Illustration by Michael Walchalk

What Nike and Michael Jordan Taught Me About Building Products

Jeff Morris Jr.
Feb 9, 2018 · 4 min read

I still remember that feeling in 4th grade. I stood outside of Foot Locker with my Dad and waited for the store to open with hundreds of sneakerheads.

Air Jordan release day. My favorite day of the year.

I was about to experience Nike’s latest product innovation and actually put them on my own feet. Everything about the day felt like magic to me.

This same happened every year. For the next 365 days after buying a pair of Jordan’s, I would wait for the next pair to be released.

As I waited, I would imagine what the the Nike shoe designers in Beaverton, Oregon were working on next. I would even sketch my own versions of future Air Jordan shoes on blank sheets of paper during math class.

My designs weren’t pretty, but I was designing products for the first time, and I now realize what Nike and Michael Jordan taught me.

You don’t need to build lots of products to win — you just need to build one product that people love.

Nike realized that you only need to make one amazing pair of shoes every year, and they executed every release with incredible creativity and focus.

We product people often jump from project to project.

We constantly develop new ideas because we are creative people and that’s what creative people are asked to do.

We see our teammates pitch new ideas that get our bosses excited, and our instincts tell us that we need to create more ideas, too.

But we don’t need more ideas.

In 1984, Michael Jordan gave his designers a very short set of requirements that set the tone for a multi-billion dollar brand.

Jordan told Peter Moore, then Creative Director at Nike, that his shoes had to be “something different, something exciting, and low to the ground.”

What could Nike do that was actually different?

At the time, players in the NBA wore shoes that had to be mostly white, per NBA league policy.

Jordan’s designers decided that “mostly white” shoes were not colorful enough for their young superstar. Nike instead made his first shoes red and black to match the Chicago Bulls colors.

The designers created a beautiful product that broke every single rule:

Nike announced the Jordan 1’s and the rebellious release captured the attention of sports fans throughout the world.

NBA commissioner David Stern actually banned the shoes when Michael Jordan wore them in a preseason game, saying that they broke the NBA dress code.

Nike appealed his decision, claiming that the commissioner banned the shoes because the NBA felt that their unique product design gave Michael Jordan an unfair playing advantage.

Everyone wanted a pair.

As public interest towards their product grew, Nike used the NBA’s decision to create a larger narrative They even launched ad campaigns on television announcing the NBA’s decision.

The first pair of Jordan’s generated $130M dollars for Nike in 1984. They created a cult following that would buy every single pair, year after year.

While Jordan was in the NBA, Nike made an effort to only release one pair of Air Jordan’s every single year. Every pair had a unique creation story.

The shoes are pieces of art that inspire endless debate for fans of the franchise.

“What is your favorite pair of Jordan’s?”

If you ask a real fan of the franchise that question, they will literally tell you about their favorite pair for hours.

You have a decision to make every single day when you arrive at work.

Will you build one amazing product that might actually live forever, like Nike did with every Air Jordan release?

Or will you build many different products that will be forgotten, like a pair of basic running shoes?

We should all strive to build products that last forever.

Nike discovered a model for product development that we should all remember. And it’s actually pretty simple.

You only need one amazing product to win.

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