Distance runner, backpacker, entrepreneur, leader, father, philanthropist – Phil Knight is, or has been, all of these, and his memoir Shoe Dog offers an honest and insightful depiction of his journey from college graduate to CEO of Nike. It’s the personal, human story of a man who’s deeply driven, plagued by doubts but utterly determined not to lose. It’s a potted history of one of the most famous brands in the world, from humble beginnings to vast multinational. It’s a fascinating journey through mid to late twentieth century America, and an inspiring (if occasionally terrifying) demonstration of how a business can maintain its values through thick and thin.
For anyone who grew up in the 80s or later, Nike is one of those instantly identifiable brands that lurks in the public consciousness as a global behemoth. Cut back to the 60s though and it was just the pipe dream of a young man from Oregon, and it’s fascinating to hear about Knight’s motivations for starting a business in the first place, then the ups and downs of getting things going, figuring out what he wanted to achieve and what he wanted his company to be. He learned the hard way without any guide or handbook, but in this book we get the privilege of the distilled wisdom of someone who’s had genuine success by virtue of perseverance and a dogged belief in sticking to his values.
Along the way Knight draws in events taking place in the wider world to give context to his story, from the changing public face of China to the ‘72 Munich Olympics. What this does is ground things in reality, demonstrating that what he was doing wasn’t in isolation, but rather in conjunction with what was happening elsewhere. It’s a potent reminder of how different the world was in the 60s and 70s, in so many ways – culturally, economically, technologically – and it helps the book to feel like a human, personal story as opposed to a dry biography or business book. He’s disarmingly honest with his flaws and the mistakes he made, even with his hazy recollections of certain events, which just reinforces how endearing this book is.
Knight tells the story of a flight to Taiwan that he spent passing on years of hard-fought insight into the East Asian markets to a colleague, remarking that “the best way to reinforce your knowledge of a subject is to share it”. That’s what this book feels like – a distillation of knowledge, from a natural storyteller. It’s inspiring stuff, and completely valid today – the importance of developing and maintaining an identity, of constantly re-evaluating and never resting on your laurels, of working with the right people, it’s all relevant. If you’re a sports fan then there’s probably even more to take from this, but you don’t need to be – as long as you’re interested in people, you’ll enjoy this.