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Thirteen lessons from the founder of Nike

  • By Alan Knott-Craig
  • December 30, 2016


Shoe Dog is the memoir of Phil Knight, a seemingly average guy who worked extraordinarily hard and managed to build Nike into a global business and become a billionaire.

Its written in a remarkably self-effacing and funny manner, worth a read for any aspiring entrepreneur.

Here are 13 takeaways:

  1. Follow your dream. Phil had a Crazy Idea. He had the guts to chase it. If you wake up in the morning and have a picture in your head, and it won’t go away, then do something about it. Chase it.
  2. Go with the flow. Most of the time Phil had no idea what the next step was. He was making it up as he went along. You too can go with the flow. No one has walked your journey before. Sometimes you have to just relax and take things as they come.
  3. Be cheesy. Phil is not short on cheesy sayings, or thoughts, or actions. That seems to be the charm and the trick. Be shameless in telling people what you’re thinking, no matter how foolish you may seem.
  4. Don’t delay. Whether it was visiting Onitsuka in Japan, or starting the Nike shoe brand, or opening offices in China, Phil did not let the grass grow under his feet. There’s no better time than now.
  5. Keep growing sales. In spite of endless cashflow, banker, and liquidity headaches, Phil refused to stop growing sales. He would have been much less stressed if he’d slowed down and given some breathing room for his balance-sheet to catchup with his market. But he didn’t. He refused to stop selling. There is no such thing as a too-much-sales problem.
  6. Keep learning. Phil never let his ego get in the way of learning. Travelling, reading, asking for advice. Nothing was below him. He seemed to work from the assumption that most people knew more about everything.
  7. Work hard. Phil and his partners worked long hours, for many years, before Nike became “Nike”. They neglected their families, their health, their sanity. There is no other path to building a big business. There is no substitute for hard work. That’s why you should follow your dreams. It makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning. And you must marry the right person. Otherwise she/he will leave you.
  8. Sometimes you have to do the job yourself. Phil initially recruited an attorney to handle the US Customs fine that threatened to sink Nike. Eventually he realised he must take personal responsibility.
  9. The best form of defence is attack. Get out there. The ultimate winning strategy for settling the US Customs matter was to start aggressively promoting Nike, positioning it as a force for good, putting the ball in the government’s court. This forced the politicians to pressure the bureaucrats to settle. When in doubt, attack.
  10. Tell the truth. Nike was given many breaks along the way, including being forgiven for having to recall their very first shoes. All because Phil and his partners had a reputation for telling the truth. People will give you a chance if they trust you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t.
  11. Find a mentor. Phil found a number of key mentors along the way that helped him make the right decisions for Nike. “When you are ready the teacher will appear.”
  12. Problems are opportunities. Every time Phil hit a stumbling block, the solution opened up even greater vistas than before. For example: Bill Bowerman owned 49% of Nike (Phil was 51%), but when Phil asked him to sign personal surety for a new loan he preferred not (too risky). He asked that Phil rather buy out the majority of his shares. This was early in Nike, the shares were cheap. This ultimately led to Phil becoming worth more than $10billion and having unchallenged control of Nike.
  13. Attract buttfaces. Some of the key founding employees of Nike were super-strange, i.e.: Jeff Johnson. Jeff’s work habits would have driven him out of most corporates. Phil managed to create a culture that accepted people like Jeff, mostly by using self-effacing humour. The executive committee of Nike called themselves The Buttfaces. If that’s not self-effacing, nothing is.