Book ClubMarketing

What I Learned from Nike

Recently, I finished Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight. Admittedly, this wasn’t a book I picked up on my own. My idea of Nike is the billion-dollar-plus company with thousands of employees that sells shoes some people never wear but keep pristine in a display case. I’m a solo attorney helping people break up for the better. I thought, “What could I possibly learn from reading about Nike?” It felt like we were worlds apart.

After hearing several people recommend Shoe Dog, though, I put my assumptions aside and gave it a shot. Although a little slow-going at times, the book is fantastic. It’s not about Nike today, but about its humble beginnings when it was still called Blue Ribbon. It’s about Phil Knight and his love of shoes, which he sold out of the trunk of his car to the tune of $8,000 in the company’s first year. It’s about struggle and triumph and the decades-long journey that leads to the ‘overnight success’.

The book itself ends just as Nike really begins to take off. Knight spends a few pages talking about the 1990s through 2007 when he stepped down as CEO, but it’s not the focus of the book. The book is about how it all began. As a fellow entrepreneur, it was like trading wartime stories. There were so many great lessons, but these were the top 5 I took away in my own practice as a lawyer.

When in doubt, go for a run. As you can imagine, Phil Knight was a runner. Growing up in Oregon, he ran for one of the best track and field coaches, Bill Bowerman, who ended up becoming Knight’s co-founder in the company. Despite leaving his competitive track-and-field days behind him, Knight never gave up the sacrament of running. As he describes, anytime he faced a big decision or received a big blow to the company’s progress, he simply wrote, “I went for a six-mile run.” In that ritual, his mind cleared and he refocused. While I’m not running six miles (yet!), I know the power of a good run or any other type of movement. It’s so simple, yet so profound. Reading Shoe Dog was a reminder that when I’m stuck in it – when my head is filled with arguments, to-do lists, and snarky opposing counsel – the best thing I can do is get away. Lace up my shoes, get out of my head, and move my body.

Do the right thing, even when it’s easier not to. It’s really amazing Nike is where it is today considering all the challenges its founder faced. But for knowing how the story ends, there were several times I thought the next page was where he was going to say, “And that, folks, is when we closed our doors.” Even in the face of what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, I was amazed that Phil Knight always chose to do the right thing, even when the right thing was the option that came with the most risk to his business. His unwavering integrity is something to be admired and one I aspire to live up to.

Be loyal to your people. Along with Coach Bowerman, some of Phil Knight’s earliest employees remained at Nike for decades, even when things were a bit rocky (remember those insurmountable obstacles?). Just like Knight approached decisions with integrity, he always looked out for his people. He was loyal no matter what. He trusted his team – even when they had crazy ideas like calling the company Nike – and gave them incredible responsibility. He knew it wasn’t a one-man show. Even for us solo-preneurs, we have a team that supports us. For me, that’s my family, my business partner Jess, colleagues, and friends. In a world that’s built on instant gratification and get-rich/famous/successful-quick schemes, having those ride-or-die people around you is everything. Shoe Dog reminded me to keep them close and make sure they know I couldn’t do this without them.

Fiercely protect your mission. Because Phil Knight was a runner and Coach Bowerman was one of the best running coaches ever, they knew what to look for in a running shoe. Before they came along, not much attention was paid to the details. Athletic shoes were general. They weren’t customized for the athlete or their sport. Knight and Bowerman wanted to change that. They obsessed over the details of their shoes. The bottom sole, mid-sole, top sole, thickness, material, laces, heal shape, width. They’d make a minor adjustment and try it out. Got real-time feedback from their target market: other runners. If something wasn’t just right, they went back to the drawing board. (Bowerman famously ruined a number of waffle makers in perfecting his waffle trainer.) Above all else, they wanted their shoes to be quality, and quality was in the details. No matter how many shoes they sold or how big the company got, they never lost sight of that mission. Being a fish in the big legal pod, I find it’s easy to look over and see what the next guy’s doing. Should do that too? In the day-to-day, I lose sight of why I started the practice: to provide quality legal services at an affordable price. Reading Shoe Dog reminded me that nothing else matters if I’m not doing that, so stay focused and protect that mission above all else.

Don’t be afraid to start small. Phil Knight started Nike with a $50 loan from his dad in 1963. Fifty dollars! The warehouse was his bedroom, and he sold shoes out of the trunk of his car. While these very humble beginnings didn’t last forever, Nike wasn’t Nike for a few decades. Today, it’s so easy to see success and think it happened quickly. We don’t often see the years-long grind. The ups and the way-downs. The near misses and the depleting bank accounts. This shift in perspective for me – seeing Nike not as a billion-dollar company but as a guy selling shoes because he loves them – was my favorite part about the book. It reminded me that it’s ok to start small. The best ones usually do.

If you’re looking for an unlikely source of inspiration, consider reading Shoe Dog. I can firmly say the recommendations were spot on.

What’s a lesson you recently learned from an unlikely place?