When I read non-fiction books, I keep myself daily minimum targets to get through it in reasonable time – at least 100 pages a day, or in some tough reads, 50 pages a day.
With Phil Knight’s ‘Shoe Dog’, I had to set for myself daily maximum reading targets – not more than 150 pages a day – so as to not let my other work suffer.
I could not, however, hold myself to the target – I finished the 400-page tome in a day and half flat. In one word, it’s ‘unputdownable’.
Chandra, my partner from FundsIndia, gave me the book 2 or 3 years ago and exhorted me to read it, and I’m ashamed that I just got around to it. Of course, as with the other books I am reading these days, I am wishing this book existed and that I read it, 15 or 20 years ago.
‘Shoe Dog’ chronicles the advent of Nike and the adventures of Phil Knight. It captures the period between 1962, when Phil first embarked on the journey (literally, actually), and 1980, when the company went IPO and Phil and his company, finally, made it.
It took 18 years to become an overnight success.
The tribulations that they went through during these years are, at the same time, totally pedestrian and incredibly arduous. From backstabbing partners to disloyal employees to relentless problems with bank and cash flow to lawsuits to fighting government bureaucracy – there is not a stripe of a problem they seem to have quite missed out on.
Through it all, they – Phil and his coterie of carefully assembled colleagues – persisted somehow – with a sleight of hand here, a slice of good fortune there, and honest to goodness hard work everywhere – to realize their vision and dreams.
It is a tale of dogged perseverance – and Phil alludes to it often in the book – the Oregon spirit. The state of Oregon is famous for the trail that it’s named after it – the Oregon trail. The path followed by migrating settlers who moved west in the early 19th century. The adage that accompanies the legend is that “The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”
And it’s not a dry business book either. As an autobiographical memoir, Phil opens up with extraordinary candour about his personal life as well. And it will be hard to be dry-eyed at the end of the book. And the quality of writing – the style and the narrative flow – is absolutely top-notch. It has all the flair and cultivated skill of a well-published author. The language is alternately poetic or dramatic as the narrative calls for. Not a dull moment.
I have a bit of a personal connection as well. Nike was my first “employer” – I interned at their sprawling headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon for two hot summer months in 1994. I caught a glimpse of Knight only once – as he walked by with his lunch tray in the cafeteria. By then, he was a god among men, at least in that campus. The road that led up to the main building from the outside world was called Bowerman drive (I used to cycle to the office – I would ride up this drive to the security block where they would hand out canteen coupons for people who biked to work). Back then, I had no idea about that name or the other names that the remaining lanes in the campus were called.
I wish I did – the streets are all named after the people who were instrumental in the founding of Nike – all who are the protagonists of the story in the book.
My key takeaway from the book is this one thing, that is not said out loud in the pages. Phil Knight did not invent anything – sneakers were there before him, his partner invented waffle soles, people outside the company came up with the Air idea, and heck, even the name Nike was a colleague’s idea. But he had one thing – a passion for running and good shoes. Essentially, he had taste in footwear- he could tell bad shoes from good shoes. And he turned that love into a business and he never, ever let go.
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