I just finished reading “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE” by Phil Knight.  This is the second review from my list of 10 Nonfiction Books I Want to Read in 2024.  It is already April, so I’m a little behind with my writing, but I have already read four of the titles.  

     I wrote the following in the article referenced above: “I have heard several people mention this as their favorite business book.  While I wonder if I’ll get any actionable information from the book, the story of Nike’s founding and growth should be inspirational.”  Knight’s memoir lived up to my expectations as a compelling read long on story but short on business details.  This is a book written for the masses, not for business junkies.  

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How You Do Anything

 

     Knight, as it turns out, is an exceptional writer.  Based on the pacing and prose, you would assume this book was co- or ghost-written.  I believe this teaches us a lesson about Phil Knight, who became a multi-billionaire by building one of the world’s most recognizable brands.   The phrase how you do anything is how you do everything immediately came to mind.  Apparently, Phil Knight takes anything he does very seriously.      

     The acknowledgments section of Shoe Dog intimates that Knight attended graduate-level writing courses at Stanford University before attempting this book.  He thanked several authors, poets, and sportswriters for helping him during the book’s numerous drafts.  In short, he collected a dream team of writers and writing educators to assist him and took his time to ensure a polished finished product.  

The Story

     Shoe Dog begins with the author’s trip around the world as a young man, which influenced him heavily throughout his life and career.  He was a middle-distance runner on the University of Oregon Track & Field team, creating a lifelong obsession with athletic shoes, and a lifelong friendship with his track coach who happened to be famous in the running community and an inventor of shoe technology.  Partnering with his legendary coach, Knight began selling Japanese running shoes in the Pacific Northwest.  After substantially growing this early version of this company, he was forced to create his own shoe brand, NIKE.  Eventually, he developed a worldwide production and distribution network.  He scraped, scrapped, borrowed, lied, litigated, and worked to make NIKE a hundred-billion-dollar company.  


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What Shoe Dog Isn’t

     As predicted, Shoe Dog is short on business advice.  It is an entertaining story written for a broad audience.  There are no specific business details easily gleaned from the book.  There is inspiration aplenty, as Knight goes all-in on many occasions, living for years on the brink of bankruptcy and financial disaster.  He paints a picture of focus, obsession, and risk.  

     Knight writes effusively about NIKE’s culture, how he is worried it will change if they go public, and how important it was to the company’s growth and eventual global domination.  However, I never got a feel for what that culture is.  In fact, it seems that Knight himself had a difficult time explaining it.  He described a culture of “winning” or “not losing,” but his description of his colleagues made the environment sound more like a frantic frat house.  I would have liked a little more examination into exactly what made NIKE’s culture unique.  

     Shoe Dog isn’t the source material for the 2023 movie Air, which is about NIKE’s signing of Michael Jordan and the launch of the Air Jordan shoe, which catapulted the company into the stratosphere.  The events of the book take place before 1984, the year Jordan signed with NIKE.  Jordan is only mentioned briefly in the last chapter.  

     The book also isn’t a particularly flattering portrayal of Knight.  I appreciate the author’s candor concerning his shortcomings as a leader and father.  I believe it would be disingenuous for a billionaire who spent 40 years building a company to claim also to be a great family man.  Knight is unapologetic.  He often writes that he would happily retake the NIKE journey without remorse for his perceived deficiencies as a father.       

Business Lessons Learned 

     I try to take away what I can from any book I read.  While I found NIKE’s story interesting and Knight’s ambition inspiring, these were my business takeaways.

The Product

     Of all the challenges Knight faced building NIKE, selling the shoes didn’t seem to be one of them.  He began by selling moderate-quality Japanese shoes below his competitor’s price and morphed into setting the market price by selling a desirable, high-quality product.  He had problems raising capital, procuring inventory, managing cash flow, and securing financing for growth.  He never seemed to have a problem selling the shoes, though.  Sales shouldn’t be your business’ bottleneck if you have the right product at the right price.  

The Market

     When Knight began his company in the 1960s, he believed there was a large, untapped market for his initial product, running shoes.  Running was not a popular amateur activity like today, but Knight, an avid runner, believed it would be.  He caught a rising wave of increased interest in recreational athletics and a more casual attitude toward dressing in general.  The book specifically points out when Knight realized people were starting to wear athletic shoes as part of their daily wardrobe.  Having the right product in the right market makes any business’s success easier.   

   

The Obsession 

     The book’s title is not simply the slick marketing for which NIKE has become famous.  According to the book, “Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes.”  They have apparently existed throughout history and in nearly every culture.  Phil Knight has fashioned himself into the world’s alpha shoe dog with NIKE.  The central theme of the book for me was one of obsession.  He became obsessed with shoes and their design, materials, manufacturing, and sale.  And he surrounded himself with other similarly obsessed individuals.      

     I considered Hiring, or Personnel, as one of the book’s themes, as Knight seemed to have a knack for hiring the right people.  However, the early team he assembled is portrayed as a motley crew of flawed, mostly unathletic alcoholics and workaholics obsessed with growing his company.  I ultimately decided it was the last part that mattered: the obsession with growth.  It is hard to fail if you can assemble a team focused not on the individual but on your company’s goal.  

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Conclusion 

     I do not consider Shoe Dog a good business book, but instead a good book about business.  It is well-written and engaging, the kind that keeps you up past your bedtime.  I read the book in about a week despite working shifts in the ER.  I was eager to keep turning the pages.  

     I recommend the book to those who like to read about business and who are interested in the growth of an iconic American company.  While inspirational, there was no rags-to-riches story, no tale of overcoming tragic personal circumstances.  What there was in spades was boldness, perseverance, luck, and lots of hard work.  You will not learn how to run a business from reading this book, not even a shoe business.  However, you might be inspired to start your own small enterprise.  If so, check out My Top 10 Business Book Recommendations For New Business Owners.  

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