Shoe Dog by Phil Knight Book Summary & Commentary
— Phil Knight
Today everyone knows Nike. It’s one of the top brands in the world.
This book Shoe Dog is about how Phil created Nike from scratch by going on a crazy entrepreneurial rollercoaster journey. He started by selling shoes from the back of his car, and today sports icons like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods proudly wear Nike shoes. Not to mention tens of millions of people around the world who have bought his shoes. You likely have a pair sitting in your closet right now.
Well, right here on this page, I’ve summarized the best ideas from Shoe Dog so you can absorb Phil Knight’s best wisdom to help you in your own life and business.
The best part is, Shoe Dog is more like a fantastic story than a boring biography. So you’ll probably be motivated and inspired from this, not just educated. And that’s the ultimate reason why he wrote the book. Phil wants to inspire future entrepreneurs, athletes or artists like you to chase your crazy idea too, even if the world doesn’t believe in you yet.
So let’s dive into the first great idea which is:
1. Start Before You’re Ready
As Phil Knight was finishing college in the sixties, Adidas and Puma were already giant companies. But Nike was just a crazy idea in his mind. That’s exactly what he called it.
His Crazy Idea.
In college, Phil saw that Japanese cars had become very popular in America. And his crazy idea was that Japanese shoes could also become very popular in America in the near future. He spent months writing his final college paper about this idea.
I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting, about starting a company. Finally, as required, I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question. They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.
Phil’s classmates were clearly not impressed with Phil’s crazy idea, but that didn’t dampen Phil’s excitement one bit. He couldn’t get this idea out of his mind because he thought he saw a big opportunity.
After finishing college, Phil traveled around the world for one year. He wandered the tropical beaches of Hawaii, then flew all over Europe, Asia, and Egypt. During his travels, his crazy idea remained in the back of his mind.
That’s why near the end of his trip he planned to stop by Japan. He wanted to talk to a shoe manufacturing company there. He wasn’t sure what he might achieve, but he was determined to see if something could be done about his crazy idea.
Phil arrived in Japan and called a shoe company called Onitsuka that makes Tiger shoes and set up a meeting.
Imagine that. Phil was just a twenty-something-year-old guy, barely graduated from college. No business experience. And he walked into this real Japanese company and sat down at a conference table with all these serious Japanese businesspeople. The company thinks Phil represents an established American company when really he’s just some kid that went to Japan alone.
Can you imagine how he felt?
And the whole meeting, he’s faking it. When the Japanese people ask what company he represents, Phil says “Blue Ribbon.” That was the first name that popped into his mind because he thought of the blue ribbons he’d won in sports back in school.
Surprisingly, Onitsuka saw opportunity in America, too. They agreed to let Phil distribute their shoes in America. And just like that, his company Blue Ribbon (which would later be named Nike) was born.
Phil placed the first order for a few thousand Tiger shoes to be made and shipped to America. When he signed the order, he didn’t have the money to pay for the shoes. He didn’t know how he was going to get the money. But he ordered the shoes anyway, having faith in himself that he would figure out a solution. And that’s exactly what he did. He went back to America and got his former running coach Bill Bowerman to be his business partner.
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.
All his life, Phil dove into new situations and tried to figure everything out along the way. It’s like diving into a swimming pool without knowing how to swim, and hoping that you can quickly learn how to swim before you drown. This sounds risky, but it’s how Phil grew Nike so quickly. He had faith in himself.
2. Fail Fast: Wisdom is an Asset
Why was Phil okay living on the edge like this?
Why was he okay taking risks when most people live in fear?
Here’s one quote that explains his mindset:
It was worth shooting for. If Blue Ribbon went bust, I’d have no money, and I’d be crushed. But I’d also have some valuable wisdom, which I could apply to the next business. Wisdom seemed an intangible asset, but an asset all the same, one that justified the risk. (emphasis added) Starting my own business was the only thing that made life’s other risks—marriage, Vegas, alligator wrestling—seem like sure things.
Phil knew that starting a business was risky. The risk was unavoidable. So instead he made it his mission to charge at the risk head-on.
