photo & text by nacrowe
its interesting to consider that all FORTUNE 500 companies began once as a startup. even a monolithic, globally dominant, seemingly omnipresent, iconic brand such as NIKE. as of 2020 the company is conservatively estimated to be worth $32 BILLION, but at one point it germinated as a "crazy idea" by STANFORD BUSINESS grad and former UNIVERSITY OF OREGON letterman long-distance runner PHIL KNIGHT. SHOE DOG (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2016) is his memoir and explains the uneven trajectory of NIKE from its inception to its public IPO in 1980.
at STANFORD a young KNIGHT developed a business plan for a self-described crazy idea of his that saw an opening for JAPAN to dominate the global footwear industry much as it had done with consumer electronics. this was due to heavy government subsidies that gave them an unmatched advantage in the global marketplace. KNIGHT thought that if he could become a stateside distributor for a major JAPANESE player than he could take on ADIDAS' dominance as the premier shoemaker. on a lark he went to JAPAN, having never traveled abroad and convinced ONITSUKA to let his "company" BLUE RIBBON SPORTS serve as a distributor. the name was made up on the spot during his meeting with them in KOBE.
long story short, KNIGHT and his assembled team of misfits did very well selling them stateside and built up their market over more than half a decade. this despite maxing out creditors and leveraging everything over and over again to promote growth. it was a slow rise with potentially deficits around the corner always set to sink the fledgling company.
at some point they had a suspicion and later learned that they were about to be cut out and replaced as ONITSUKA's distributor. the NIKE line of football cleats they initially made were meant as a hedging bet against losing ONITSUKA. the name NIKE, the SWOOSH and other legendary corporate iconography where made on the fly out of necessity in short order with no time to rethink such. that alone is quite stunning given how much image and the promotion of such thereof is synonymous with the brand. KNIGHT throughout the book consistently complains about advertising and doesnt see a need for it. again, just a staggeringly insightful comment given their famous brand identity and long-established mass market appeal promoted by one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time (its a real pity he doesnt get into how "JUST DO IT" came about, was looking forward to learning about that).
after lawsuits with various entities NIKE goes public and the next corporate phase begins. it is during that phase we have all the well known athlete tie-ins (MICHAEL JORDAN, TIGER WOODS, SERENA WILLIAMS, CRISTIANO RONALDO, KOBE BRYANT, MIA HAMM, ANDRE AGASSI, LEBRON JAMES, NEYMAR, SIMONE BILES, CARL LEWIS, KEVIN DURANT, JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, etc.) with the exception of running legend STEVE PREFONTAINE who was very much a part of the initial and identity of of the nascent company in its early development.
what i took from this memoir is the amount of continual sacrifice it takes to establish a viable company in a competitive field from scratch. learning about the early history of NIKE almost felt like the reading of a gambling addict, someone who routinely bet the house and survived. the perseverance and focus of KNIGHT is quite remarkable. i also learned that a brand identity can be far removed from the company itself, as few people in the early staff were able to run. in fact the major players, aside from KNIGHT, included the morbidly obese, chain smokers and even a paraplegic. what they shared was a vision and a faith in their leadership, a faith in KNIGHT that at times he did not share himself but willed himself through.
obviously there is the issue of outsourcing production to ASIA, specifically JAPAN then TAIWAN and later CHINA, which has dogged their corporate image over the years. KNIGHT does address such but through the lens of how the company has raised factory conditions from their previous levels of cleanliness and overall sanitariness. its a hard sell that i wasnt totally convinced of, partly having myself been to places like CAMBODIA where AMERICA companies employ textile factories that have subhuman working conditions. that argument falls on jaded ears im sorry to say.
my thought is that such is the limit of MARKET CAPITALISM, which beholds itself to the stockholder and the god of profit, not our better angels. despite how well intentioned his pronouncements of his familiarity with the precepts of BUDDHISM are throughout this memoir, it is as if he forget the basic tenet of RIGHT OCCUPATION. the idea being that it is a moral imperative to conduct work that does not cause others to suffer. just saying.
like i said before, this book is not the story of MICHAEL JORDAN or other famous endorsees of NIKE, it is about the early struggle of the company to survive. arguably that is a more interesting phase in the trajectory of its life as a firm. KNIGHT Is a gifted writer with many well-constructed running analogies for business concepts that i will remember and carry forward. if learning about what makes a company work and prosper and survive financial, political and competitive obstacles to flourish than this is a great book to consider. if you are interested in the history and evolution of footwear specifically, than this is probably not the book for you. the fact that they are selling shoes is largely inconsequential in the narrative presented outside of KNIGHT's appreciation for RUNNING and the similarities regarding the task-obsessed mentality of both an athlete and a business owner.
i thought it was a compelling story and look forward to seeing the film as it was recently optioned with participation from KNIGHT himself. should be an interesting biopic.
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