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Phil Knight is arguably one of the most influential business executives in the world.  His crazy idea to become a shoe dog started at college. He completed a research paper for one of his final classes on entrepreneurship while at Stanford. The professor gave him an A.

A shoe dog according to his memoir is someone who has devoted themselves wholly to making, selling, buying or designing of shoes.

After he completed college, his crazy idea never left him. At the age of 24, he decided to take a whirlwind trip which included a stop in Japan to explore the prospects of implementing his idea.

His memoir offers the reader a first-hand look into the birth, growth and maturity of Nike.  It details the roller coaster ride that entrepreneurs face when starting a business.

Some of the challenges Nike faced was cash flow problems as well as legal trouble. These are all explained in the book. Feel free to buy a copy of this exciting memoir on Amazon by clicking HERE.

I have also written articles on lessons from the life and career stories of several individuals on this blog. These persons include Kobe Bryant, Lee Iacocca, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Monica Lewinsky. In addition, there is an article that summarises the greatest life lessons from these leaders. Feel free to check out these articles as well.

Below are 13 powerful lessons from Phil Knight’s career and life story.

The importance of career vision

Phil Knight knew that he wanted to be successful. However, he did not have a clear path of how to get there.  He enjoyed running and though he was good at track, he was by no means great.

He labelled his dream ‘my crazy idea’. This always kept coming back to him. At Stanford he completed a research paper for a seminar on entrepreneurship.

This paper argued that Japanese running shoes could make inroads into the footwear market. The Japanese were able to dominate the camera market and surpassed the Germans.

He summarised his future vision as follows:-

“I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all…different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world.” (pg.8)

He was a risk-taker

At the age of 24, Knight planned a whirlwind trip around the world. His dad agreed as he believed it was a good finishing touch to his education.

His travel itinerary included places such as Tokyo of course to test out his crazy idea. Other stops included Jordan, Rome, Vienna, and Jerusalem.

Not everyone in his family circle was supportive of his trip. His grandmother in particular feared that the Japanese may take him as a prisoner.

Chose his travel companion carefully

Knight explained his reasoning behind the selection of his friend, Carter to accompany him on his trip. Carter was one of his classmates at Stanford.

Some of the traits that Knight identified was that he was a reader of good books, go-getter, easy to talk to but not talkative. Knight believed that these were excellent habits that could rub off on him

Knight explained Carter willingness to go on the trip with him as follows:

“Carter never did mess around. See an open shot, take it-that was Carter. I told myself there was much I could learn from a guy like that as we circled the earth.” (pg.18)

Sometimes you have to go alone

The first stop for Knight and Carter was Hawaii. They got a job there selling encyclopedias.  However, he was not good at selling to save his life.

So he quit that job and tried his hand at selling mutual funds. He excelled at this role. When he felt like it was time to leave Hawaii, Carter decided to stay on as he had a new girlfriend.

Knight described this moment:

“The last thing I wanted was to pack up and return to Oregon. But I couldn’t see traveling around the world alone, either. Go home, a faint inner voice told me. Get a normal job. Be a normal person. Then I heard another faint voice, equally emphatic. No,  don’t go home. Keep going. Don’t stop.” (pg.23)

He marched to the beat of his drum

During the start-up of Blue Ribbon which is the name that Nike was previously known as, Knight got his initial capital from his dad. Thereafter, based on his father’s reputation he was able to get financing from a bank.

During meetings with bankers, Knight would be quiet and agree to the terms that they requested. However, he would go off and do as he pleased which infuriated the bankers.

Knight remarked:

“To have cash balances sitting around doing nothing made no sense to me. Sure ot would have been the cautious, conservative and prudent thing. But the roadside was littered with cautious, conservative, prudent entrepreneurs. I wanted to keep me foot pressed hard on the gas pedal.” (pg.78)

He said yes then figured out the details

During the earlier life of Blue Ribbon, Knight was faced with a threat that his Japanese supplier was considering alternative distributors.  The suppliers believed that Blue Ribbon lacked nationwide reach.

