This month’s CEO Book Recommendation is timely. It’s Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. With Nike once again in the news for reviving it’s iconic Just Do It marketing campaign, and once again having the guts to take a stand by having Colin Kaepernick as it’s spokesperson; it’s a good time to look at the amazing story of Phil Knight and Nike.
As many of you know, I love a good story, especially one that you can simultaneously learn from while being entertained. It makes the pages melt away quickly, but keeps the message and the meaning in the front of your brain. Shoe Dog does all that and more. It’s one of the better business autobiographies I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them).
Shoe Dog tells the story of Phil Knight’s life, of the creation of Nike and it’s early formative years. It’s an immensely enlightening story. Since I was young, Phil Knight was always on the Forbes 400 of the 400 wealthiest Americans. He has wealth beyond imagination. I assumed Nike was a straightforward success story. That’s the way it was always portrayed in the business press.
It was only reading his autobiography, Shoe Dog, that I learned just how dicey the Nike story was: how many times they went broke ordering product, how they regularly violated their loan covenants to overextend themselves, how many times Knight risked it all (and then some) to grow, how many not great deals they made, and how long it took to make Nike financially sound (hint: it’s well after they were a leading global brand). It is a flat out rollercoaster of financial risk-taking in search of brand creation. At times, Knight’s willingness to take just immense amounts of risk almost cost him and the company everything. He admits many mistakes in the book, and in doing so he really lets the reader see his character, and makes the story that much stronger.
It’s an illuminating lesson of how even with a very high rate of growth, risk doesn’t go away, and that to keep growing requires constant and continuous doubling down of risk-taking. And it continues even today at Nike even though Phil Knight is no longer the CEO and no longer runs day to day decision making at Nike. The recent decision to relaunch their most iconic ad campaign ever with Colin Kaepernick as it’s spokesperson continues the Nike/Knight tradition of taking risks in pursuit of what they want their culture and brand to be. The easy way out was to not use Colin. Just look on social media at the Mayor of Kenner, Louisiana’s proclamation forbidding City sports programs from buying Nike products. Or the noise on social media of people calling for Nike to be boycotted over their retaining and using Mr. Kaepernick as their spokesperson. But in true Nike fashion, the campaign is a true tour de force of exceptional marketing.
We shall see what happens, but the early reports shoes online order’s for Nike gear up 31% since the launch of the ad campaign last Thursday. Looks like Nike once again took a big entrepreneurial risk, and now stands to reap the rewards of taking that risk. While Phil Knight didn’t make that call, I’m sure somewhere he’s very happy that the company he founded and risked everything for follows the culture of risk-taking that he started with.
Enjoy Shoe Dog.