Phil Knight’s memoir was perhaps the best-written book I’ve read all year. It was compelling enough for me to read in just two sittings.
Although a shining example of success today, Nike wasn’t always such a slam dunk. This book offers a rare and candid look into one of the most financially successful people of our time.
From an outsider’s perspective, Phil’s fledgling running shoe company, Blue Ribbon Sports, appeared to be destined to succeed. The founders were a legendary running coach and a runner with a Stanford MBA.
In short time, however, this company came to be managed by Phil himself (a self-admitted and socially-clumsy book worm), an obese alcoholic accountant, a track and field star who was paralyzed below the waist, and numerous other misfits he found along the way. Less of a dream team than you might imagine!
What follows is Phil’s unforgettable story about his post-graduate trip around the world, how he bootstrapped the company and made his first sales, his theories on managerial practices, the messy realities of doing business, and his unbridled optimism and manifest destiny belief in the success of his company.
[On living in Hawaii] We liked to sit with our fellow beachniks and surf bums, seekers and vagabonds, feeling smug about the one thing we had in our favor. Geography. Those poor suckers back home, we’d say. Those poor saps sleepwalking through their humdrum lives, bundled against the cold and rain. Why can’t they be more like us? Why can’t they seize the day?
[First visit to Japan] We passed through the accounting department. Everyone in the room, men and women, leaped from their chairs, and in unison bowed, a gesture of kei, respect for the American tycoon. I’d read that “tycoon” came from taikun, Japanese for “warlord.” I didn’t know how to acknowledge their kei. To bow or not bow, that is always the question in Japan. I gave a weak smile and a half bow, and kept moving.
[Trip around the world @ Dome of the Rock] The Koran says the rock wanted to join Muhammad, and tried to follow, but Muhammad pressed his foot to the rock and stopped it. His footprint is said to be still visible. Was he barefoot or wearing a shoe?
(Romans in the age of the Caesars believed that putting on the right shoe before the left brought prosperity and good luck.)
On my left was the Parthenon, which Plato had watched the teams of architects and workmen build. On my right was the Temple of Athena Nike. Twenty-five centuries ago, per my guidebook, it had housed a beautiful frieze of the goddess Athena, thought to be the bringer of “nike,” or victory.
We spent a few minutes catching up. I told Bowerman about my trip around the world. Kobe, Jordan, the Temple of Nike. [city in Japan, country next to Israel, temple in Greece]
MY SALES STRATEGY was simple, and I thought rather brilliant. After being rejected by a couple of sporting goods stores (“Kid, what this world does not need is another track shoe!”), I drove all over the Pacific Northwest, to various track meets. Between races I’d chat up the coaches, the runners, the fans, and show them my wares. The response was always the same. I couldn’t write orders fast enough.
[In contrast to failing as an encyclopedia salesman] So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, 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. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.
[Pouring over books as an accountant] Again and again I learned that lack of equity was a leading cause of failure.
Throughout history men have looked to the warrior for a model of Hemingway’s cardinal virtue, pressurized grace. (Hemingway himself wrote most of A Moveable Feast while gazing at a statue of Marshal Ney, Napoléon’s favorite commander.) One lesson I took from all my home-schooling about heroes was that they didn’t say much. None was a blabbermouth. None micromanaged. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results. So I didn’t answer Johnson, and I didn’t pester him. Having told him what to do, I hoped that he would surprise me.
He riffled through his card catalog and found the address of a local customer, another high school track star. He drove to the kid’s house, knocked at the door, unannounced. The kid wasn’t there, but his parents said Johnson was more than welcome to come in and wait. When the kid got home he found his shoe salesman sitting at the dining room table eating dinner with the whole family. The next day, after they went for a run, Johnson got from the kid a list of names—local coaches, potential customers, likely contacts—and a list of what neighborhoods he might like. Within days he’d found and rented a little house behind a funeral parlor. Claiming it in the name of Blue Ribbon, he also made it his home.
The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
Leaning back in my recliner each night, staring at the ceiling, I tried to settle myself. I told myself: Life is growth. You grow or you die.
Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes.
sometimes it was plainly stupid, and occasionally it was suicidal. But it was always uplifting for the crowd. No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavor, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.
For eleven laps they ran a half stride apart. With the crowd now roaring, frothing, shrieking, the two men entered the final lap. It felt like a boxing match. It felt like a joust. It felt like a bullfight, and we were down to that moment of truth—death hanging in the air. Pre reached down, found another level—we saw him do it. He opened up a yard lead, then two, then five. We saw Young grimacing and we knew that he could not, would not, catch Pre. I told myself, Don’t forget this. Do not forget. I told myself there was much to be learned from such a display of passion, whether you were running a mile or a company.
I’d never witnessed anything quite like that race. And yet I didn’t just witness it. I took part in it. Days later I felt sore in my hams and quads. This, I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.
in early 1973 they switched places. Talk about team players. It was an enormous sacrifice, and I was deeply grateful. But in keeping with my personality, and Blue Ribbon tradition, I expressed no gratitude. I spoke not a word of thanks or praise. In fact, in several office memos I referred to the switch as “Operation Dummy Reversal.”
We had a huge laugh over the fact that Oregon’s basketball coach that year was Dick Harter, while the football coach was still Dick Enright. The popular cheer at Oregon State games was: “If you can’t get your Dick Enright, get your Dick Harter!”
