- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (1664)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1471146723
- ISBN-13: 978-1471146725
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 2,217 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #333,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE
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Let’s cut to the chase. This will be a great read for anybody, but if you’re thinking about starting a business, especially a business that you expect to grow, this book belongs on your must-read list. You’ll learn things that you won’t learn anywhere else and you’ll learn things that you can only learn from a story.
You’ll learn about the constant struggle to fund growth. Most of the books about entrepreneurship don’t tell you about that. If you start a business and that business starts to grow, you are funding the process out ahead of your cash flow. The result is that you’re chronically cash poor, even when you’re fabulously profitable, and that is both counterintuitive and very tough to manage.
You’ll also learn about the plusses and minuses of going public. There’s a lot here about relationships and values, and staying true to what you think is important. There are lessons about how putting people in the right job makes all the difference. And, there are lessons about balancing being a hero at work with being a parent at home.
There are also important lessons about not taking yourself too seriously. Knight describes the “executive retreats” that Nike would have. They called them “Buttface sessions.” The name came from one of the early employees who said that Nike was the only company their size where you could shout out “Hey, buttface!” and the entire management team would turn around.
There’s another important thing, too. If you think that innovation is only something that high-tech companies do, or that it requires coding, read this book. A lot of Nike’s success comes from being an innovator in shoes.
Shoe Dog is superbly written, and you’ll enjoy it if you just read it as a story. But if you’re in business, and especially if you’re starting a business and wanting to make it grow, this book should be on your must-read list. Keep it handy, right near Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things.
Toward the end of the book, Phil Knight says this:
“God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I’d like to share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman, somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals might be inspired or comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or painter or novelist, might press on.”
I think he achieved his goal. If you want some seasoned advice to help you run and grow your company, or if you just want to read a great business memoir, pick up a copy of Shoe Dog: A Memoir by The Creator of Nike.
Over the past 18 years of writing reviews, I don’t think I have reviewed more than 3 autobiographies. My experience has been that hardly any avoid being little more than an airbrushed account of an extraordinary genius, with depth of character and business prowess, written by the paragon him or herself. My visceral response to an autobiography is – ignore.
Shoe Dog came to my attention in 2017, and I ignored it. A week ago, a client, still in her mid-30s, and half way to building her company into a billion-dollar business, raved about the book.
I share her enthusiasm for this autobiography. Let me tell you why.
If you are looking for ‘my 7 secrets of great success’ in this book, you will find only one. And for that one, this 400-page book is not worth the effort. So why would Bill Gates call this book “…an amazing tale”? Primarily because, as Gates says, “Knight opens up in a way that few CEOs are willing to do.”
There are no two businesses that could possibly follow the same paths to success. Every business is one of a kind, with a unique history, built by unique people, facing unique challenges, and responding in their uniquely flawed way.
Everything about this book links back to Phil Knight’s love for running.
His humourless, stern and brilliant college track coach, Bill Bowerman, eventually became one of his earliest business partners. This was a man who would take the athletes’ shoes from their locker, tear them apart, examine them and redo them. He understood that if you remove one ounce from a shoe, you remove over fifty pounds from the runner. It was Bowerman who used his wife’s waffle iron to develop the soles for which Nike became famous.
In one of the many beautifully written passages in a remarkably well written book, Knight describes watching a race in which the legendary middle-distance runner, Steve Prefontaine participated. The joy and agony Knight and his wife experienced is described vividly – Knight was no passive spectator: he was experiencing the tension of the athletes, their physical exertion, their ‘digging deep’ into personal reserves to push through the last moments before the finish. At the end of the meeting, Knight describes – in passing – the physical exertion he experienced as a spectator, and the beauty and the art of these athletes.
Knight, trained as an accountant, didn’t start his sports shoe business, Blue Ribbon, because he had a vision of manufacturing sports shoes, and turning them into a universal, essential clothing item across the globe. He didn’t have the strong desire to get rich as even a part of his decision-making criteria. Throughout his business career he chose not to make real money in favour of other decision criteria: not spoiling the culture of the business by listing, or selling to the wrong people.
The culture of Nike is possibly best described as wild, made up of “losers”, (a disabled athlete confined to a wheel chair; an obese accountant who would never make partner in his firm because he was so large; a needy and obsessive letter-writing lawyer.) But all were perfect in their positions and each a “Buttface” as the inner circle was called. The interactions in the company were forceful, crude and remorseless, which is why truth was heard. No, they were not polite and sensitive: in fact, the essential common denominator across the various Buttfaces was a thick-skin.
For most of the history of the company, from the early days when it was still called Blue Ribbon to its emergence as Nike, the company was cash-strapped. All but the last chapters of the book had an underlying theme of financial survival. Initially it was to pay the few thousand dollars to be able to buy the next shipment of shoes from the Japanese manufacturer, to having the bank cut off their credit line, to being sued by the Customs Department for $25m of unpaid fees for an obscure tax (finally reduced to $9m.)
And all this time, there was an escape route – go public. And each time it was rejected because of what it might do to the ethos of the company.
So, what is the only lesson you will learn from this book? It is not that Knight was the quintessential, ‘Jack Welsh’ quality manager - confident, kind, clear thinking, and a team player. As a text-book manager Knight would not make even a department head. He is shy, introspective, and does not praise, or give much feedback unless it is to solve problems.
The lesson is passion. Having real passion for what you are investing your time, effort and money in. Real passion. The stuff that makes you thrill when you see a master take the race, with the grace of an artist, drawing down on resources he never knew he had. A level of passion that leads you to doing things you may regret – like being sorry your wife will not stay an extra day in hospital after giving birth to your second son, because you wanted to attend an athletics meeting.
Passion is why you teach accountancy to support your micro-business of selling superb running shoes. Passion is running almost every day of your life, knowing how important shoes are. Passion is when you enthusiastically encourage and support others who are masters of your passion – the athletes. And passion is the drive to see your heroes in your Nikes, not Adidas.
Passion is what makes an accounting graduate into a “shoe dog”, strong enough to take the whipping that life and business deals you. Passion is the only thing that will keep you going, and digging deep into mental and physical reserves you never knew you had.
If you are an aspiring entrepreneur you will grow in important ways from reading this book. If you are asked what you learned, you may not be able to articulate a single lesson beyond ‘passion.’ But this is all about you, the entrepreneur, and reading the frank account of the journey of a founder-CEO now worth $10b, will be a meaningful experience.
Readability Light -+--- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High ----+ Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy, and is the author of the recently released ‘Executive Update.’