Nike founder Phil Knight released his memoir today, chronicling the early days of the global athletic brand on the 50-year anniversary of his first partnership contract with his track coach, Bill Bowerman.
Upon his announcement that he was leaving his post as Nike’s chairman last year, Knight determined this was the right time to reveal, according to a CBS Sunday Morning interview, his “crazy idea” of a business plan for the company that started as Blue Ribbon Sports and would go on to become the biggest brand in sports.
"It was a crazy idea to the outside world, but it never really was to me," Knight told CBS’s Lee Cowan. "It was always a big hope."
Shoe Dog is a deep, first-person look into the ups and downs of the brand’s evolution, one that started in Eugene at the University of Oregon (UO) and was greatly influenced by the legendary Bowerman who, looking to find ways to gain a competitive advantage, often tore apart track shoes and reassembled them.
"He would make 'em out of goat skin, so there would be almost no form in the upper, and then he'd get a spike plate off another shoe and glue it on," Knight told Cowan. "They were pretty ugly, but they were light, and I was one of his guinea pigs, and that kind of planted a seed.”
From there, Knight created a strategy, as part of his Stanford University graduate work, on manufacturing running shoes in Japan, where labor was cheaper than the United States. He convinced a company, Onitsuka, Co., to let him distribute what were then called Tigers in the U.S. The legend began as Knight sold the shoes out of the trunk of his car.
Bowerman, whose name adorns the main entrance to the sprawling Beaverton, Oregon-based company was Knight’s first partner in the venture. Their initial investment? $1,000 (Nike posted sales of over $30bn last year). Bowman continued tinkering and eventually came up with the “waffle trainer” sole, created by pouring rubber on his wife’s waffle iron in 1971.
The brand gained momentum and numerous iconic moments took root. The “Swoosh” brand mark was created by Portland State University student Carolyn Davidson – for $35. Star runner Steve Prefontaine brought prominence to the Swoosh when he wore them in competition. “Just Do It” became legend. Michael Jordan signed for $250,000 to endorse the brand – then a huge amount – before stepping foot on the court. All these moments and many others heralded Nike’s path forward.
Risk was part of the journey, signing athletes who were gold, until reputations were tarnished.
"Sure. We like a little wackiness," Knight told Cowan. "We just don't want too much!”
Risk is a topic close to Knight’s heart and in the book, according to Susan Page of USA Today, he states that the U.S. may “be losing some of the entrepreneurial edge that propelled him and fueled Nike.”
"A little bit of a pessimistic cycle as far as the whole country, really," he told Page in a Capital Download interview. "Obviously, the economy has something to do with it. The wages have gone down. But there's a business cycle, too, and I think it affects the emotional cycle.” Despite the assessment, he is optimistic that the entrepreneurial cycle will return to the country.
Knight, one of the richest people in the world, and generally very private, has an estimated fortune, according to Forbes, of $26.4bn and has been very generous in a number of areas. He and his wife Penny have donated over $1bn to date, including a $500m pledge for cancer research (the Oregon State Health Sciences University Knight Cancer Institute in Portland) and $500m to Stanford University for the graduate school of business and a leadership program.
His alma mater, UO, has benefited greatly from his generosity, with gifts that have financed the Knight Library, the Knight Law Center (named after his father) and several endowed campus chairs. Additionally, Knight and his wife donated $100m found the UO Athletics Legacy Fund, which helped build the Matthew Knight Arena, in memory of his son, who died in 2004.
According to Knight, he will keep on giving, telling Cowan, “By the time, you know, the lives of my children and their kids run out, I will have given most of it to charity.”
Though he has sprinted past his day to day experience at the helm of Nike, another chapter in his life is being written — and his new memoir provides an interesting, compelling backdrop and insight into the mind and motivations of one of history’s most successful businesspeople.
Shoe Dog, published by Scribner, is available today.