The psychologist Phil Stutz says this is what happy and fulfilled people do. Instead of running from discomfort, they confront it. They actually want to feel uncomfortable because they know breaking through their comfort zone will make their life amazing in the long term. And this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” -Anaïs Nin
Scientists call this a “growth mindset” and it’s extremely important if you want to be successful. People with a growth mindset believe failure is usually just a learning experience. When you fail, you gain valuable wisdom that will help you succeed in the future.
This mindset will help you be confident and brave because it means failure isn’t personal. It’s not “you” that fails, it’s just your approach. When you learn and change your approach, then you can be successful.
in those early years, Phil’s mantra became “fail fast.” If Blue Ribbon did fail, he wanted it to fail fast so he would have enough time to use the lessons learned in his next project. If Nike was a bad idea, then he didn’t want to waste too much time on it.
3. Seek a Calling, Not a Career
I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted (my life) to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all . . . different. (…)
I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.
Nike was Phil Knight’s calling. Phil was passionate about the power of running and sports. And he believed Nike shoes could help him spread that passion to more people.
Phil made almost no profit from Nike the first several years. Instead, he reinvested every penny of profit to buy more shoes to sell. He saw a small window of opportunity to make Nike huge and that’s why he wanted to grow as fast as possible. In fact, Phil even took a full-time job at an accounting firm for a few years to provide a stable income for his new wife and kids. This was while he was growing Nike!
Most of Phil’s early employees and teammates felt as passionate as he did. They were athletes, runners or misfits who either loved running or felt they would never fit into a regular corporate job. So they put their heart and soul into their work. This is unlike many corporate employees who always have one eye on the clock and can’t wait for the weekend.
Growing a business is almost like raising a child. For the first few years, it takes a back-breaking amount of work, time and energy. But over time it grows bigger and starts giving back to you. And people put in the work because of how meaningful their life feels as a parent.
Building a business into a billion-dollar company is crazy. Any sane and normal person would find a low-stress job. Phil knew his idea was crazy, but he loved the journey. Phil compared growing a business to running:
Few ideas are as crazy as my favorite thing, running. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed. When you run around an oval track, or down an empty road, you have no real destination. At least, none that can fully justify the effort. The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not just that there’s no finish line; it’s that you define the finish line.
In the end, Nike did make Phil very rich. But if money had been his main motivation, then he would never have survived those first few years making very little income. Instead, Phil saw the exciting journey of growing a business as the reason to do it. It felt like his calling. It made him feel alive.
4. It’s Normal For Parents To Encourage Conformity
When I started my first online business and quit university, my parents argued with me for weeks. They wanted me to do the safe, stable thing and finish the degree which I found mind-numbingly boring.
Later when I told my parents I would travel for 6 months, I heard yelling again. They were convinced that I’d be kidnapped and they would have to pay my kidnappers a large ransom. And now reading Phil’s journey I realize this is a normal reaction. Parents almost always want their kids to avoid risk.
Guess how Phil’s dad felt about him traveling around the world for a year and then selling shoes? His dad didn’t like it at all.
You see, Phil’s dad worshipped at the altar of respectability. He wanted a son who was respectable, with a nice house, good wife, and obedient kids. Not someone drifting around the world and selling shoes out the back of his car.
I guess his dad didn’t see much promise in Phil’s crazy shoe idea. (Although he did lend Phil some money in the beginning.) It was only decades later when his dad saw top athletes wearing Nike shoes that he started to seem proud of what Phil had achieved.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger who reached the pinnacles of success as a bodybuilder, movie star and politician never got encouragement from his father. When Arnold started lifting weights as a teenager, his dad thought it was a waste of time. He told Arnold to “Go do something useful. Chop some wood.”
Most parents want their kids to take the safe and stable path in life. So if you decide to start a business or follow your passions, don’t be surprised if they give you no support and even attack your ideas.
5. Life is Growth. You Grow or You Die.
After a couple of years, the Japanese Tiger shoes started to become very popular.
And Phil was trying to grow Nike as fast as possible. As soon as they sold one shipment of shoes, he used all the profits to order even more shoes. Each order was bigger than the last one. Nike’s sales were skyrocketing, sometimes doubling year after year.
