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.

Required Reading: The Third Door

“Many times the hardest part about achieving a dream isn’t actually achieving it—it’s stepping through your fear of the unknown when you don’t have a plan. Having a teacher or boss tell you what to do makes life a lot easier. But nobody achieves a dream from the comfort of certainty.”

Alex Banayan

To prepare for this post, I looked through reviews of Alex Banayan’s The Third Door and was surprised to see such mixed responses. In fact, there are people who go so far as to give it one star and remark that it’s “a waste of time.” They also accuse Banayan of egotism and name-dropping, of the book being a self-serving tale about nothing.

I believe these reviewers are missing the point of the book.

What I got out of it was that this was a book about failure. I’ve never read a book that exhibited the power and need for failure. Failure is as important in life as success, but the human condition seems to want to shun and dismiss failure. Look as social media: people don’t post their failures and screw-ups. It’s all about what works, what’s successful, and the rewards. I thought it was novel for Banayan to document his journey to interview the biggest names in tech, finance, Hollywood, and popular culture. He didn’t do it to become famous, he did it to find out their paths to success and share it with the world.

He struggled mightily along the way. If he hadn’t shared the journey, the book would have been like so many other “self-help” or “steps to success” books out there. Banayan would have been another Tim Ferriss clone. But instead, Banayan takes us on the journey from dream to reality, fumbling and failing all the way. Some might have considered a lot of what Banayan shared as embarrassing or personal. But that’s what makes the book so important.

I first became aware of Alex Banayan and The Third Door in an interview I saw he did with Tim Bilyeu. He told the story of how Steven Spielberg made his own way into Hollywood, slipping off a Universal tour bus and wandering around the studio before finally making a connection. The “Third Door” refers to finding a backdoor into the world you want to break into. There’s the front door, where most get turned away. There’s the VIP door, where some people use connections to the industry or are born into it through family or wealth. The Third Door is making your own way, finding some passage that no one else has. Spielberg’s Third Door was sneaking into the Universal lot.

In the format of my past “Required Readings,” here’s the 5 biggest takeaways from The Third Door:

#1. Being Persistent is Not Being a Hassle

“You’ve got to stay in the fight. It’s going to get tough. You’re going to hear no. But you’ve got to keep pushing.”

When Banayan first started out, one of his big targets to interview was Tim Ferriss, author of Tools of Titans and (more famously) The Four Hour Workweek. Banayan would badger the hell out of Ferriss via email, always starting the correspondence off with “Hey Tim!” and ending with “Thanks in Advance!” The emails got cringeworthy. Banayan believed Ferriss would see the persistence and finally respond. The problem was, Banayan was being a hassle, writing crappily-written emails and testing Ferriss. Banayan thought the emails sounded warm and cordial. Ferriss thought they were annoying and slobbish.

Banayan finally got a response after sending 31 emails. A phone call was arranged and Ferriss proceeded to explain to Banayan the difference between being persistent and being a hassle. Ferriss was persistent but “balanced.” He never emailed ten times per week; he never ended emails with “Thanks in advance!” because it sounded rude and entitled. Ferriss suggestion something cordial like “I totally understand if you don’t have time to respond.” Throughout the phone call, Ferriss also subtly (but not so subtly) hinted to Banayan to stop saying “Hey so and so!” in emails as well.

By the end of their discussion, Banayan had learned from Ferriss the proper way to send an unsolicited email while looking for a response (and you can find it on page 50 of The Third Door).

#2. Style Comes From Being Yourself

“Sometimes when people are starting out and feel they don’t know how to interview, they look to the people they admire—maybe it’s Barbara Walters or Oprah or myself—and they see how we interview and they try to copy that. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. You’re focused on what we’re doing, not why we’re doing it….When young interviewers try to copy our styles, they’re not thinking about why we have these styles. The reason why is because these are the styles that make us the most comfortable in our seats. And when we are the most comfortable in our seats, our guests are the most comfortable in their seats—and that’s what makes for the best interviews.The secret is: there is no secret,’ Larry added. ‘There’s no trick to being yourself.”

Alex Bunayan ran into Larry King in a grocery store. It sounds ridiculous, but much of The Third Door is and right from the get go (starting with the crazy Price it Right story, which I’ll get to later). After some persistence, Banayan was invited to have breakfast with King on several occasions, eventually meeting King’s personal circle of friends with whom he had regular breakfast meetings.

The quote from Larry King above illustrates the takeaway. It’s important to be yourself. Being yourself is what makes you comfortable, and being comfortable brings out your style. This rings true to me, because I see so many other filmmakers and writers try to emulate someone famous’ style. This makes them a copy, a clone, and, most importantly, nothing new. If I want to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, I’ll go watch something Quentin Tarantino made. I don’t want to watch someone else make their Tarantino movie. When you try to emulate someone else or their style, you’re never comfortable because you’re not being yourself. Because of this, I could see why so many amateur interviews are so shitty or awkward for those being interviewed.

If you don’t believe me, surf YouTube for celebrity interviews and I guarantee you’ll find some cringe.

