I read a lot of business books and listen to podcasts about entrepreneurs. I know, I know. That makes me a Boring-Arse Business B*stard. Forgive me, but until I find a way to monetise this website of fart joke reviews, I need to have a day job. Ugh, I just used the word ‘monetise’. Yes, I hate myself, although I at least spelt it without a -ize suffix.
Anyway, having imbibed a lot of business literature, I am aware that virtually every successful company has a foundation myth. Some sort of story about how it emerged by accident or eureka moment, or how it was built from the ground up while the founder lived in a shipping container. Examples include Apple being started in Steve Jobs’ garage, Clif Bars starting after the founder did a day-long cycle ride and hated the energy bars he took with him, or the first bookings for Airbnb literally being for an airbed (and breakfast), so that the founders could pay their exorbitant San Francisco rent.
Shoe Dog is effectively one big foundation myth, telling the story of Nike from Phil Knight’s original vision in 1962 through to going public in 1980 and making him a multi-millionaire.
By ‘myth’ I don’t mean that there isn’t truth here, just that the sharp edges have been smoothed out. Scores are settled, we hear one side of the various arguments – often legal in nature – and the question of Nike’s culpability in sweatshops is relegated to a brief “we try our best to improve things” statement towards the end.
Accept this for what it is – a story. And what a well-written, entertaining story it is. In 1968 the sports shoe world was dominated by Adidas and Puma, and hardly anyone ran for fun. It was a terrible time to start a sports shoe company, but during his MBA Phil Knight hit on the realisation that Japanese shoes were of good quality and cheaper than the established brands. He bluffed his way into an exclusive distribution deal with the Japanese firm Onitsuka, and began selling their Tiger shoes in the US out the back of his car. One of the surprises of the book is that Nike did not create their own products for many years, and much of the early section of the book is dedicated to the pitfalls of doing business in Japan.
For those readers interested in running their own business, the story of Nike becomes a lesson in the importance of understanding money…as in really understanding it. When Knight established the company, he had very little cash, and only one bank willing to lend him any capital. Even once it was experiencing double-digit growth and generating $8m a year, he still only had one bank willing to lend him cash and struggled to pay the bills; Nike nearly went under in 1975 when all of their cheques bounced simultaneously. Shoe Dog is one of the best textbooks I have ever read on liquidity, cash flow and how fluctuating exchange rates can seriously screw you over, no matter how successful your business seems.
If that all sounds rather dry, trust me when I say it reads like an adventure story. There is some running in here of course. Knight himself points out the irony that half the leadership of Nike in its heyday were morbidly obese, but in the 1970s they had the most famous runner in the world on staff: Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Shoe Dog provides a much better description of Pre’s appeal than in Tom Jordan’s biography: “Most runners are introverts, but Pre was an obvious, joyous extrovert…He was always putting on a show, always conscious of the spotlight”. As an amateur runner, Pre was not paid to run, and therefore lived in a trailer on food stamps. By offering him a job, Nike preserved his amateur status and lifted him out of poverty…but in a cruel twist paid for the fast car that would ultimately kill him.
There are other good stories here too. Nike’s breakthrough shoe was invented when coach Bill Bowerman used his waffle iron to create a new kind of sole. The terrible alternative company names that were floated before they settled on the name of the Greek goddess of victory. Dimension Six anyone? The fact that in 1977 no-one thought anyone would sponsor an athlete for $100k, only for Adidas to nab Illie Nastase, the bad boy of tennis, leading to today’s sponsorship arms race.
But for me, the biggest thing I took away from this is that, when years later Phil Knight was staying at Michael Jordan’s house, he picked up the phone in the night and was offered room service. Yes, Michael Jordan has 24-hour room service in his own flipping house. Of all the stories in this book, I really, really hope that one isn’t a myth.