A Great Business Book in Disguise

Friday Book Review of Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Image of the book Shoe DogShoe Dog is an unusual book. It’s not quite a biography, covering a limited portion of Phil Knight’s life founding and running Nike. Nor is it a traditional business book, because it doesn’t foist bulleted lessons onto you. The best category for Knight’s book doesn’t exist: “Learn From My Experience.”

And what experience he has to share.

As the founder and longtime CEO of Nike, Knight presided over the explosive growth of a shoe and, later, full-featured athletics apparel company. Nike’s sales are now about $31 billion, but it all began in his childhood home in Oregon.

A gifted athlete, Knight earned a spot running under the famed University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, who experimented on ways to improve the spartan running shoes of the day. At one point, he used his wife’s waffle iron to make an interesting sole pattern with better grip. It later became a famous Nike shoe.

After earning a Stanford MBA, Knight wanted to see the world. He set off with a friend for Hawaii and later found his way to Japan, where he chased down the Japanese shoe maker Onitsuka. Back in Oregon, he partnered with Bowerman to found Blue Ribbon Sports and import Onitsuka’s Tiger running shoe for the United States market.

Nike’s Challenges

The most compelling part of the narrative, by far, is where Knight details the gritty realities of expanding Blue Ribbon Sports into what became Nike. He pulls no punches.

Nike faced a problem that most small business owners understand: it’s hard to finance your growth. Even when revenues are rising at a steady clip, financial institutions don’t always want to play ball. The way Knight innovated his way out of this, not without a bit of good luck that he admits to, will both inspire and frustrate the budding entrepreneur.

Another problem Nike faced, which I can relate to, is the threat of being shut down by government. Nike’s explosive growth led to competitors finding an obscure federal trade law governing the import of certain types of shoes. The resultant fine, threats, and legal actions that put Nike in jeopardy are explored in great detail. It sounds boring, but it’s fascinating.

I remember the fear of hearing about a proposed city ordinance that would’ve destroyed the business I’d just started at the time. I called every city councilman and staff person to make my case, testified at every meeting, and secured a crucial change to the ordinance in the end.

Winning a concession was never a sure thing for my business, and it wasn’t for Nike either.

The book also has many entertaining anecdotes. For instance, the name Nike came from a dream that one of the first employees had. It beat out other names that might never have sniffed the success the Nike brand enjoys today.

Knight also spends time meditating on matters of personal significance, such as the legacy of the late distance runner Steve Prefontaine. He was Nike’s first brand ambassador of sorts. His story and the other running-related nuggets are delightful to read, even if you’ve never run a mile in your life.

Why Shoe Dog Is Different

The book’s clarity distinguishes it. Books from business leaders sometimes contain flowery, airy language that aims to inspire but fails to be practical. Others, perhaps most, explain their successes, but avoid the dips.

In his honesty, Phil Knight refuses to sugarcoat the rough edges of growing a business. That’s why Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, a “biography” in most stores, is in fact one of the best business books I’ve ever read.

Question: What takeaways can we learn from Nike’s challenges? Leave a comment below!

At least two Fridays a month I post book reviews. I read non-fiction, such as economics, business, leadership, and biographies. I’ll mix it up from time to time also. If you want to suggest a book for me to read and review in the future, please leave it in the comments. Thank you.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Margaret Vigil

    Thank you for sharing your blog. You have made me want to review this book.

    • Jess Fields

      You’re quite welcome, Margaret. It’s a good one!