WE WENT STRAIGHT to the London Grill at the Benson Hotel, not far from the courthouse. We each ordered a double and toasted James the Just. And Iwano. And ourselves.
Jerry Hsieh—pronounced Shay—
one manager at a company can think tactically and strategically, that company has a good future. But boy are you lucky: More than half the Buttfaces think that way!”)
My fellow Buttfaces, my employees, called me Bucky the Bookkeeper, constantly. I never asked them to stop. I knew better. If you showed any weakness, any sentimentality, you were dead.
If I had any doubts about Blue Ribbon’s management team in 1976, they were mainly about me. Was I doing right by the Buttfaces, giving them so little guidance? When they did well I’d shrug and deliver my highest praise: Not bad. When they erred I’d yell for a minute or two, then shake it off. None of the Buttfaces felt the least threatened by me—was that a good thing? Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results. It was the right tack for Patton and his GIs. But did that make it right for a bunch of Buttfaces? I worried. Maybe I should be more hands-on. Maybe we should be more structured. But then I’d think: Whatever I’m doing, it must be working, because mutinies are few. In fact, ever since Bork, no one had thrown a genuine tantrum, about anything, not even what they were paid, which is unheard of in any company, big or small. The Buttfaces knew I wasn’t paying myself much, and they trusted that I was paying them what I could. Clearly the Buttfaces liked the culture I’d created. I trusted them, wholly, and didn’t look over their shoulders, and that bred a powerful two-way loyalty. My management style wouldn’t have worked for people who wanted to be guided, every step, but this group found it liberating, empowering. I let them be, let them do, let them make their own mistakes, because that’s how I’d always liked people to treat me.
To get cool, Chinese passengers thought nothing of stripping down to their underwear, and Hayes and Strasser thought this gave them license to do the same. If I live to be two hundred years old, I won’t forget the sight of those leviathans walking up and down the train car in their T-shirts and BVDs. Nor will any Chinese man or woman who was on the train that day.
When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is—you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.
The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.
I wanted to let these New Yorkers know that though we hailed from Oregon, we were not to be trifled with.
Along the way he’d always stop by Sutherlin Bakery and buy us a dozen glazed doughnuts—each. I need only look up at the blue sky or the white ceiling (any blank screen will do) and I see myself, dangling my bare feet over his truck bed, feeling the fresh green wind on my face, licking glaze off a warm doughnut. Could I have risked as much, dared as much, walked the razor’s edge of entrepreneurship between safety and catastrophe, without the early foundation of that feeling, that bliss of safety and contentment? I don’t think so.
Amid the campus buildings, along the campus walkways, there are enormous banners: action photos of the super athletes, the legends and giants and titans who’ve elevated Nike to something more than a brand. Jordan. Kobe. Tiger. Again, I can’t help but think of my trip around the world. The River Jordan. Mystical Kobe, Japan. That first meeting at Onitsuka, pleading with the executives for the right to sell Tigers . . . Can this all be a coincidence? I think of the countless Nike offices around the world. At each one, no matter the country, the phone number ends in 6453, which spells out Nike on the keypad. But, by pure chance, from right to left it also spells out Pre’s best time in the mile, to the tenth of a second: 3:54.6. I say by pure chance, but is it really? Am I allowed to think that some coincidences are more than coincidental? Can I be forgiven for thinking, or hoping, that the universe, or some guiding daemon, has been nudging me, whispering to me? Or else just playing with me? Can it really be nothing but a fluke of geography that the oldest shoes ever discovered are a pair of nine-thousand-year-old sandals . . . salvaged from a cave in Oregon? Is there nothing to the fact that the sandals were discovered in 1938, the year I was born?
He [LeBron James] hands me the watch. It’s engraved: With thanks for taking a chance on me. As usual, I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t much of a chance. He was pretty close to a sure thing. But taking a chance on people—he’s right. You could argue that’s what it’s all been about.
Fathers and sons, it’s always been the same, since the dawn of time. “My dad,” Arnold Palmer once confided to me at the Masters, “did all he could to discourage me from being a professional golfer.” I smiled. “You don’t say.”
I walked out of the room, barely hearing the beeping machines, the laughing nurses, the patient groaning down the hall. I thought of that phrase, “It’s just business.” It’s never just business. It never will be. If it ever does become just business, that will mean that business is very bad.
[To General Vo Nguyen Giáp, the Vietnamese MacArthur, the man who single-handedly defeated the Japanese, the French, the Americans, and the Chinese] I said simply: “How did you do it?” I thought I saw the corners of his mouth flicker. A smile? Maybe? He thought. And thought. “I was,” he said, “a professor of the jungle.”
“We have so much opportunity, but we’re having a terrible time getting managers who can seize those opportunities. We try people from the outside, but they fail, because our culture is so different.” Mr. Hayami nodded. “See those bamboo trees up there?” he asked. “Yes.” “Next year . . . when you come . . . they will be one foot higher.” I stared. I understood.
with more patience, with an eye toward more training and more long-term planning. I took the wider, longer view. It worked.
I’d like to remind them that America isn’t the entrepreneurial Shangri-La people think. Free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to block, to thwart, to say no, sorry, no. And it’s always been this way.
America is becoming less entrepreneurial, not more. A Harvard Business School study recently ranked all the countries of the world in terms of their entrepreneurial spirit. America ranked behind Peru.
The harder you work, the better your Tao.
Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your heart.