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Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike Hardcover – April 26, 2016
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“A refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. It’s a messy, perilous, and chaotic journey riddled with mistakes, endless struggles, and sacrifice. Here Knight opens up in a way few CEOs are willing to do. I don’t think Knight sets out to teach the reader anything. Instead, he accomplishes something better. He tells his story as honestly as he can. It’s an amazing tale.”—Bill Gates, one of his favorite books of 2016
“‘The best book I read last year. Phil is . . . a gifted storyteller.”--Warren Buffett
“Shoe Dog is a great American story about luck, grit, know-how, and the magic alchemy of a handful of eccentric characters who came together to build Nike. That it happened at all is a miracle, because as I learned from this book, though we are a nation that extols free enterprise, we also excel at thwarting it. This is Phil Knight, one on one, no holds barred. The lessons he imparts about entrepreneurship and the obstacles one faces in trying to create something, are priceless. The pages I folded down are too many to mention.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
"I’ve known Phil Knight since I was a kid, but I didn’t really know him until I opened this beautiful, startling, intimate book. And the same goes for Nike. I’ve worn the gear, with pride, but I didn’t realize the remarkable saga of innovation and survival and triumph that stood behind every swoosh. Candid, funny, suspenseful, literary—this is a memoir for people who love sport, but above all it’s a memoir for people who love memoirs."—Andre Agassi, New York Times bestselling author of Open
"Shoe Dog is an extraordinary hero's journey, an epic tale of faith, unparalleled determination, excellence, failure, triumph, hard-earned wisdom, and love. It's nothing short of a miracle that Nike exists. I finished the last sentence in complete awe, inspired and grateful for the experience."--Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice and Inside the O'Briens
"A touching, highly entertaining adventure odyssey, with much to teach about innovation and creativity. Phil Knight takes us back to the Big Bang of the swoosh, recalls how he first begged and borrowed from reluctant banks, how he assembled a crew of eccentric but brilliant misfits, how they all worked together to build something unique and paradigm-changing. An inspiration for everyone with an unconventional dream."—Michael Spence, Nobel-prize winning economist
"A fresh historical prospective on one of the most profiled companies in the world...[Shoe Dog] builds characters of the people behind the brand, many of whom we've never heard of."--ESPN.com
"Loaded with hard-earned wisdom...Want a simple recommendation? Go get a copy."--Portland Business Journal Review
"Shoe Dog is, at its heart, an origin story, of both a global brand and a footwear lifer...it reads like pure adventure story, boys facing steeper and steeper challenges and finding ways through, often by the skin of their teeth. As Knight collects the misfits and oddballs who become the core of his growing company, Shoe Dog is more like The Lord of the Rings than a typical mogul memoir."--Complex
“A rare and revealing look at the notoriously media-shy man behind the swoosh.”--Booklist STARRED review
About the Author
One of the world’s most influential business executives, Phil Knight is the founder of Nike, Inc. He served as CEO of the company from 1964 to 2004, as board chairman through 2016, and he is currently Chairman Emertius. He lives in Oregon with his wife, Penny.
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Let’s cut to the chase. This will be a great read for anybody, but if you’re thinking about starting a business, especially a business that you expect to grow, this book belongs on your must-read list. You’ll learn things that you won’t learn anywhere else and you’ll learn things that you can only learn from a story.
You’ll learn about the constant struggle to fund growth. Most of the books about entrepreneurship don’t tell you about that. If you start a business and that business starts to grow, you are funding the process out ahead of your cash flow. The result is that you’re chronically cash poor, even when you’re fabulously profitable, and that is both counterintuitive and very tough to manage.
You’ll also learn about the plusses and minuses of going public. There’s a lot here about relationships and values, and staying true to what you think is important. There are lessons about how putting people in the right job makes all the difference. And, there are lessons about balancing being a hero at work with being a parent at home.
There are also important lessons about not taking yourself too seriously. Knight describes the “executive retreats” that Nike would have. They called them “Buttface sessions.” The name came from one of the early employees who said that Nike was the only company their size where you could shout out “Hey, buttface!” and the entire management team would turn around.
There’s another important thing, too. If you think that innovation is only something that high-tech companies do, or that it requires coding, read this book. A lot of Nike’s success comes from being an innovator in shoes.
Shoe Dog is superbly written, and you’ll enjoy it if you just read it as a story. But if you’re in business, and especially if you’re starting a business and wanting to make it grow, this book should be on your must-read list. Keep it handy, right near Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things.
Toward the end of the book, Phil Knight says this:
“God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals might be inspired or comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on.”
I think he achieved his goal. If you want some seasoned advice to help you run and grow your company, or if you just want to read a great business memoir, pick up a copy of Shoe Dog: A Memoir by The Creator of Nike.
So now I'm back to normal, but I still very enthusiastically recommend this book. In the most basic terms, Phil Knight's story is one of success. It's no secret that Nike is a giant, but Knight nevertheless creates page-turning suspense at several junctures. He also gives us an intimate look at his personal life, which makes complete sense, because business is personal. For people who truly believe in what they're doing, it's impossible to separate the two. Knight's passion is punctuated by his referring to Nike as his business child and with his proclamation that "if it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad." He is the most interesting person I never knew I wanted to meet.
