Shoe Dog is a story about Phil Knight, a track runner from Oregon who graduates from a prestigious business school in the early 1960s, goes for a very-unconventional-for-the-time world trip, and then returns to team up with his former track coach to start a shoe import business called Blue Ribbon Sports. The plan is to import higher-quality shoes all the way from Japan, less than two decades after Hiroshima, when the wounds of the war were still fresh and some Japanese soldiers still hiding in the forests thinking that the war isn’t over yet.
The company goes through one financial struggle after the next, barely staying afloat, but he somehow scrapes through while keeping an accounting job on the side. Over time, as Phil finds out that the Japanese suppliers are planning to break their contract despite Blue Ribbon sales doubling every year, he’s forced to find a factory to start manufacturing his own line of shoes.
“Business is war without bullets.”
He pays $35 to an illustrator to design a logo that ends up looking like a checkmark, and his first full-time employee dreams up of a name in his sleep. It meets his criteria of being short, having a sharp sound like a ‘k’, and is also the name of the Greek goddess of victory. So he decides to name this new line of shoes Nike, and the $35 logo, now called the swoosh, would go on to become the most iconic symbol in the sporting and branding history.
Shoe Dog is the memoir by Phil Knight, and it is the impossible story that combines two of my top passions: running and entrepreneurship. The book bleeds the spirit of sport and is quite deservedly dramatic at times. It’s full of events that will make your gut wrench — him meeting a girl on top of Mount Fuji on his world trip, but later being told that he wasn’t sophisticated enough. Of always being on the brink of cashlessness, and in fact, missing payroll once and almost losing the company over it. Of meeting his future wife on his first day as an accounting lecturer. Of taking Nike public, becoming worth multi-millions overnight, and then losing a few comrades along the way. Of hearing the news that his son Matthew, just 34 at the time, decided to see how deep he could scuba dive, and not making it out alive.
Shoe Dog is an ode to running, to sports and athletes, to their fans and families, to entrepreneurs and the spirit of leaving a mark on the world. And to the mindless obsession of becoming a better version of yourself. Nike is the Apple of sports — it’s more than just a company, more than just a brand.
“Life is growth. You grow or you die.”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’m glad that I ran my first marathon in the beautiful state of Oregon, the birthplace of Nike. Moreover, I couldn’t have come across this book at a better time — I’m running my second one later this month. Everyone wants to see a reflection of themselves in their role models. This book gave me plenty of opportunities to do so.
This is #25 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.