Phil Knight. Courtesy of

A “sales” lesson from Phil Knight, founder of Nike

The importance of belief

I just came across an insightful idea from Nike founder Phil Knight in his memoir, “Shoedog”.

Knight was puzzled at his instant success in selling track shoes despite his previously failed gig as an encyclopedia salesman and unremarkable career at selling mutual funds.

Why was selling shoes so different?, he asked.

His realization: Because it wasn’t selling. I believed in running, he wrote. I believed that if people got out out and ran a few miles everyday, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves.

He concludes: Belief is irresistible.

For me, the main takeaway is this. To be effective, an organization or company should transcend the idea of business as a mere series of transactions — a way to earn profit from customers by getting as much money as possible from each one.

Once an organization manages to internalize its “WHY” — not just set it in writing in a tokenistic “mission & vision statement”, but genuinely believe it and pursue it — then the target customer is drawn in to the message of the company.

Stealing the idea of the author Simon Sinek: once a customer buys into the WHY of the company (or the “belief” that Phil Knight talks about), as a natural consequence she will buy the WHAT — the products and services the company has to offer. As Sinek noted, that’s what all the great brands (e.g. Apple, Nike, Harley-Davidson) have done, and will continue to do.

A closing thought. It seems to me that profitability is something like a philosopher’s stone. An organization ought to pursue something deeper than profitability: what change or improvement do I want to bring to each customer?

Once the organization pursues this with authentic belief, profitability eventually comes along.

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