Phil Knight's formal retirement from Nike comes just a few weeks after the publication of his sharply-penned and sometimes personal account of the brand's early days. Shoe Dog provides captivating insights into the joys and mishaps of the “Crazy Idea,” when a somewhat aloof “Buck” Knight and a small band of unlikely managers built up a running shoe business in an almost permanent state of near-collapse.
The joys mostly reside in the camaraderie between Knight, the “men of Oregon” and other runners who started Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964, based on the project he prepared at Stanford to import cheaper Japanese running shoes. The struggles mostly come from soaring demand and uninspired bankers. Knight vividly recalls his permanent fight to obtain funding for the next (and always larger) batch of Tiger shoes, the brand marketed by Onitsuka from Japan that subsequently changed its name to Asics
On several occasions the company was virtually bankrupt. The invention of the “futures” program was one way to try and get around permanent financing issues, but as Knight acknowledges in Shoe Dog, it's hard to tell where the business would be today without Nissho, the Japanese company that decided to take a bet on the shoe venture.
Adding to the uncertainty was the shaky relationship between Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka. Knight describes Japanese partners with an infuriatingly nonchalant attitude to delays in deliveries and an equally worrying reluctance to make the relationship steady.
Some of the most entertaining parts of Shoe Dog focus on the legal fight that broke out with Onitsuka when it turned out that the Japanese were holding talks with other potential U.S. distributors and that Blue Ribbon started marketing its own brand, Nike. Knight famously established personal contacts with an Onitsuka employee to find out more, and he borrowed a file from the briefcase of Onitsuka's export manager on a visit to the Blue Ribbon offices.
Along the way, Knight regularly draws inspiration from the months he spent around Asia and Europe in 1962, after his graduation from Stanford. The trip led Knight to discover Japan and get his business started after his meeting at Onitsuka. But time and again, he brings back memories from these travels as he fights to keep his venture afloat. Perhaps the most inspiring was Athens, “where it all begins,” walking up the bleached steps to the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike.
Another recurrent topic in the early days is the awkward relationship between Knight and his father. The former Nike chief executive describes him as a man with an unsteady temper and a “respectability fixation.” Knight's father thought that setting up a shoe company was something for beatniks and hipsters, but still repeatedly coughed up the funds for his son to travel and get his business started.
This ambivalence contrasts sharply with the mix of fear and admiration which Knight professes for Bill Bowerman – the athletics coach at the University of Oregon, where Knight was a middle-distance runner. Knight appears both petrified and in awe of Bowerman, whose idea of high praise consisted of just two words: “Nice race.” He also constantly fiddled with running shoes, getting the runners on his team to test spikes made from cod or soles famously baked in a waffle iron. Bowerman agreed to an almost equal partnership with Knight.
Along with Bowerman, Knight managed to get utterly committed aides on board. With an apparent mixture of bemusement and gratitude, Shoe Dog acknowledges the relentless drive of Jeff Johnson, the first full-time employee of Blue Ribbon Sports, who started by building up demand for Tiger in California. Knight consistently ignored Johnson's pleas for encouragement, failing to answer his prolific letters and instead moving him around to deal with one crisis after the other.
Johnson apparently stuck around due to his commitment to running, and because it quickly turned out that the Crazy Idea was pretty sane after all – fulfilling a demand for cheaper yet functional running shoes. Knight could be quite persuasive as well, as described in the crucial negotiations that enable Knight to win over Japanese and other partners, bankers and employees. With a touch of self-deprecation, Knight describes himself as shy and sometimes even a little awkward. But he's always well prepared, reading books on Japanese business practices or rehearsing for hours before important meetings.
It transpires from Shoe Dog that “contempt” for Adidas was an important stimulant for Knight. “I despised them,” he squarely admits, accusing the company of “all the arrogance of unchallenged dominance.” He admits that this perception may have been a way to motivate himself and that he “needed to see them as a monster.” In any case, Adidas did remind Knight of his nemesis, Jim Grelle, who was the fastest runner in Oregon when the Nike founder was second. “I was tired of looking up every day and seeing them far, far ahead. I couldn't bear the thought that it was my fate to do so forever.”
But even when Adidas was no longer so far ahead, the rivalry with the German brand appeared more personal than others. This transpires in one of the few lines of regret in Shoe Dog, about Knight's failure to mend his relationship with Rob Strasser. He was the brilliant and rambunctious lawyer who worked on Nike's case against Onitsuka and turned into one of Knight's closest lieutenants – a fitting description as the two men appeared to share a slightly weird interest in battles and war strategy. It was part of the companionship that makes the Nike story so vivid, as described by Strasser's former wife, Julie Strasser, and her sister, Laurie Becklund, in “Swoosh, the unauthorized story of Nike and the men who played there.”
As Knight acknowledges, Strasser was “instrumental” in signing Michael Jordan and building up the Jordan brand, which “changed Nike.” But he adds that Jordan changed Strasser as well, leading to quarrels and Strasser's departure. “It may have been okay if he'd just quit,” Knight writes. “But he went to work for Adidas. An intolerable betrayal. I never forgave him.” The happy ending is that Knight recently hired Strasser's daughter, Avery.
Another captivating aspect of the story is the transformation of shoe production. One of the most important factors behind Nike's rise was its approach to source most of its products from Japan and then other Asian countries – much cheaper than Adidas production in Europe. Shoe Dog provides entertaining perspective into the start of Chinese sneaker production as we know it – and open frustration about the “sweatshop controversy.” Knight admits that he “often reacted with self-righteousness, petulance, anger” but he argues with some passion that Nike has improved the (working) lives of thousands of people.
Knight shies away from a few other topics that were quite certainly hurtful, such as the doping scandal around Lance Armstrong. The cyclist's name isn't even mentioned. He has warm words for other (former) Nike athletes, such as André Agassi or Tiger Woods. The golfer was the first to call Knight on the morning when it became known that his eldest son, Matthew, had died in a diving accident in El Salvador. Knight is candid about his sometimes uneasy relationship with Matthew, and the pain caused by his death. “I will not stand for a bad word spoken about Tiger in my presence,” he writes.
Apart from the comprehensive epilogue, Shoe Dog ends before the company goes public. It describes neither the process of going public, nor the ensuing changes in corporate approach. It doesn't delve into Knight's leadership as Nike turned into a multi-billion brand and entirely reshaped the global sports business, leaving many questions unanswered. It puts all the more emphasis on the entrepreneurial drive and camaraderie of the early days.
Knight certainly doesn't think he owes any of this to the supposed entrepreneurial spirit of America. He reckons that “free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to block, to thwart.” He also describes those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up as “charlatans.” But he does want to “publicly acknowledge the power of luck,” which could be called Tao, Dharma or many other things. “The harder you work, the better your Tao,” is one of the lines in Shoe Dog that most closely resemble advice to graduates about to start on their own stories.