If you’re active in the arts, people will always try to find or ask you about your ‘style.’ How do you like to do things? What do you like to convey? What’s your vision? I’m proud to say as a filmmaker that I have no fucking clue what my style is. And maybe that makes it my style. Ask a painter, or a writer, or a filmmaker what their style is and 9 out of 10 times they’ll start naming other painters, writers, or filmmakers.

#3. Failure Leads to Growth

Growth comes from mistakes. You have to cherish them, so you can learn from them. Your mistakes are your greatest gift.”

As mentioned above, the theme I saw in the book was ‘failure.’ Banayan shared his and his mistakes, but never came out and said “failing made me better.” Instead, you could SEE it happening through the course of the book. Tim Ferriss gave him criticism on how he wrote emails, so Banayan began writing more professional emails. He made more inroads to other interviews.

Near the end of the book you could see how much he’d grown. Early interviews were stilted and awkward — as if reading questions from a notecard. By the end, when he interviews rapper Pitbull and Jessica Alba you can see he’s changed. The Alba interview in particular was the moment I saw he had arrived. Banayan was genuinely interested in what Alba was doing with her business and they eventually connected over the loss of a loved one due to cancer (Banayan’s father died during the writing of his book). After so many chapters of interviewees being held up on a pedestal or Banayan struggling to get certain information for his book, it was nice to see that Larry King’s advice on interviewing had stuck.

The unstated lesson from The Third Door is you NEED to fail. “You can’t get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F,” he says. If he hadn’t failed repeatedly, he wouldn’t have pushed himself creatively and found ways to get interviews with Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Tony Hsieh, or get Warren Buffet to answer a few questions. (This last one was the result of a clever ruse using three of his friends strategically at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder’s meeting, placing them in various sections where microphones were placed to ask Buffet and Charlie Munger questions.)

#4. Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way OR: How I Learned to Hack The Price is Right

The book opens with a bang. Banayan decides his dream mission is to cultivate interviews from some of the most successful people in the world. He just needs the money to do so. After seeing that USC (where Banayan attended college) had tickets available for The Price is Right, Banayan decided that was his chance to earn his project’s funding.

The only problem was, Banayan had no idea how to play the game.

Instead of studying for finals, he studied up on how to ‘hack’ the gameshow. Banayan found there were patterns to being selected from the audience, namely by outrageous and eccentric behavior that caught the eye of the producer. The producer would then put the person’s name up for being called out of the audience, ensuring an eventful episode of the show. He dressed extravagantly, acted over-the-top (hugging janitors and making scenes), and caught he producer’s eye. When he eventually got in front of Drew Carey to play, he had to ask the audience what to do.

I couldn’t believe the story was real at first. It seemed to extraordinary. A person who didn’t even know how to play the game, who needed money to chase his dream, won over $30,000 in prizes on The Price is Right. But that’s exactly what happened. Banayan found an opportunity and did what he needed to to make the most of it. He didn’t let a small detail like knowing the rules stop him!

#5. Linear Life vs Exponential Life

This one speaks for itself. If you read this blog, you’re not looking for a “linear life.”

“You see, most people live a linear life…They go to college, get an internship, graduate, land a job, get a promotion, save up for a vacation each year, work toward their next promotion, and they just do that their whole lives. Their lives move step by step, slowly and predictably…But successful people don’t buy into that model. They opt into an exponential life. Rather than going step by step, they skip steps. People say that you first need to ‘pay your dues’ and get years of experience before you can go out on your own and get what you truly want. Society feeds us this lie that you need to do x, y, and before you can achieve your dream. It’s bullshit. The only person whose permission you need to live an exponential life is your own…Sometimes an exponential life lands in your lap, like with a child prodigy. But most of the time, for people like you and me, we have to seize it for ourselves. If you actually want to make a difference in the world, if you want to live a life of inspiration, adventure, and wild success —you need to grab on to that exponential life—and hold on to it with all you’ve got.”

In other words, life is what you make of it. If you want something you have to work for it. Here’s another quote from ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, whom Banayan interviews in Leonard’s California Mansion:

“You may have the heart—you keep fighting, you keep fighting, you keep fighting—but your mind is saying, ‘Man, forget this. I don’t need this.’ The head and the heart aren’t going together; but they have to go together. It all has to connect. Everything has to connect to reach that level, that pinnacle…You may have a desire, a wish, a dream—but it’s got to be more than that—you’ve got to want it to the point that it hurts. Most people never reach that point. They never tap into what I call the Hidden Reservoir, your hidden reserve of strength. We all have it. When they say a mother lifted up a car off a trapped child, that’s that power.”

If you’ve ever had a dream or you’ve ever been discouraged by “how difficult” chasing your dream is, then The Third Door is for you. It’s not going to tell you how to be rich. It’s not going to gameplay how to quit your job or become famous. It will remind you that it’s okay to fail, that you should fail, and by failing you grow and get better. Remember, Alex Banayan was just an 18-year-old student a USC before he got to sit down with some of the biggest names on the way to writing his dream book. He found his way and you can to.

Pick up a copy of The Third Door by clicking this link or the image of the book below!