nike was this year, after a heated discussion with my family. When Phil Knight launched Nike (then known as Blue Ribbon) in 1964, he had no clue that the company would one day make him the 15th wealthiest person on the planet and transform the world forever.
However, before today, the public has not been given a thorough look at the company’s early days, many of Phil’s personal life choices, or the company’s history. But as the time drew near for him to resign as chairman of the firm (which he did in June 2016), he realized he should write one. Initially released in April 2016, Shoe Dog has since become a bestseller.
If you want to know how Phil Knight created Nike, the most valuable sports brand in the world, here are three lessons you can learn from his life:
- If you’re young and have nothing to lose, you might as well try everything.
- Find someone to guide you and collaborate with who shares your vision and has talents that will enhance your own.
- Try not to instruct others. It’s best to just let them be.
Do you have a wild and crazy business idea? Let’s consult Phil Knight to find out how you can make this happen while having a good time doing it.
Lesson 1: Seize your youth by going broke and starting something outrageous.
Sports have always been a passion for Phil Knight. Watching and participating in sports were two of his favorite things to do, and he was devoted to both. He used to work a summer job as a kid, and his job was to stay up all night and compile the sports scores from the day for a newspaper so that they could be printed the next morning. On his way home from work every day, he logged a brisk seven-mile run.
After later graduating college, Phil enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business. When one of his teachers outlined the traits of a successful entrepreneur, Phil saw himself in the class portrait. Phil had to submit a business plan to complete the course, so he came up with the topic, “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”
Even though the article didn’t get much attention, Phil was fixated on the concept anyway. His goal was to introduce Americans to Japan’s high-quality, affordably priced running sneakers. After finishing college, he embarked on a world tour that took him to Japan. While in Kobe, he came upon the Tiger brand by Onitsuka and fell in love. (You may recognize these as the shoes Uma Thurman wears in Kill Bill.)
Figuring he was already there, young, and had nothing to lose, he made a cold call to the CEO, Mr. Onitsuka, who consented to meet with him — and gave him the distribution rights for the western United States to sell Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. Phil, shocked by his sudden success, spewed the name of his company, “Blue Ribbon,” to Onitsuka without thinking.
And with that, he officially opened a shop.
This is not how things usually work out, but if you’re young and at a loss for options, you might as well try your luck with the wildest notion you can come up with.
Lesson 2: Choose someone who can help guide and support you while also contributing their knowledge and expertise.
Getting the initial samples were more difficult than completing the initial contract, which had been as easy as showing up at Mr. Onitsuka’s door. A year and a half passed before the first 300 pairs arrived, and in that time Phil kept himself busy as a part-time accountant. When Phil finally received the shoes, he was quick to send Bill Bowerman a pair. At the University of Oregon, Bill coached him in the sport of running. What Phil really wanted was a sale and a ringing endorsement.
Bill, to Phil’s amazement, continued on from there. He proposed they go into business together and have him handle product development. Having his mentor on board as a partner and knowing that he too believed in Phil’s idea gave Phil the assurance to shape the firm as he saw appropriate, resulting in the trustworthy, conscientious, and considerate name we know and love today.
It all started with Phil selling shoes out of the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant. In 1963, he made $8,000. He did this by attending track meets across the country. Bill’s assistance wasn’t limited to words of praise, either.
It would become apparent rather quickly that Bill’s abilities were critical to the company’s success as a whole.
Lesson 3: It is sufficient to instruct others to accomplish the desired action; leave the means to their own devices. Let everyone know that it’s okay to be authentic.
Working with people seems to work best when you either explain to them how to do everything or don’t tell them how to accomplish everything but the result you desire.
After hearing General Patton say, “Don’t tell people how to do things,” “Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
Phil’s goal was always to create an environment where individuals could be themselves. Also, Bill. To put it simply, he lived and breathed shoes. He was always thinking about shoes and how to improve them. Every time Phil ran for Bill, Bill would use him as a test subject. They put several materials and modifications to the shoes through their paces. Bill used to take shoes apart and put them back together. He did this in an effort to make it easier on the runner and more useful to him.
Once, he attempted to make shoes out of fish skin instead of leather.
Bill also started teaching famous runners and future Olympians at this time, which helped increase shoe sales. When Phil sent Bill’s first modified shoe prototype, the Cortez, to Onitsuka with a manufacturing suggestion, the company scored its first commercial success.
This approach of hands-off management was important to the early success of Blue Ribbon and later Nike. One of the things that made Nike what it is today was its ability to hire talented individuals and then step back and let them flourish.
Shoe Dog Review
I’m a sucker for an autobiography, and I really enjoy reading those written by people who have built their fortunes on doing good, like Phil, so I could go on and on about Shoe Dog. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this, especially if they are fans of stories involving Richard Branson.
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