Book Review - Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

I’ve just finished the audiobook of Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Here are quick stream of consciousness notes from what I can recall, while I still recall it.

  • The book is in two parts. Part One covers 1962-1975, telling the story of Knight’s journey post college wandering the world, then setting up Blue Ribbon Sports as an importer of Onitsuka Tigers, and ultimately the betrayal and founding of Nike.
  • Part Two covers 1975-1980, telling of Nike’s early and constant struggles with financing, manufacturing, competition, apparel, the law, and eventual IPO.
  • The closing chapter, Night, contrasts Knight’s tremendous financial success with personal tragedy.

I approached this simply to enjoy a great true story, nothing more. It’s an autobiography, more than a business textbook. It’s not designed to offer specific lessons, it just tells Knight’s side of the story. But he did turn an initial $500 investment into a $25 billion fortune, so of course there is a fascinating business story running through the entire book.

Favorite moments and anecdotes

  • Knight made the initial deal with Onitsuka not having even set up Blue Ribbon yet, he just made it up on the spot when asked.

  • The nervous early days of wiring money to Japan and waiting months for delivery of shoes, constantly late

  • meeting and dating Penny, his wife

  • telling about how important Steve “Pre” Prefontaine was to Blue Ribbon and how Pre’s death devastated everyone at the company

  • The love and then hate dance with Shoji Kitami from Onitsuka visiting the US planning to cheat on Blue Ribbon, the corporate espionage, and the betrayal that ultimately led to the parting of ways

  • The Nike name was literally a last minute idea - Knight almost went with “Dimension Six”, which EVERYBODY hated. He paid $35 for the logo.

  • Nike is the greek goddess of victory. Knight’s early brushes with this happened during the world tour of his youth. The obvious one was in Greece, visiting the Parthenon, however I appreciated more the second mention, when he encountered Winston Churchill’s ”Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech in London at the brink of World War 2:

    You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

  • They almost rejected the “Air soles” idea that eventually became the classic Air Jordans in 1985.

  • Their initial head of apparel had a terrible dress sense and it took Knight way, way too long to fire him.

  • Bob Woodell, the “fixer” and Nike’s first COO, seemed capable of doing anything - get you a Woodell in anything that you do!

  • The perverse abuse of obscure US Customs law by Nike competitors to try to destroy Nike with $25m in customs duties - the entirety of Nike annual sales at the time. Coopting the unilateral power of government as a competitive tactic particularly rankled me, for some reason.

  • You can hear Knight read an extremely abbreviated version of his story at the 2014 Stanford GSB commencement (including the US Customs story 13 minutes in). embed: {% youtube nRN9FwWQY8w %}

The Writing

It’s also just incredibly well written. I mean, just read this:

“Sept 7th, 1962. Carter and I piled into his battered old Chevy and drove at warp speed down I-5, through the Willamette Valley, out the wooded bottom of Oregon, which felt like plunging through the roots of a tree. We sped into the piney tip of California, up and over tall green mountain passes, then down, down, until long after midnight we swept into fog-cloaked San Francisco. For several days we stayed with some friends, sleeping on their floor, and then we swung by Stanford and fetched a few of Carter’s things out of storage. Finally we stopped at a liquor store and bought two discounted tickets on Standard Airlines to Honolulu. One-way, eighty bucks.

It felt like only minutes later that Carter and I were stepping onto the sandy tarmac of Oahu Airport. We wheeled and looked at the sky and thought: That is not the sky back home.

A line of beautiful girls came toward us. Soft-eyed, olive-skinned, barefoot, they had double-jointed hips, with which they twitched and swished their grass skirts in our faces. Carter and I looked at each other and slowly grinned.

We took a cab to Waikiki Beach and checked into a motel directly across the street from the sea. In one motion we dropped our bags and pulled on our swim trunks. Race you to the water!”

You could play the movie in your head.

The audiobook is competently narrated - I don’t have a lot of experience to judge this, but it’s a pleasant enough male voice and easy to follow.

Closing Thoughts

I briefly covered Nike’s stock in my hedge fund career, at the start of it’s big “direct to consumer” drive. I confess I never really understood the company - never understood American sneakerhead culture, never watched basketball, never knew how to evaluate the importance of Nike’s offline and then online retail operations. But I did know that Phil Knight is a phenomenal businessman.

In particular this book has been repeatedly mentioned (by the likes of no less than Bill Gates) as one of the best business autobiographies ever.

And so it is.

Tagged in: #reflections #review #business

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