Required Reading: Shoe Dog and the Lessons From Business

“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen.” This quote sounds brutally honest, gritty, and harsh, which is exactly what Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight is. I loved this book and was sad when the journey was over. (Note: I listened to the Audible version of the book, narrated excellently by Norbert Leo Butz).

Everyone knows Nike, but I can’t imagine most know about Phil Knight, it’s founder. I didn’t, but the book appeared on many of the “Best Books on Business” lists out there on the internet. As it turns out, it is an excellent book on business — but not for reasons you would think. There is no section on starting a business, no textbook-like process of following steps to start then grow your own business to success. What Shoe Dog is is the life adventure of Knight and the day by day, year by year struggles of selling (and later manufacturing) shoes. It is a tale as full of wisdom as anything in the Bible or ancient myths.

Knight’s story is an inspiration for anyone who owns their own business (or is looking to do so). I catch myself thinking of the book and Knight as my business changes and grows. When I get stuck or frustrated at how things are going in my company, I think of Knight and the hardships he had to go through. At least I’m not constantly traveling to Asia.

I’ve done this Required Reading for Shoe Dog a little different than past Required Reading posts. I read (listened to) Shoe Dog at a pivotal time in my own business, and much of what Phil Knight wrote resonated with me in a profound way. I wasn’t just hearing the words, I was living them. So instead of listing 5 major takeaways from the book, I’m going to breakdown the ways Shoe Dog mirrors what I’m currently going through — and what anyone who wants to start their own business should know.

Seek a Calling

I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.

Starting, building, and maintaining a business takes an unlimited amount of focus and persistence. The casual observer of a business may think it’s easy, or the owner is talented or even just lucky. It’s easy to dismiss someone as “just lucky” when they have a successful business (or product, or app) but that’s because so much of the work and hardship is usually when you’re not being observed and never shared. This is why it’s important to seek a calling. You need that fuel, that bottomless reservoir of stamina and determination.

There’s been tough times. They’re usually wrapped in uncertainty and unpredictability. You never really know when they start or when they end, but you always know when you’re in them. If you know it’s your calling — that you’re the person to do this and no one else is going to do it as well — it keeps you going. I’m fortunate enough to have two business partners, and we’ve taken turns pulling each other up when one gets run down by the business or some element of it. For Phil Knight, it was mostly him — but he had a strong support group in his coach-turned-business-partner, his father, and later his wife. But it was his calling, the desire to bring quality and life-changing shoes to athletes, that kept him going.

The most important piece of the quote above is “disappointments will be fuel.” You must look at failures as a way to get better, to improve, to adjust and regroup. Too many people suffer a failure and it derails them. They lose focus. They want to give up and crawl away to something else. My business has had failures. We consult companies and schools for technology needs and custom solutions. Not ever job or client went perfectly. One of them was a disaster; several others almost were. My partners and I regrouped: “What went wrong? If we did it over, what would we change? How could we better prepare? What didn’t we know that we didn’t know?” If we didn’t have the calling to drive this business, any one of us could have given up at any time.

Take the hit. Get back up and do better next time. If you take two steps forward for every step back, you’ll still get there. With this comes the next section:

Fail Fast

“Starting my own business was the only thing that made life’s other risks—marriage, Vegas, alligator wrestling—seem like sure things. But my hope was that when I failed, if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years, to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.” 

Nothing has driven my company more than failure. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Only if you look at failure as a bad thing. When we started out, we had knowledge — technical, sales, and legal (each partner bringing one to the table) — but we didn’t have much else. Failing at everything else made us realize what was needed to succeed at our business. We didn’t have paperwork; we didn’t have standard operating procedures; we didn’t have even a real Mission Statement. We knew what we could do, and we knew there were people and businesses that needed it.

Phil Knight aimed to fail fast. Shoe design doesn’t work? Find out as quick as possible and change it. Japanese shoe factory can’t meet demand or is cutting corners? Fine, but find out quickly. If you fail fast, you succeed sooner. Imagine it this way: If you spend a year working on something only to find out it’s a failure, you’ve lost a year. Sure, you learned a great bit from the failure itself, but imagine if the failure happened much sooner.

It is true what he says about business making everything else in life feel like sure things. Having your own business is a risk. The risk goes the larger the business gets. My company recently hired its first full time employees. That means we’re growing, but the risk is that much greater: it’s not just the owners anymore, we’re responsible for five people and their livelihood. The revenue must come in to maintain these employees, let alone hire more in the future.

