Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike
By Phil Knight
Simon and Schuster, 2016
In the early pages of Shoe Dog, Phil Knight notes:
Front runners always work the hardest, and risk the most.
This pithy observation summarizes the story to follow. It’s the story of Mr. Knight’s life, and it’s the story of Nike — the two are inseparable. It’s a story of hard work and risk.
Among the things risked: reputations, relationships, money (mostly other people’s), and careers. They’re all on the line, offerings to turn an insight into a material fact. The insight is precipitated by Mr. Knight’s passions (as a college track and field runner) and his astute observations of changing conditions in global markets. He starts a company to distribute athletic shoes from his parent’s house in Oregon. His aim: victory. Competitive sports is a metaphor — and often more than that.
Almost inadvertently, he assembles an idiosyncratic team of managers, each a colorful character in their own right. The story follows this crew as they try to grow their small company. They face many obstacles: unreliable suppliers, nervous bankers, unscrupulous competitors. They also face their doubts. What have we done? Are we too far over our heads this time? Are we good enough? Mr. Knight and his collaborators have flaws and insecurities, but they’re all are committed to the cause.
Still, there’s no master plan. They’re making it up as they go along, one decision — one crisis — at a time. It’s an organic process, perhaps the result of Mr. Knight’s management style, which is summarized by a quote from General George S. Patton that appears several times in the book:
Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
The book is organized chronologically, one chapter for every year from 1962-1980. This structure could be boring if not for the fact that Nike faced existential crises almost every one of those years. Although the company is still thriving today, 1980 seems like a good stopping point: it’s when Nike went public. Ostensibly, this turned it into a different company than the one described in Shoe Dog. A coda (“Night”) brings the story up to the present. It includes revelations that cast the rest of the book in a different light.
Shoe Dog is the best book I’ve read on the experience of being an entrepreneur. The book is enlightening, inspirational, and heartbreaking. Mr. Knight is an excellent writer; Nike’s story reads like a well-crafted novel. If you work with entrepreneurs, or aspire to be one, you owe it to yourself to read it.