Shoe Dog – best business book of the year!

I remember a month or more back being in Kinokuniya with my kids on a book hunt and bumping into Vishal, 500 Startups (congrats on Kaufman BTW), while I was in line asking about a book I could not find. At the counter there was Shoe Dog by Phil Knight and I recall Vishal commenting on how good it was. I told him I would borrow his book when he was done with it. I think since then he has been on the road so I never did borrow that book.

This last month I have been in the states and during a camping trip through Oregon, our family stopped into a huge bookstore (forgot the name but it was awesome), and I saw Shoe Dog staring me down again. Given that the history of Nike centers around Oregon, I figured it only made sense to pick it up there and finally school myself in all things Nike. Wow. What a read.

I generally don’t love reading business books for some reason and although this is not really a business book – it really is one of the best business books I have read in a long time. I had no idea about the origin story of Nike, how it started with Onitsuka Tiger’s (which I love), how close it was to failing all the time, and the type of culture Phil created from day one – even if by accident. There are a ton of lessons in the book, so many that I almost think I need to read it again and take notes.

There was some stuff that really stood out though – the one thing that really impressed me was how Nike was somehow global in thinking from day one. They sought to manufacture overseas from the beginning and were one of the first big corporations to enter China. Phil always loved to travel and experience culture and he used this to get close to other leading figures in target nations to create a bond that could go the distance in business and in friendship. I was severely touched at the end when he recounts the small trips he would share or the private dinners at the houses of certain luminaries – Phil believes in treating people well and it obviously made a huge difference. Of course he also attributes success to some amount of luck or whatever word you prefer. Mine is karma. I believe what goes around comes around. Be kind.

It’s also humbling to see the many legal battles, financial issues and even the battle with his own government as the many hills a startup will climb on their way to making it. The sheer grit and determination is something that I think is missing in today’s tech startup world in some cases – although not all, but I feel that in today’s world we have replaced grit with just cutting corners, skirting the law, hacking or putting others down as a means to gain success. I am not trying to make an across the board comparison but I do think there are ways to get ahead or preservere while being good to your company and respectful of the competition. Not saying Phil is perfect in this regard but he is honest and the parts where he recounts coming to terms with being a sweat shop and how that transformed Nike is a gripping self assessment about how Nike can be a force for good or evil.

The biggest impact though has to be the thread that winds throughout the book discussing the core Nike team and the culture. On this subject I find the book to be a refreshing wakeup call. Phil obviously is a born leader and he made sure he lead and empowered his core team to do their part. One can look at all sorts of amazing leaders and their techniques but it is hard to argue with the success of companies where their leader knows how to hire great people and clear the decks for them to do great work. This core tenant can be practiced at virtually any company of any size. This is coupled with a culture of no bullshit – making sure there are forums for leaders to express themselves, debate and decide is also critical. Then to cap it off there is time set aside to have a beer, chat and further debate stuff that appears to have no easy answer. However you enable it – having some sanctioned down time where leaders get together to be normal and try to sort things out can be very healthy. Beer Friday, a bbq or whatever works to facilitate this – each to his own for how to make it happen.

This culture extends past the company though and into the partners, the suppliers and the customers. It was easy for this thread to touch me given what Phil created applies to my own career since this model works at a VC quite well. We have our own team, our LP’s, our startups and the connections in the ecosystem that all form a nucleus that benefit and feed from each other. Of course the overall view, I can’t sidestep this, is returns. If the startups we invest in do well – the entire network will benefit, but there will be good times and bad times and my hope is to have a guiding light that apart from trying to build returns – we can also just do our best to help. Karma. It still is one of the deciding factors.

I have a new found respect for Nike and might even pick up a pair to go with my Tiger’s and I am sure these shoes will have a deeper meaning after reading this book. Phil touches on going deeper on putting together a cleaner view on the history of Nike and I for one hope this stays on his bucket list.

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