Some lessons from Phil Knight’s dogged journey

Sometimes you have to see how the sausage is made to gain an appreciation for the final product. I recently read Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir, and I can’t look at a pair of Nikes without thinking about the struggle it took to make his company an internationally recognized brand. Knight truly built something out of nothing and his journey should be read and appreciated by entrepreneurs regardless of how far along they are in their startup. Here are few of my takeaways from Shoe Dog.

Knight’s early days of getting Nike off the ground were filled with OG hustler moves. His determination to dominate the shoe industry originated from a business school assignment and he carried that passion post-graduation to Japan in search of a strategic partner. At the age of 24, he convinced a large shoe manufacturer to contract his company (which did not exist at the time) as its US distributor.

While building Nike, none of Knight’s first hires were shoe experts — they were just smart people who believed in what he was creating. You need early employees who are fully invested in the direction of a startup and can effectively evangelize and sell to customers. This also lays the foundation for a workplace culture of missionaries, not mercenaries.

Nike was able to tune out the noise and stay resilient. When they first started distributing sneakers out of their cars at track meets and trade shows, reps from the large incumbents all but laughed at them. The same large competitors colluded against Nike to try and put them out of business via a tax loophole. Nike did not back down.

Armed with a Stanford MBA, Knight bypassed the usual path most of his classmates were taking and instead chose the path of most resistance — entrepreneurship, decades before living the startup life became en vogue. Let’s note that he was fortunate to have parents who would float him (although reluctantly) for a while as he figured things out. It’s critical to have a support network during your entrepreneurship journey because you will hit the inevitable low points and need people to help pick you back up.

There are definitely a lot more lessons to glean from Shoe Dog, I highly recommend it. If not for the dogged lessons, at least for the anecdote about how LeBron James (greatest basketball player ever IMO) gifted Knight a vintage 1972 (the year Nike was founded) Rolex as thanks for a Nike endorsement deal before even playing an NBA game.

Made in Ghana. Assembled in New York. Found World Wide.