Books I Love: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (Founder of Nike)
This review is the latest in my “Books I Love” series. To see more of the books I love and recommend, check out the resources page.
Shoe Dog is easily the best business book I’ve read all year. I seriously couldn’t put it down. Phil is a phenomenal storyteller, and I loved that he gives a behind-the-scenes-view of what it was like for him to build his company from the ground up. You don’t often get that from the founder of a company as big as Nike. But before I tell you about the book and what I got from it, I want to tell you why I chose to read it in the first place.
In the early years of Student Maid, I joined a mastermind group with a few other young entrepreneurs like me. Our companies were in different industries and at different stages, but we had one thing in common: our desire to build brands larger than ourselves. I remember one of our group members often referred to Nike. No one else knew anything about Nike’s founder or its origin story, but we absolutely understood the power of the brand: When you see the swoosh, you know it’s Nike. We were fascinated by what it took to build a brand that instantly recognizable.
I’d been dying to read Shoe Dog ever since I heard it was published. I don’t want to spoil it for you—I most definitely want you to read it for yourself!—so here are the parts that resonated with me the most without giving too much away:
Right role, wrong industry: When Phil was in his early twenties, he attempted to start his career by selling encyclopedias. But after realizing that he couldn’t sell encyclopedias to save his life—and that he hated the heavy dose of rejection that came with the job—he decided to sell securities instead. Turns out, he didn’t love doing that either. He hadn’t yet found his “thing.” It wasn’t until he had an idea to start a shoe company and began selling shoes that he felt himself come alive. Not only did he love selling shoes, but he was really great at it. He still got rejected from potential buyers, but now, it didn’t bother him because he believed in what he was doing. I think the message is that sometimes you might be in the right role, like sales, but you have to keep searching for the right industry or the thing you’re most passionate about. Sometimes it takes a little while to get there, but it’s worth the wait.
Do what it takes—even if it’s not glamorous: Nike started as most companies do: small. In the beginning, Phil sold shoes out of the trunk of his car. He’d set up shop at track meets, and in between races, he would talk to coaches, runners, family members—anyone who would listen. He didn’t have a fancy office or warehouse; he kept the shoes in his bedroom. He also didn’t immediately go full-time with his business. He became an accountant and worked both jobs until he could afford to make Nike his only gig. His early years reminded me a lot of my own. I began by cleaning houses myself; my first office was my garage; and when I couldn’t pay my bills, I would babysit. I think there is a misconception about entrepreneurship and what it takes to build a successful company. Most entrepreneurs are scrappy: They do the work themselves, they work multiple jobs until they can afford to go out on their own, they sacrifice. They do whatever it takes to make it work.
Just do it: (I couldn’t resist!) Several times throughout his story, Phil said “yes” before he knew how he would make it happen. He even came up with his first company name on the fly (spoiler alert: Nike wasn’t always called Nike). This really resonated with me because I too am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of gal. I came up with Student Maid’s name at a traffic light and just went with it. I signed a contract to clean 800 apartments before I hired anyone to actually clean them. I signed a contract to write a book even though I had no clue what I was writing about. I’m sharing this with you because I think it’s easy to get stuck in the trap of overthinking and over planning. I meet so many people with brilliant ideas who spend far too much time on strategy and exploring “what ifs” and not enough time actually doing. The result is missed opportunities and dreams that never come to fruition. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that planning is guessing. Things won’t go according to plan and that is the plan. Take a risk, say yes, and figure it out as you go.
