Phil Knight “Shoe Dog” – book review

I picked up this book as it was available on Amazon’s Kindle sale a while back, and I remembered that it had been recommended on Bill Gates’s blog. It’s an autobiography of the founder of Nike, the sportswear company.

I’m not exactly the target audience of this book: I don’t really care much for running, and I care still less about branded running shoes. I was just looking for an inspirational ‘can-do’ story. That’s what this book fundamentally is.

Phil Knight relates how the company ‘Blue Ribbon’, which he ran from his parent’s house, became Nike (and he became a man who is currently valued at $33.9 billion). Knight started by exporting Japanese shoes and then improving the designs thanks to the suggestions of his former track coach, Bill Bowerman. It was only after his Japanese partners decided to take the distribution of the Tiger boots elsewhere, that Knight started producing his shoes under his own, Nike brand. The rest, as it were, is history. Though Nike started off as a little known shoe underdog, compared with the likes of Adidas, it soon forged its own path.

This book is full of running metaphors and comparisons. Basically, anything will get compared to running at some point: whether it’s “running” a business or “running” a marriage. Which is fine, in a way, since the rhetoric of “you can give up, but you cannot stop” is pretty inspirational. And it also gives you the idea that Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, is very fond of his sport.

There were a few unexpected takeaways from this book. First, Knight is unashamed to admit that, up until the age of 24, he was more or less completely at a loss about what to do with his life. Then, he simply decided to travel the world for a year. After that, he took a few side jobs. Knight was only able to start a company thanks to the support of his parents, his dad’s connections, and his former running coach.

When he runs the company, it is very clear that it would not be a success at all if not for the tenacity of his first employees and friends (Johnson, in particular, seemed key- even if he does sound a bit weird and obsessed too).

I feel this part of the book is encouraging because it belies the myth that success is borne out of talent alone. Sure, Knight was smart and enterprising. But without his supportive environment, he would never have made it that far.

Second, Knight admits that his company was perennially short of funds- basically, until Nike was floated on the stock market, it was inches away from catastrophe. When Knight’s first son was born, his own house was underwriting the company’s loan in case of its failure. It was this first son who also told Knight as a teenager that he would ‘never wear Nike shoes’. Sadly, this was also the son that he lost too soon.

Last, the book exposed me to stories of an environment completely different from my own. A child of two academics, I never learned much about business from my family background. Knight describes a world that is opposite from the one I knew as a child. “Being a businessman” in Knight’s father’s eyes is viewed as a respectable profession. “Working at a university” is rather less respectable. Business is business. And even though Knight insists that running Nike was never just about the money, he also admits that money did change him, at least to some extent.

It’s a very self-aware memoir, especially bearing in mind Knight’s many successes. Worth a read.

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