“The cowards never started.
The weak died along the way.
That leaves us…”
Nike needs no introduction, and even less so to a committed runner like me. No autobiography has had so visceral an impact on me as its founder’s memoir, ‘Shoe Dog’ – in fact I do not usually read autobiographies – but this one I revisit every year since I first read it. These words I’ve quoted from Phil Knight’s book are just one of the many gems in a narrative that’s as inspiring as it’s brutally honest. It’s easy to sell hope, because people are willing to buy it. But being able to sell the truth is much harder – and it’s this honesty that made reading ‘Shoe Dog’ more like a stiff boost of inspiration rather than a simple unwinding session.
I usually imbibe and share learnings from books in the form of lessons, parables and phrases. But what ‘Shoe Dog’ has evoked in me was pure emotion; and for more reasons than just the fact that I connected with Phil Knight (and Nike) as a runner.
To start with, I have never felt more humble and grateful for being an entrepreneur than I did after reading the book. While most books on entrepreneurship compel me to look ahead, this one made me look back on my journey. It’s always invigorating to relive all the highs since I started my own practice, 17 years ago – something I did recently with a previous story on this space. But through Phil’s story, it was also uplifting to revisit all the lows I experienced since then. The way I will look at challenges – the ones that I have faced, and the ones I will encounter in the future – is going to be radically different from hereon. There were so many points which seemed like the end of Nike. But the way Phil transcended each of them by making the company and himself bigger than the challenge was heartening. In fact, it was so exciting to read about them that I cannot wait to face my next big challenge.
Another significant aspect of his story, where I deeply connected with him, is how refreshingly genuine Phil Knight is when he speaks of cultivating relationships along the way. Despite the many quirks to his personality, Phil Knight had a knack for spotting the right people who would resonate with his vision, while bringing in the diverse perspective indispensable to running a successful operation. He didn’t just cultivate team members, designers and suppliers – he formed relationships with the very athletes who endorsed Nike. To me, it’s evident that Phil Knight’s ultimate vision was never to build a vast, multinational shoe empire. It was to create the perfect tool to improve running. From Steve Prefontaine and John McEnroe to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan – every sports person that represented Nike shared a personal relationship with its founder. Nike’s brand endorsements thus came from an honest place, where the confidence of the makers was only matched by the faith of the end-users. Just this part of his relationship management made me a fan, but there’s more.
He consistently created opportunities for interactions between his own team members and masterminds, outside of a staid work environment. Initiatives like his ‘Buttfaces’ corporate retreat made for enriching conversations and collaborations that served to consolidate the relationships between people who shared his vision and would help build the Nike juggernaut.
Over and above the inspiring narrative, there was another crucial part in the book that renewed my passion for what I do for a living. At a particular point in the book, the Nike founder calls buildings ‘temples’.
For someone like me who reveres buildings and environments, and like Phil, believes that work is worship, this felt like the ultimate validation of my choice 17 years ago.
Phil Knight’s crazy idea proved to be a winning one in December 1980, when Nike was about to enter the 18th year of its founding. If you had invested $1000 in the IPO, you would be holding stock worth about $50 million today. Talk about confounding all the naysayers.
As I enter my 18th year as an entrepreneur, ‘Shoe Dog’ reinstates my faith in the path I have set out for myself and JTCPL Designs. As a runner, an entrepreneur and an architect, I found Phil Knight’s account to be a riveting one that has revived the fervour I had when I first started my journey with JTCPL Designs. I believe ‘Shoe Dog’ has something for everyone – whether you’re heading a publicly listed billion-dollar company or leading a start-up. More than anything else, the book makes a compelling argument for you to begin working on that “crazy idea” you’ve had for ages. I don’t think words are enough to capture the rigour with which I will be recommending this book. For one thing, it will have me reading some more autobiographies.