I started reading Phil Knight’s story of how he started Nike because I was looking for a good, inspiring story of entrepreneurship. I wanted to learn something. That I have. Here’s a summary of reading this book from the perspective of an early-stage technology founder. I’ll try to pull out a few lessons learned that I think can be generalized.
First, Phil started out strong. Clearly. He runs track at the University of Oregon, then goes right into an MBA at Stanford, then joins the military for a year. Goes home, convinces his dad to pay for him to take a trip around the world. This is the early 60’s, it’s amazing how cheap it all sounds. San Francisco to Honolulu for $80. Still, it’s clearly not cheap by their standards—this is an incredible privilege. He takes one of his best friends with him.
He’s got this idea to start importing sneakers from Japan, which he presented as a business plan in an entrepreneurship class at Stanford. He says this idea had become an obsession.
He thinks it could be huge and tries to convince his dad, who repeatedly tells him to stop “jackassing around with shoes”. At his wedding, his friend makes a joke about how the only other time he’d seen him so nervous was when he presented that Stanford business plan. It’s clear that this idea was incredibly important to him.
What was it about the idea? He had read a parallel about how Japanese goods had taken another market by storm, and he thought the same would happen in the shoe market. He thought it would be huge, and he thought he might have a shot at it.
In any event, Japan anchors his round-the-world trip.
But first, he stops in Hawai’i and loves it so much he and his friend decide to stay. First he sells encyclopedias, which he’s terrible at and hates, then gets a job selling mutual funds, which he’s good at but leaves him feeling empty inside. He makes a lot more money selling mutual funds, however. He learns to surf. He gets restless and moves on without his friend, who’s fallen for a local woman.
He makes much of his interest in world religions, and talks about one purpose of his trip being to find God. He inserts a lot of references to Zen Buddhism and other religions, and he clearly learned something from all the places he visited. He was a guy interested in history and religion, so it seems he got a lot out of his trip.
He tells of his stop in Greece to see the Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike and the transcendent feeling he had there, thinking, This is where it all started.
His heroes were Churchill, MacArthur, and Tolstoy. He studied great generals and the history of the samurai. He thought of business as “war without bullets”. Needless to say, whenever a competitive or strategic threat emerges to his fledgling business, he responds incredibly strongly and emotionally. He expresses no such strong emotion toward his best employees, who will prove to be the driving force behind the new venture.
On his first trip to Japan, he meets with a couple of ex-GIs who tell him how Japanese business works. They tell him not to go in loud and pushy. When he gets to his first meeting with the Japanese factory he wants to work with, he immediately launches into a pitch about how he sees a huge opportunity for them in America. When they ask him what company he represents, he makes up a name on the spot: “Blue Ribbon”.
He manages to make a deal to be the exclusive west coast distributor for this Japanese shoe factory and orders a sample for $50. He tells his dad to wire the money to the factory.
Overall, the takeaway so far seems to be: You can do a lot of stuff wrong and still succeed. If you have an incredible support network and a single-minded focus, as Phil seems to have.
Gonna keep reading. More soon!