No Finish Line

“For that matter, few ideas are as crazy as my favorite thing, running. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed. When you run around an oval track, or down an empty road, you have no real destination. At least, none that can fully justify the effort. The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not just that there’s no finish line; it’s that you define the finish line. Whatever pleasures or gains you derive from the act of running, you must find them within. It’s all in how you frame it, how you sell it to yourself.” 

For Knight, running and business go hand-in-hand. This, of course, works on two levels as his business was running shoes (before branching out into other sports). Both are about pushing yourself, finding your own way to measure success, and come to the conclusion there is no real destination.

Why start a business? To become rich? Does that make money the measure of success? Or is it to make life better for others. How many others? How many bettered people would be considered a success? From day one, my business partners and I never discussed what would we considered success. But that’s okay, it didn’t stop us. But looking at it now, what would I consider ‘successful?’ For awhile it was yearly gross profit. That was a way to measure (and how most businesses measure) relative success. Was this year more profitable than last? But now success is measured in other ways to us. We have employees. We couldn’t do that if we weren’t growing; if we’re not growing than we must not be successful.

For a portion of Shoe Dog, Knight measured his success (and relayed it to others) by the number of pairs of shoes he sold. First hundreds, then thousands, eventually millions of running shoes sold first out of the trunk of his car later in company stores. But eventually, that huge number became irrelevant. He used it to try and secure more loans from the bank to keep his business going — buying more inventory and paying employees. But the numbers stopped mattering to the bank to extend his credit line. I believe Knight later found his measurement of success in the athletes he provided for. He speaks proudly of seeing Nike shoes at the Olympics for the first time — worn by American athletes winning medals in running and track and field. To him, success was taking care of these athletes by providing superior shoe design and material.

We recently experienced something similar as we worked to get a payroll loan from the bank for our new employees. We have just received the largest contract ever (by far) from a new, Fortune 500 level client. The contract is used as unsecured collateral in order to receive a line of credit from the bank for our brand new employees. To us, this contract was our measurement of success. To the bank, much like Knight, it doesn’t mean much. Also like Knight’s shoe business, we were only given barely enough to cover. While we saw our new contract as success, the bank clearly didn’t think much of it.

I don’t know if I have a finish line. Maybe I haven’t defined mine yet. Maybe it’s too early to see it. With my business, I’m somewhere in the middle of the race just trying to lead the pack. I’m not worried about it, the important thing now is to keep pushing. Our interim finish line is to provide this new client the best possible service and let the chips fall where they may.

Redefining ‘Winning’

“It seems wrong to call it “business”. It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher–and none of us wavered in the belief that “stakes” didn’t mean “money”. For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for use business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living–and at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great business do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the life of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is–you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping other to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.” 

I founded my business out of the needs of others. The kernel of my business idea was planted by my former job at Apple — hours, days behind the Genius Bar working with customers who weren’t able to get their needs addressed by the company. Particularly professions and businesses who were unable to bring their problems into the store. From there I convinced others that there was a need in this market, and I had the ability to fill it.

I’m proud my company was founded on solving the needs of others. Nobility aside, it proves of our right to exist. We meet a need that wasn’t being solved by others. Regardless of the size of the business, the need remains the same.

There’s something else above Knight’s quote above and Shoe Dog itself. Business is not glorious. Glory can be a component, an aspect of achievements earned by the business. But it’s mostly inglorious work. It’s bookkeeping, taking notes and making lists. Paying bills and contractors and employees. Knight’s allegory is correct: a business is very much like the inner workers of the human body, it never stops. Cash is merely part of that system; money goes in, money goes out. It’s these processes that keep the business moving to fill a need.

They say entrepreneurs learn to love the process. I think you have to or else you’ll never make it. If it’s all about the money, and you’re just waiting for the next payday, you’ll begin to lapse on the inglorious work. Things won’t get done or will slip. The business will break down.

There’s a tremendous more to Knight’s book than just his philosophy of business. The book itself is an experience from Knight’s adventures around the world (such as climbing Japan’s mount Fuji or seeing the Temple of Athena Nike in Greece), how a business goes from idea to full fledged movement, and the life of a runner in search of the perfect shoe. The book contains philosophies of life, quasi-mysticism of the business world, and just what never giving up can truly bring.

I miss this book. I loved listening to it and following Knight’s adventure. I was sad when it was over and it’s one of the few books I’ve read or listened to that gave a sense of true fulfillment. I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you’re thinking of going into business or even just looking for some guidance.

I think I’ll start it over again today.

Click this link to check out the book on Amazon. If you purchase it, it doesn’t cost any extra but I get a few cents from Amazon! You can also click on the image of the book all the way back at the top of this post to do the same.

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