Nike was like a train with no brakes. And it was accelerating faster and faster. Phil’s biggest problem was managing the company’s growth as it was exploding in size.
And Phil’s bankers always argued with him. They told Phil how reckless it was to spend all their money ordering more shoes. They told him to slow down the growth and set some money aside in case something bad happened like a bad sales year.
Phil didn’t listen to them. He wanted to grow Nike as fast as possible even though it made his life more stressful and difficult. Why? Because his philosophy was that life is growth. You grow or you die.
(As someone who runs this little website called Growth.me, I definitely agree with that!)
Phil put all his money into growing Nike, even when fast growth caused many stressful problems. He wanted to do it because to him life is growth. You grow or you die.
6. Life is Interesting When It’s Challenging
The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.
Phil had to overcome one seemingly impossible challenge after another, to grow Nike into what it is today. A famous historian once said that life is just “one damn thing after another” and that’s how I felt reading this book.
First, he flew to Japan to sign that contract with Onitsuka when he had no business experience or money.
A few years later, his relationship with Onitsuka came crashing down. And suddenly they didn’t have someone to make their shoes. They had to quickly design their own shoes, find new factories around Asia to make the shoes, and bring them to America. Thankfully, they pulled it off.
A few years after that, Nike’s competitors found a way to twist government regulations and Phil had to yet again fight for Nike’s survival. For a couple years Phil was fighting for survival against the US government. There are not many challenges more frustrating than that. Here’s a short list of the problems Nike faced in just one year:
In (1976) we were struggling with a number of unusually stressful problems.
We needed to find a larger warehouse on the East Coast.
We needed to transfer our sales-distribution center from Massachusetts (…) to New Hampshire, which was sure to be a nightmare.
We needed to hire an advertising agency to handle the increasing volume of print ads.
We needed to either fix or get rid of our underperforming factories.
We needed to hire a director of promotions.
We needed to approve new products(…)
And we needed to decide on a new logo.
Just reading all that makes me feel tired!
Yet Phil doesn’t regret the challenges, he says that even with all the problems life was a joy. Why? Because he believes that when something isn’t challenging, then it’s not interesting.
For example, have you noticed every good movie has someone facing a big challenge? Fighting evil, protecting the world, or a person fighting their inner demons. But there are always difficulties, obstacles and problems that keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s a big lesson here.
In a movie, if there’s no difficulty to overcome, then you’ll get bored. If nothing goes wrong, then you’ll fall asleep. The same rules apply in life. Most people avoid challenges and discomfort, then wonder why they feel bored and unfulfilled.
7. Don’t Tell People How To Do Things
Phil loved to read books about war, especially books written about great generals and leaders. (His three heroes were Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Leo Tolstoy.) He didn’t like wars or violence, but he loved to learn lessons about leadership. He wanted to know how did someone stay in control in an extreme situation like war?
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 Phil tried to be a very hands-off leader at Nike. He allowed people to solve problems by themselves. Some of his past employees say he took this strategy too far when he didn’t reply to many of their letters and memos! This made them want to pull their hair out.
Yet his strategy of telling people what to do, but not HOW, has clearly paid off. But I don’t think you can do this with just anyone.
One important part of Phil’s strategy was choosing to hire people who were as passionate about running as he was. This made them feel passionate about Nike’s mission.
With a lot of freedom, some of his employees accomplished great things. For example, Phil’s business partner Bill Bowerman was at breakfast one day. He was watching his wife making waffles. Looking at the waffles, he got the idea that a waffle pattern on the bottom of shoes would provide a better grip. So he poured some rubber into his wife’s waffle machine and immediately broke it. Oops! He tried again and again, eventually creating a whole new type of rubber shoe bottom which Nike had great success with.
Few great leaders micromanage. Tell your people WHAT to do, but give them a lot of freedom about HOW to accomplish it. This starts with choosing employees who are passionate about your company’s mission.
8. It’s Easy to Sell Something You Believe In
Before Nike, Phil had a job for a few months selling mutual funds. He wasn’t very good at it and he didn’t make many sales commissions. But later when he sold Nike shoes from the back of his car, he was great at convincing people to buy.
