The Unsexy Beginnings of Nike

A Book Review of Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike: Phil Knight

Nike Co-Founder and CEO for 40 years, Phil Knight

Before Jordan, before Tiger and even before Nike there was ‘Blue Ribbon”.

Phil Knight, the Co-founder of Nike recounts a beautifully written memoir of the early history (from the idea phase in 1962 to its IPO in 1980 ) of his remarkable entrepreneurial journey.

Even-though you may most probably find this book in the business section of your local book store, it is not written as a business book. And that’s what is great about it. It does not carry any of the inspirational fluff or brand building nonsense (specially when it is expected from a book about Nike) that is popular in many business books today.

It is a story that comes to life in rural Oregon of a maverick coach and an overzealous former athlete with a simple idea of importing Japanese running shoes to sell in the United states. According to Knight the idea for setting up a shoe selling company is conceived as a result of research paper he had to write for an entrepreneurship class at Stanford Business School. The research report was aptly named as “ Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?” (here the “German sport shoes” that Knight refers to are Adidas and Puma)

I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting…..
Finally, as required , I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question.
They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.

Incidentally, Knight gets an “A” for the report which will act as the blue print for his billion dollar company in years later to come ( imagine the nightmarish account for the often ridiculed business education fraternity if the professor has given anything less than an A).

Before Nike: One of Blue Ribbon’s early shoes under the brand “Tiger” made by “Onitsuka”

After coming in to agreement with a Japanese shoe manufacturer,“Onitsuka Co.” which made a brand of shoes named “Tiger”, Knight sets up a company called “Blue Ribbon” as the exclusive distributor to sell its shoes in the West coast. A major part of the books details the diabolical relationship with Onitsuka and the resurrective understanding between its main financier with Japanese trading bank “Nissho”.

Many characterize Nike as the quintessential brand. With its heart rendering and inspirational advertising and marketing campaigns that has kindled the hearts and minds of million of people around the world, even for people who doesn't have the means to ever set foot in a Nike store let alone buy a shoe. One of the major ironical and surprising facts revealed in the book is how Phil Knight was extremely cynical in the power of advertising (being a CPA himself , he initially trusted the power of numbers more than any advertising gimmicks).

People were telling me constantly that advertising was important, that advertising was the next wave. I always rolled my eyes.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how well Knight accounts the day to day operational issues from supply chain, hiring to concerns of bankruptcy that a company constantly goes through at the early stage. In describing these situations Knight brings forth an array of colorful characters from the company co-founder and its lead shoe designer and legendary coach Bill Bowerman, the overzealous Jeff Johnson(Nike’s first full time employee) to the indomitable spirit of Bob Woodell its first COO.

If you intend to read a biography/memoir or even a book on business this year, this is a must read and I assure you will be not disappointed. It is an authentic portrayal of the man, his team and his company.