8 ways Nike founder Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog resonated with me
If I enjoy reading biographies of great people, I really relish the prospect of digging into an autobiography, at least when it’s written in a spirit of authenticity. I always learn more from these first-hand accounts than I’d ever expect on page 1.
I recently read Phil Knight’s account of how he came to start and build Nike, the global shoe behemoth we all know. It resonated so much with me that I bought copies for our CEOs and all members of our team.
As a young entrepreneur nearly a decade into my own journey, I found Shoe Dog particularly resonant. Here are 8 elements that struck a chord with me — and, I’m sure, would be helpful for any aspiring entrepreneur to keep in mind.
- Phil followed no standard path; indeed, his was often defined by rebellion and failure. People came and went, they counseled him to do this or that, but ultimately he followed his instincts and did whatever he thought was right. Sometimes he was wrong, but he was right when it mattered. I’ve found that my best decisions have often been driven by own instincts, rather than by what others advised me to do.
- The importance of global thinking from day 1. Phil was inspired by global commerce, past and present. His inspiration to start what became Nike really blossomed on a trip around the world, and his company’s genesis lies in a deal he struck with a large Japanese counterpart. His ability to spot the Chinese market early as an opportunity contributed significantly to Nike’s global heft. I, too, have been inspired by extensive travels and have thus been very strategic about rooting our firm in a global landscape — we have built relationships and done business with people in nearly 20 countries, including almost every key geography in the world. Our portfolio companies are also actively exploring opportunities that enable them to grow more quickly in partnership with key international groups. I expect that global mindset to grow in the coming years.
- The importance of being audacious in order to break free from societal constraints. Phil had to be bold to succeed. He went against his family’s expectations. He held General McArthur’s “you are remembered for the rules you break” close to his heart. For example, in attempting to nail down a deal with his Japanese partner, he claimed he had an office on the East Coast, when in fact he was running a tiny operation in Oregon. This is the classic entrepreneurial ‘fake it til you make it’ and we certainly engaged in a bit of that in the early days of Romulus.
- Phil understood the value of transparency at the right time and of being comfortable with your own raw ambition and others’ perceptions of the same. “There are worse things than ambition.” That’s what Phil’s Japanese financing partner told him when Phil confessed he had initially hidden the purchase of a factory. I’ve found that people respond positively to transparency because it builds trust, and trust is all you really need to start to do business together. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to fall into the trap of being too audacious — of feeling that any action is acceptable in the pursuit of a grander vision (which is why we are now seeing more regular cases of fraudulent activity in the Valley), but a lack of transparency becomes embedded in your DNA and always catches up with you. There is a fine line.
- Phil sought inspiration from history - military history in particular. Nike’s name comes from classical Greek history. I’ve found great value in looking to the past for ideas and advice and, indeed, named my own firm after the mythical founder of Rome. Greatness — in any form — is to be admired and studied. Building a company today feels akin to joining the military in the ancient past — it was the best path for a middle class layman to seek adventure and glory. Today, starting a business provides that avenue, and that’s why military history is a favorite of many entrepreneurs, including several in our own portfolio. I’ve had several fun conversations with our CEOs about Napoleonic tactics and how they might apply to our approach to a particular competitor.
- There’s no separation between work and life for Phil, and I think that is true for most successful entrepreneurs. Work should feel like play. Creation requires every part of you. You cannot draw artificial lines separating work and life. Starting a business involves tremendous and ongoing sacrifice from the entrepreneur, from his or her family, and from everyone around them, but that’s the journey for great, lasting success and happiness. You have to embrace it.
- Phil didn’t hesitate to leverage friends and fellow alums from the University of Oregon to help him build the foundation of Nike. The trust he had in them, from a shared past, was hard to replicate with people who were not familiar with his DNA and way of thinking and doing. This trust served him very well. I’ve found this to be true at Romulus as well — I have brought in fellow alums of the great institutions I’ve had the privilege to be involved with and learn from, or individuals who have in some other way shared a piece of my past or present. That’s allowed them to hit the ground running.
- Phil suffered through tumultuous relationships with banks and other service providers. That frustration surely strikes a chord with every entrepreneur. I’ve been thrown out of a bank’s office, and I’ve had my own law firm threaten to sue us for something we never did. The deep risk-aversion of large service companies can be stifling. That being said, once your company is more established, service providers such as banks can be immensely helpful — they became some of Phil’s most trusted advisors and, even, friends. Every now and then, you will encounter an individual at a large firm who will stake his or her reputation on working with you. That relationship becomes special and is worth investing in.
So — everything I’ve noted above need not apply to you! I found Phil Knight’s window into his own journey, getting from zero to one, relatable and galvanizing and would recommend that every entrepreneur read it.