It is customary for me to do fun reading on the plane whenever flying for a holiday. By fun reading I mean leisurely, not work-related, not academic-studies-related good old fashioned fiction. There’s never enough time in the week to really dedicate solid hours to really immerse yourself into a story without being distracted by chores or some urgent work task, so I make sure when I’m going on holidays I start it off by doing fun reading on the plane to really switch gears. I’m also partial time and again to a good memoir or biography, and so I found myself opening Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight the creator of Nike, on my recent flight to Portugal. His retelling of the evolution of Nike is a true reminder of what it means to be an entrepreneur without all the glitz and glamour that the word has attributed to it today.
I don’t describe myself as an entrepreneur, I don’t believe I have the fearlessness that a true entrepreneur has. Although I know a little of what it means to be a business owner and certainly the challenges faced by one both operationally and personally. In reading Shoe Dog, there were some learnings and experiences Mr Nike describes that really resonated with me and I think would with other business owners whether they be in the startup phase or are already established businesses.
The first is around mental resilience and persistence. Everyone talks about how important it is to keep trying and not to give up (or at least not too quickly) when starting a business. Much less commentary is focused on the importance of nurturing mental resilience and having a healthy head space to enable the strength to persist. Nike started out as Blue Ribbon Sports and was all about importing Japanese running shoes into America. For a long part of the business, all Phil Knight really wanted was to be the exclusive distributor of Onitsuka Tiger running shoes in America. Throughout this process, countless set backs are experienced in his engagement with Onitsuka in Japan – from supply chain and funding difficulties to challenges in doing business with a Japanese Goliath whilst still a David. Remarkably in numerous situations Mr Nike and his Blue Ribbon enterprise run close to being insolvent however despite each challenge, Phil Knight persists. I can confidently say that if the one bank in town that was willing to lend me money in the first place told me it was cutting my line of credit and to take my business elsewhere, I would be ready to shut up shop and perhaps have a cry in a corner somewhere. That’s exactly what happened to Blue Ribbon, but here today we have the global behemoth that is Nike.
When you read about Uber, Whatsapp, SnapChat and the success stories of all those tech giants of today, it’s easy to forget that behind those success stories are equally a lot of failures, sleepless nights, spot fires and test after test of resilience. You need to develop a thick skin and resilience to endure all forms of rejection that you will no doubt face in being a business founder.
The second message I deduced from Phil Knight’s experiences, is that you hire first on temperament and then on skill. Mr Nike starts out as a one man show, however over time hires a few individuals he describes as “oddballs and misfits” – however these individuals all had a few things in common. First was an inherent passion for quality running shoes and growing the Blue Ribbon enterprise to bring Onitsuka running shoes to America. Second, quite simply, they appeared to get along with Mr Nike despite him admittedly not always doing the right thing by his staff. And thirdly they all had a good work ethic – each of those individuals worked tirelessly and made countless sacrifices for Phil Knight and his vision for Blue Ribbon. These are qualities in a team member or business partner that you cannot buy or attain by sending them on a training course. Hire first on these important qualities, and then train for any technical skills you need them to have.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, you have to believe in your product. Phil Knight was a runner when he first came up with the idea of importing Japanese running shoes. And back in 1970s America, running was not popular and marketed alongside en vogue active wear and Lorna Jane tights. He wanted good quality running shoes and there were not many options available to him. So he sought out a solution, knowing there was a market in other runners he knew of. When his partnership with Onitsuka started to dissipate, he embarked on developing and designing his own product. And thus Nike was born, through meticulous and obsessive research and development with his oddball team. Businesses both existing and starting should be minded to test the product or service you’re trying to sell against your own value sets. Would you use, buy, want the product or service personally? Continually test against your own belief in the product because I truly believe it is hard to have the passion to grow a business and its products if you personally cannot connect with the offering. We have to be shoe dogs in whatever industry we are trying to grow a business in.
Certainly these ideas around entrepreneurship are not roads untraveled. However Phil Knight’s memoir is written in such an honest and matter-a-fact way that throughout his journey I was reminded of the practical application of the above advice that we too often only hear and think about conceptually.