Faced with this situation, Knight flew to Japan to meet with suppliers. He told suppliers that he could handle national distribution.

He was awarded a three year contract which gave him exclusive distribution rights in the United States.

He took imperfect actions

When Knight decided to manufacture its own line of shoes, Nike the first batch had its shortcomings. The factory was in Mexico.

During the soccer season, a quarterback from Notre Dame wore a pair of Nikes. However, the shoes disintegrated. They needed to be sturdier and weather resistant.

Despite the shortcomings of the first batch of Nikes, Knight remained focused and researched alternative manufacturing.

He motivated his team at critical moments

Knight’s management style was very hands-off. He provided little guidance to his team.

Knight’s summarised his management style as follows:

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” (pg.287)

When Knight made the decision to sell his own brand, instead of shoes from Japan there was great uncertainty. In addition, the economy was at the early stages of recession as well as rising unemployment.

Knight said to his employees:-

“Yes, it’s going to be rough. I won’t lie to you. We’re definitely going to war, people. But we know the terrain. We know our way around Japan now. And that’s one reason I feel in my heart this is a war we can win.” (pg.200)

He turned obstacles into opportunities

Once Nike shoes started becoming well known, one day Knight received a perfect replica of Nike Bruin made in Korea.

In managing this problem, Knight wrote the president of the factory demanding that they cease and desist production or he will have him imprisoned.

However, he was also impressed with the workmanship and offered them a contract.

Knight turned this obstacle into an opportunity for Nike, as he was able to reduce the overdependence on shoes manufactured in Japan.

He had a committed team

Knight had a team that was willing and ready to go the extra mile to build Nike. In his book he defined the key team members of Nike as misunderstood, misjudged and dismissed.  However, in Nike they were winners.

They were willing to do whatever the business needed even when the task was new and unfamiliar. Johnson the first employee at Blue Ribbon rolled out the first store, moved across the country and set up the first Nike factory.

It was also Johnson’s suggestion of the name Nike for the brand of shoes that Blue Ribbon manufactured. Later, the decision was made to change the name of the company to Nike.

They were all committed to seeing Nike succeed.

Nike made history

Some historical moves were made by Nike in the apparel and footwear industry. As an example, when the time came to seek new factories apart from Japan, Taiwan and Korea where Nike was manufactured, China became the front-runner.

He was connected to a gentleman named David Chang. His recommendations were followed to the letter.

In addition, the factories that make Nike were named as some of the best in the world.

According to page 355:

“An official at the United Nations recently said so: Nike is the fold standard by which we measure all apparel factories.

He was a thinker

Knight used reflection to ensure that he stayed true to what he was creating. He recalled asking himself deep questions.

These questions were what are we trying to build here? And what kind of company do we want to be?

Knight greatly admired Sony and wanted to be as profitable, innovative, great employer and efficient as they were. However, he also aimed and hoped for something bigger.

Knight maintained an exceptional relationship with his father

Knight recalled one of his nightly routine which was to call his father while in his recliner. His father earlier in the life of Blue Ribbon when the banker asked his father if he would guarantee the borrowings of Nike, his father declined.

Knight reminisced on the pride he heard in his father’s voice when an athlete had injury and the camera zoomed on the swoosh on his shoes.

Knight stated:

“That might have been the night the swoosh became real to my father. Respectable. He didn’t actually use the word “proud”. But I hung up the phone feeling as if he had.” (pg.303).

Final Thoughts

Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog is a fascinating read for a business student and entrepreneurs. There are so many lessons that one can glean from this book. Feel free to buy your copy of this memoir on Amazon by clicking HERE.

Knight seldom quoted General Douglas MacArthur “You are remembered for the rules you break.

However I will end this article with one of his quotes when he was doing what Wallstreet calls a dog and pony show before the sale of Nike shares:

“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen.” (pg.337).

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13 Powerful Lessons From The Career & Life Story of Phil Knight

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