Rating – 5/5 stars
Overall – rapidly-paced and written in clear language, this book is a memorable and eye-opening story. It is a behind-the-scenes look at how one of today’s most omnipresent companies found success.
Look down at your feet. No, seriously. If you’re wearing sneakers, what brand are they? For me, the go-to brand is Nike. I don’t know why; it could as easily been New Balance or Puma, but maybe my subconscious self was attracted to the trademark swoosh.
Before I picked up Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, I thought that Nike was a staple. Instead of the staple crop in a diet, it was the staple shoe in a lifestyle for me. I thought it would always be around, and always had been, too. This memoir by the cofounder of Nike proved me wrong. And although I usually dislike being wrong, I made an exception for this book. It was simply too engaging to put down, and although that may seem cliche, I actually had to sit down and finish the thing in one sitting. Curse you and your underdog struggles, Phil Knight!
I may or may not have stolen this book from my dad’s library bin. I may have judged it by its cover: it’s colorful, it’s by an entrepreneur who founded a successful company, it’s thick enough to temporarily satiate my eternal quest for a good book. After Pride and Prejudice, this book was a piece of cake, length-wise. By the cofounder of Nike? Now that was a story I wanted to hear about. Although everything has a beginning, it had never occurred to me that my favorite shoe company had a rough beginning and a few hurdles in the journey to becoming a staple shoe and a gold standard for factory conditions.
This book was a heartfelt depiction of Nike’s humble beginnings while also becoming the reflections of a man on his mistakes and decisions. The story begins with a twentysomething Phil out on a morning run, pondering what to do with his life and the degree he has obtained from Stanford. Head back to school? Live out his days as the guy who never left home and mooch off his father’s financial support? Or . . . make something? Something that could make you feel, all the time, the way an athlete feels: to always be at play, not winning, not losing, but playing the game for the joy of it.
From this quest to recreate that exuberant feeling of energy, Nike was born. Mr. Knight reasoned that he should start small with something that he, a runner, was confident all athletes needed: good-quality shoes.
The memoir spans from 1962 to the present. It shows a before, before Nike, when all Phil Knight had was fifty dollars from his dad and a Crazy Idea. It shows an after, after the worst struggles were over, and Nike was secure as a successful shoe company. But the middle is what takes up most of the book. Year by year, Phil Knight chronicles how his life changed as his company—his third son, he calls it in the book—grew from an idea to a reality. Readers watch Nike’s evolution. The entire book reads like a story—the story of an underdog—and certain struggle-rife and pivotal moments pop out in Nike’s history: Knight visiting Japan for the first time and placing his first order of Tiger shoes at Onitsuka, Ltd. on behalf of Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon; as his power is slowly usurped by other United States sellers Onitsuka has underhandedly signed with; as he recruits Jeff Johnson, the aggressive salesman, Bob Woodell, the ultimate right-hand man, and many more to his dedicated team; as he faces a legal battle with Onitsuka, and finds a bank to provide financial support; and more. But this rawly honest book doesn’t shy away from the limelight as Knight himself is known for doing, it openly reveals all the decisions in which Knight toed the boundary between right and wrong for the survival of his company, like underhandedly signing a shoe deal with a Mexican factory and making up a company when placing the first order of Tiger shoes.
This riveting memoir shares heartwarming moments, too: how Knight met his wife while teaching at Portland State University; the fierce dedication of Knight’s former coach and cofounder, Bill Bowerman to creating a better anti-slip sole, inspired by a waffle iron; the pure pride in Knight’s father’s voice as he describes a cameraperson zooming in on the swoosh on an athlete’s sneakers; the almost paternal affection between Knight and Steve Prefontaine, track and field athlete and the ultimate Nike spokesperson; and many more.
Most importantly, this memoir describes the formation of Nike in a way no one other than the creator could. Knight’s tone throughout the book is that of playful humor, exemplified as he describes his fear of a several hundred-page book being only Part 1 of a series and how its title could be abbreviated fittingly as WASP. Knight can poke fun at his team of original employees (and himself) in a way no one else could get away with. How did the swoosh come to be created?: When Knight offered a broke art student a job designing a logo for his shoe company. How was the name Nike chosen?: When the intrepid Jeff Johnson, salesperson extraordinaire, woke up in the middle of the night, the name having come to him in a dream. No biographer could portray Knight as accurately as he portrays himself in this book, and no biographer could describe so well all the painstaking internal deliberation that preceded each decision, such as going public or choosing a brand name. What makes this memoir so special is the insight Knight offers at every turn in this journey.
Knight’s favorite saying is about Oregon: on the Oregon trail, the cowards never started, and the weak died along the way, leaving the people of Oregon, some special breed of human built to persevere and persist. Phil Knight has ridden on a roller coaster whle trying to make Nike everything it is today: some extremely high moments have occurred as well as some severely low points. In this deliciously intriguing, informative memoir, he allows step into the coaster car with him and experience his version of the events. Like the creators of real roller coasters, he doesn’t spare you the adversity because he knows you can handle it; all emotion is laid out in the open for readers to experience with him. From the story behind the swoosh and the reason for orange shoe boxes to the competition with German giants Puma and Adidas and the belief behind the brand, Phil Knight reveals all in the poignant tale of strength and sacrifice,all for the sake of all those people—maybe adults, but children at heart—who don’t want to win so much as long as they get to play the game.
Shoe Dog opened my eyes to the struggles of creating a thriving business and deepened my respect for those who fight to make what they believe in a reality. Nike was always my go-to shoe brand, but this book has given me a more in-depth reason for supporting it. If Phil Knight had been one of those people who never started, or maybe even quit along the way, there wouldn’t be a shoe company so dedicated to creating a lifestyle of play. This memoir was a riveting, eye-opening page-turner that’s a worthy addition to any shelf.