As I approached the final pages, the critic in me wondered how this story could be complete without mention of the Nike sweat-shop crisis. Was it strategically omitted because it might ruin the warm-fuzzy feeling I have now? The answer is no. Knight includes it in the final section that brings everything up to date, in the "where are they now?" pages. I won't go into the content, but I will say that warm and fuzzy remain intact. And I have more respect for the company than ever. I am almost embarrassed that I run in Adidas.
Over the past 18 years of writing reviews, I don’t think I have reviewed more than 3 autobiographies. My experience has been that hardly any avoid being little more than an airbrushed account of an extraordinary genius, with depth of character and business prowess, written by the paragon him or herself. My visceral response to an autobiography is – ignore.
Shoe Dog came to my attention in 2017, and I ignored it. A week ago, a client, still in her mid-30s, and half way to building her company into a billion-dollar business, raved about the book.
I share her enthusiasm for this autobiography. Let me tell you why.
If you are looking for ‘my 7 secrets of great success’ in this book, you will find only one. And for that one, this 400-page book is not worth the effort. So why would Bill Gates call this book “…an amazing tale”? Primarily because, as Gates says, “Knight opens up in a way that few CEOs are willing to do.”
There are no two businesses that could possibly follow the same paths to success. Every business is one of a kind, with a unique history, built by unique people, facing unique challenges, and responding in their uniquely flawed way.
Everything about this book links back to Phil Knight’s love for running.
His humourless, stern and brilliant college track coach, Bill Bowerman, eventually became one of his earliest business partners. This was a man who would take the athletes’ shoes from their locker, tear them apart, examine them and redo them. He understood that if you remove one ounce from a shoe, you remove over fifty pounds from the runner. It was Bowerman who used his wife’s waffle iron to develop the soles for which Nike became famous.
In one of the many beautifully written passages in a remarkably well written book, Knight describes watching a race in which the legendary middle-distance runner, Steve Prefontaine participated. The joy and agony Knight and his wife experienced is described vividly – Knight was no passive spectator: he was experiencing the tension of the athletes, their physical exertion, their ‘digging deep’ into personal reserves to push through the last moments before the finish. At the end of the meeting, Knight describes – in passing – the physical exertion he experienced as a spectator, and the beauty and the art of these athletes.
Knight, trained as an accountant, didn’t start his sports shoe business, Blue Ribbon, because he had a vision of manufacturing sports shoes, and turning them into a universal, essential clothing item across the globe. He didn’t have the strong desire to get rich as even a part of his decision-making criteria. Throughout his business career he chose not to make real money in favour of other decision criteria: not spoiling the culture of the business by listing, or selling to the wrong people.
The culture of Nike is possibly best described as wild, made up of “losers”, (a disabled athlete confined to a wheel chair; an obese accountant who would never make partner in his firm because he was so large; a needy and obsessive letter-writing lawyer.) But all were perfect in their positions and each a “Buttface” as the inner circle was called. The interactions in the company were forceful, crude and remorseless, which is why truth was heard. No, they were not polite and sensitive: in fact, the essential common denominator across the various Buttfaces was a thick-skin.
For most of the history of the company, from the early days when it was still called Blue Ribbon to its emergence as Nike, the company was cash-strapped. All but the last chapters of the book had an underlying theme of financial survival. Initially it was to pay the few thousand dollars to be able to buy the next shipment of shoes from the Japanese manufacturer, to having the bank cut off their credit line, to being sued by the Customs Department for $25m of unpaid fees for an obscure tax (finally reduced to $9m.)
And all this time, there was an escape route – go public. And each time it was rejected because of what it might do to the ethos of the company.
So, what is the only lesson you will learn from this book? It is not that Knight was the quintessential, ‘Jack Welsh’ quality manager - confident, kind, clear thinking, and a team player. As a text-book manager Knight would not make even a department head. He is shy, introspective, and does not praise, or give much feedback unless it is to solve problems.
The lesson is passion. Having real passion for what you are investing your time, effort and money in. Real passion. The stuff that makes you thrill when you see a master take the race, with the grace of an artist, drawing down on resources he never knew he had. A level of passion that leads you to doing things you may regret – like being sorry your wife will not stay an extra day in hospital after giving birth to your second son, because you wanted to attend an athletics meeting.
Passion is why you teach accountancy to support your micro-business of selling superb running shoes. Passion is running almost every day of your life, knowing how important shoes are. Passion is when you enthusiastically encourage and support others who are masters of your passion – the athletes. And passion is the drive to see your heroes in your Nikes, not Adidas.
Passion is what makes an accounting graduate into a “shoe dog”, strong enough to take the whipping that life and business deals you. Passion is the only thing that will keep you going, and digging deep into mental and physical reserves you never knew you had.
If you are an aspiring entrepreneur you will grow in important ways from reading this book. If you are asked what you learned, you may not be able to articulate a single lesson beyond ‘passion.’ But this is all about you, the entrepreneur, and reading the frank account of the journey of a founder-CEO now worth $10b, will be a meaningful experience.
Readability Light -+--- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High ----+ Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy, and is the author of the recently released ‘Executive Update.’