Nike Founder Phil Knight explains his Crazy Idea

phil-knight-memoir-shoe-dog, from scribner-thumb-autox750-16438I’m a sneakerhead. In English, that means that I collect trainers. I love the aesthetics of the shoes, but perhaps more so the dynamics of the collectibles market which Nike effectively created. Phil ‘Shoe Dog’ Knight’s book was therefore primed to be a great read and it didn’t disappoint. As the founder, former CEO and now Executive Chairman of Nike, he tells his story of taking the business from humble origins, through an IPO in 1980 and onto its current $30 billion market capitalisation. If you had invested $1,000 at IPO without reinvesting dividends, your investment would be worth $729,575 today, representing a CAGR of just over 20.7% (according to Investopedia and based on December 2015 share price).

The startup world is resplendent with so many buzzwords and methodologies that it can be easy to think that entrepreneurship is only a recent phenomenon. This book stands out as it tells the story of how, what is still widely regarded to be one of the most innovative companies in the world, started and grew out of the back of a van in the early 1970s. Phil Knight is a Stanford graduate, avid reader of the Classics and books about military strategy, and a natural introvert. He captures a wonderful story about what he calls his Crazy Idea and the determination and grit it takes to become successful beyond what he’d ever imagined. He also includes some wonderful accounts of the hustle and sometimes downright dirty tactics that it can take to overcome the odds: “you are remembered for the rules you break” is his mantra throughout the book. I’ve captured the best of the rest of his entrepreneurial wisdom below.

On his Crazy Idea:

“Like it or not, life is a game. Whoever denies that truth, whoever simply refuses to play, gets left on the sidelines, and I didn’t want that. More than anything, that was what I did not want. Which led me, as always, to my Crazy Idea. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I need to take one more look at my Crazy Idea. Maybe my Crazy Idea just might… work?

Maybe. No, no, I thought… It will work. By God I’ll make it work. No maybes about it”.

On fear of failure:

“Fear of failure, I thought, will never be our downfall as a company. Not that any of us thought we wouldn’t fail; in fact we had every expectation that we would. But when we did fail, we had faith that we’d do it fast, learn from it, and be better for it”.

On self-doubt, leadership and culture:

“If I had any doubt about Blue Ribbon’s [the early trading name of Nike] management team in 1976, they were mainly about me. Was I doing right by the Buttfaces [the affectionate name the senior management team gave themselves] giving them so little guidance? When they did well I’d shrug and deliver my highest praise: not bad. When they erred I’d yell for a minute or two, then shake it off. None of the Buttfaces felt the least bit threatened by me – was that a good thing? I worried. Maybe I should be more hands-on. Maybe we should be more structured. 

But then I’d think: whatever I’m doing, it must be working, because mutinies are few… No one had thrown a genuine tantrum, about anything, not even what they were paid… The Buttfaces knew I wasn’t paying myself much, and they trusted that I was paying them what I could. 

Clearly the Buttfaces liked the culture I’d created. I trusted them, wholly, and didn’t look over their shoulders, and that bred a powerful two way loyalty.  My management style wouldn’t have worked for people who wanted to be guided, every step, but this group found it liberating, empowering.  I let them be, let them do, let them make their own mistakes., because that’s how I’d always liked people to treat me”.

On building a business and being a businessman:

“It seems wrong to call it ‘business’. It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day bought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher.

In the late 1970s, I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted,  as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something,  when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is – you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully,  and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman”.

 You can buy Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike here  

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My name is Richard Hughes-Jones. I am a Coach, Consultant & Lecturer who works with entrepreneurs. My clients are CEOs and leadership teams of startup and scale up businesses. I am an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion and retained Consultant to the Centre for Fashion Enterprise.

I previously gained over a decade's experience as a Deloitte management consultant and HM Treasury civil servant. My full profile is on LinkedIn and you can also find me on Twitter. If you'd like to receive my book reviews you can sign up below.