Book Review : Shoe Dog

The entrepreneurial spirit does not course through my veins, and Shoe Dog reaffirms the multiple reasons why.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s autobiography chronicles constant flirtations with disaster, including bankruptcy, overzealous competitors, fickle consumers, unpredictable economics to go along with strained family relationships. Sure, it all works out if you wind up worth $10 billion. In fact, you might even want to do it again. But it really worth it? The hardcore entrepreneur says yes.

Shoe Dog is not a tale of the world’s biggest athletic company but an inward look at the shy, introverted man in the middle from his childhood until Nike’s stock went public in 1980.

The early parts of the book are a mundane look at Knight’s family origins in Oregon. Nothing too exciting or remarkable. He was collegiate runner and accountant who believed that the United State athletic shoe market was ready for a Japanese product to rival European giants adidas and Puma.

Knights spends a decade as the United States distributor for Japanese shoe manufacturer Onitsuka before a dispute with the company forces him to create Nike. Here, finally, is where the story gets interesting.

Fending off lawsuits from Onitsuka, fraudulent customs charges from rival U.S. shoe manufacturers and constant financial shortfalls, Nike still manages to become an omnipresent force in sports retail. Knight’s nonstop pursuits for his “third child” are exhausting to read — and probably necessary to build such a successful business.

And yet, what strikes me is the regret he feels about his shortcomings as a father and husband. He repeats the mantra, “maybe if I had been home more”. He doesn’t come off as a bad husband or father, just one who is often absent, busy building an empire. It makes one wonder : Is it worth it? To put aside the formative days of your children to build a company? I guess someone has to do it.

Knight admits to being driven by a relentless desire to win and move forward. It’s an innate characteristic for those who succeed at such grand levels, and yet it’s difficult to determine whether it’s a strength or a flaw.

To his credit, Knight puts his flaws on full display. He originally wanted to call the company by the God-awful name “Dimension 6” and did not see the value in advertising campaigns. Both terrible or shortsighted decisions that could have dramatically altered the course of the company.

Aside from a short Afterward set in 2007, the book’s main story ends in 1980 — before Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi — and leaves out what must be an interesting part of the tale. But it is also a fitting place to stop. Nike stock goes public, Knight becomes worth nearly $200 million, and the little sneaker company with a sole is now beholden to Wall Street.

There are certainly more comprehensive volumes on the history of Nike as a company and its many innovations. But for an intense look at the man at the center of the storm, there must be no better source than the man himself. He hardly comes off as a business titan. Just a shy, awkward former accountant who felt it was his calling to bring the world better athletic shoes.

Maybe there is an entrepreneur in all of us, after all. If we are willing to pay the price.


Originally published at Carl Dispoto.