Culture over competition: One thing that I found interesting was Phil’s contempt for Adidas. He hinted at it throughout the book. As Nike’s main competitor, Adidas absolutely pushed Phil and his team to make Nike a better brand, but to me, his focus on Adidas seemed unhealthy at times. It brought back memories of when I was obsessed with Student Maid’s competitors. I would track their likes on Facebook and how many Google reviews they got, and I would try to get more than that. I would solicit feedback from people who had used their services, and I would do whatever it took to make ours better. In many ways I spent more time focusing on my competitors than I did my own business. Part of it was that I was just young, but the other part of me enjoyed the competition. Like Phil, I do think competition made Student Maid a better cleaning service. But what I’ve realized since then is that there’s one thing your competitors can’t ever copy: your culture. It’s like the DNA of a team. At some point, I stopped focusing externally and began to focus internally, and that’s when things really took off for me. Since then, the goal has always been the same: to have a better culture today than we had yesterday. Competition can definitely be a good thing, but not when it’s obsessive and takes your focus away from what matters most.
Make room for the people who love your company as much as you do: From the very beginning, Phil had someone who believed in his vision and wanted to help him bring it to life. His name was Johnson, and he believed in the company with every ounce of his being. But Phil never intended to hire him. Johnson created a job description for himself and practically forced Phil to make him an employee. Johnson was so excited about the opportunity that we would write Phil hundreds of letters (this is before email) with all the ideas he had for the business. Phil was so overwhelmed that at times he just didn’t respond, but it didn’t affect Johnson’s engagement. He was still just as excited and ran with his ideas when he didn’t hear back. At one point, Phil asked Johnson to uproot his life and move from the West Coast to the East Coast with only a few days’ notice to open a new office. While Johnson didn’t want to move, he agreed to do it because he cared so much about Phil and the company. That’s when Phil truly realized the partner he had in Johnson. From that point forward, Phil showed Johnson a deeper loyalty. (And good thing he did. Johnson is the one who would come up with the name Nike.) I think the lesson here is twofold: If you are the business owner, you can’t go it alone. You need people who believe in your vision as much as you do, and when you find those people, you have to appreciate how lucky you are to have them. At the same time, if you aren’t the business owner, never underestimate your ability to impact the trajectory of the company and your ability to help bring a vision to life.
Family first: When Phil became a father, it was very exciting for him but also very tough. He loved his work and he found it difficult to juggle both roles. He would feel guilty about working so much and would want to spend more time with his two boys—and he would do so—but inevitably, he would fall back into the cycle of overworking. At the end of the book, you learn that one of his sons died in a tragic diving accident. It’s a powerful reminder to always put family first, even when you love the work you do. At the end of the day, time spent with our loved ones is what matters more than anything.
Retreat and have fun: Phil and his team had a company retreat that they called “Buttface.” (Yes, you read that right. And they referred to the retreaters as “Buttfaces.”) It was a time for the team to get away and work on the business instead of in it, and calling it Buttface kept expectations fun and informal. The rules were simple: No idea was too silly to be mocked, and no person was too important to be ridiculed. I love this because I think team retreats are so critical to success. Not only are they a great chance to strengthen relationships, but they’re a time to slow down and work on the bigger picture. I’m inspired to give our team retreats a name now. Maybe not “Buttface,” though. I’ll keep thinking…
Keep reaching: At the end of the book—after Phil stepped down as CEO—he talks about creating a bucket list. This part really grabbed me. You’d think a man who had built a multi-million-dollar company would have done it all. I mean, what more could you want, right? There’s more to life. Everyone, no matter how successful, wants to do more, experience more, live more. A reminder that we never truly “arrive” and that we should always be thinking about what’s next.
I could seriously go on and on about this book, but there’s one more part I want to share with you. It’s the absolute best paragraph of the entire book, and it can be found on page 352, highlighted so furiously in my copy that my highlighter nearly ran out of ink:
It seems wrong to call it “business.” It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher—and none of us wavered in the belief that “stakes” didn’t mean “money.” For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living—and at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. 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. Maybe it will grow on me.
I mean...if that doesn’t make you want to read the book, what does?
Thank you, Phil, for telling your story. Thank you for having the courage to share your many moments of utter defeat, despair, and betrayal. I wish more leaders would be brave enough to do the same. We all experience these moments, and when we read about them from someone else’s eyes, we realize we aren’t alone.