Phil realized selling his shoes was different because it didn’t feel like selling. He truly believed that if more people ran, the world would be healthier and better. And he believed his shoes were the best to help people run.
In fact, much of Nike’s early success came from their sales reps. Nike found former runners who loved Nike shoes. Then it hired the runners to go into the world and spread the gospel. These salespeople went to every high school and college track meet raving about how good Nike shoes were. They really believed it. This passionate sales force boosted Nike’s revenue even more.
People are smart. They can sense when you truly believe in your product. You should always provide the best quality product you can because making sales and getting word-of-mouth recommendations will be much easier.
9. Why Your Business Name or Logo Don’t Matter
(At least, not as much as you think they do.)
When you have a new project or business idea, have you ever spent days or weeks trying to think of the perfect name for it? I know I have. Many wannabe entrepreneurs get stuck at this step of creating a business.
Well, Phil had the same problem. After years of selling the Japanese “Tiger” shoes, Phil wanted to create his own brand. He needed a name and logo. For weeks he and his team argued about which name was best.
Phil’s favorite name at the time was “Dimension Six.” Pretty bad, right? Dimension Six! I’m glad his employees told him how terrible that one was!
After weeks, Phil still couldn’t make up his mind. And the deadline when they needed to send their name to the shoe factory was coming soon! Then the night before the deadline, one of Phil’s employees had a dream where he saw the word “Nike” flash before his eyes. “Nike” was the Greek goddess of victory. Phil always like ancient Greece, so in the last minutes before the deadline he chose to use “Nike” for the brand name and history was made.
The same problem happened when they needed to choose Nike’s logo. Their designer created a few logo ideas and just before the deadline Phil and his team chose one. At the time, Phil didn’t like the logo. When they chose it, he sighed and said to his team, “We’re out of time. It’ll have to do. I don’t love it. Maybe it will grow on me.” That was the Nike swoosh, an iconic symbol that most people in the world today recognize.
As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Nike, by any other name, would still be the same shoe company. So don’t become too stuck on your business name or logo. That’s not the thing that will make you a success or a failure.
(Just don’t call yourself “Dimension Six.”)
Phil didn’t like Nike’s name and logo in the beginning, but it didn’t affect Nike’s success. Nike grew because of their leadership, incredible employees, marketing, product design, and so on. All the other parts of the business made the company what it is today.
10. Oneness Is What We’re All Seeking
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.
Phil believes that oneness is what he was really seeking his whole life. It’s what everybody is really seeking.
Phil says that he and billions of other people love sports because it gives them a feeling of oneness. Oneness is why people cheer for sports teams. It’s why people feel proud of their country. It’s why people love their family. They want that feeling of being connected to something bigger. They are hungry for that feeling of unity.
In 1980 Phil was thinking about going public with Nike. This means letting anybody to invest money and buy a piece of Nike. But he had some doubts. One the one hand, Phil didn’t want to lose control of his company. On the other hand, he knew he could unleash Nike’s growth if it became a public company.
What really pushed him over the edge was realizing that his whole life had been about “going public.” From his year-long backpacking trip to see the world… to building a close-knit team at Nike… to getting married… his life had been all about reaching out to the world and seeking oneness.
Everybody in the world wants to feel part of something bigger. That’s why people will die for their family, country and religion. These are the most important parts of life.
I hope this note has made you want to pick up the book “Shoe Dog” and read it for yourself. It really is more like reading an exciting story than a business book. And one thing I was unfortunately unable to capture in this note were many of the characters in Phil’s life. It’s fascinating to read about the unique people that started Nike, with all their quirks and eccentricities.
And I know you’ve learned some golden nuggets of wisdom from this page. Now you understand why someone would want to create a company as large as Nike, with all the stress and headaches that follow.
And here’s one last quote:
The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
I felt sad finishing Shoe Dog like I didn’t want the story to end. I guess that tells you how I feel about this book, which has such a spirit of daring and adventure inside it. And I won’t look at Nike shoes the same way again.