22 Aug 2016 12:18 IST

Just Doing it!

Nike creator Phil Knight’s memoirs read more like a Jeffrey Archer thriller than a business biography

As the curtains went down on Rio Olympics, Nike wasone of the podium finishers as far as brand recall goes. Not only was the American shoe brand’s iconic Swoosh logo there on the victory stand oh so often, it also managed to steal the thunder from challenger Under Armour when feted swimmer Michael Phelps appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a very visible Nike logo on his sweatpants. What a big faux by Phelps who is endorsed by Under Armour, but what a big win for Nike.

Nike may rank among the world’s top recognisable and loved brands today but it’s been built the hard way — with blood, sweat and tears.

How Phil Knight and his track coach Bill Bowerman created this iconic company is a well known story, perhaps best captured in Swoosh: Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There by JB Strasser, a really great book on Nike that has become a bible of sorts for marketers.

Fresh feel

But now comes Phil Knight’s own account in Shoe Dog . Despite large parts of the story already known, it’s still an amazing read with a completely fresh feel to it, written in a stirring style that makes you hang on to every word. At the same time, it’s a humble narrative with loads of funny anecdotes. Phil Knight gives us a memoir that every entrepreneur or anybody who has had a Crazy Idea would empathise with. He also gives us a pure adventure and emotion-laden story taking us on a roller coaster ride from Portland Orgeon, the US, to Japan with delightful Jeffrey Archer-esque moments as he knits his first business deal.

You laugh out loud when you read how back in the 1960s, 24-year old Knight, fresh out of Stanford with a Crazy Idea of importing Japanese high quality low-cost running shoes into the US arrives at the factory of Onitsuka (one of the oldest shoe giants from Japan) and requests them to make him his official supplier in America.

The inscrutable Japanese listen to his spiel and calmly ask him which company he represents. Thinking on his feet, young Knight blurts out Blue Ribbons Company, inventing a non-existent company — the name pops into his head because of the blue ribbons from track that he has covered his room with.

Shoeing away

Borrowing fifty dollars from his dad (who incidentally has also sponsored his trip to Japan), Knight wins the deal for the yet-to-be-created company. Luckily for him, the Onitsuka takes a year to send him the first orders. A year — 1962/1963 — in which he backpacks around the world. And yes, India is on the itinerary, though witnessing the surreal happening in the middle of the Ganges at Varanasi (funerals, cremations) sends him scurrying from “the unreal to the real” world.

As Knight waits for the shoes from Japan to arrive, he works for an accountancy firm, quizzes unresponsive pigeons, polishes his Valiant, and writes a lot of letters. For Knight, it’s Greece that is the highlight of his backpacking tour of the globe, especially a mesmerising trip to Parthenon and the Temple of goddess Athena — the bringer of Nike or victory. But no, that’s not how the name of the brand came about.

Years later, when the Japanese deal with Onitsuka sours and Knight decides to move from importing to manufacturing his own shoes, the company name he comes up with is Dimension Six. Fortunately, (and this is total filmi stuff) as the deadline to ink the name of the company is approaching his employee number one, Johnson, has a dream in the night in which the name Nike flashes!

A brand is born

Knight’s book is largely an account of the sixties and seventies charting the turbulent origin of brand Nike and the years of struggles and debts thereafter. A big chunk of the book is on the difficult relationship with Onitsuka, which is constantly threatening to change its official supplier in the US market.

In fact, Knight ends the story in 1980 by when Nike has gone public, the brand hit huge success and he has become a millionaire. So in many ways it’s a rags-to-riches or anonymity-to-fame sort of story that will warm the cockles of your heart. Subsequent stuff is summarily dealt with in an epilogue set in 2007, which also pours out the compulsions behind writing this story.

Although Knight stops the story half way through and steers clear of the huge controversies that have dogged shoe factories or talking much about competition (Adidas is mentioned albeit dismissively but not Reebok — a brand founded in 1895), it does not detract from the book.

Simply because it’s written so candidly and with great humour that’s often self-effacing. There are intimate personal elements, including his first love affair that ends in a rejection, his marriage with Penny, coping together on a shoe-string budget and the heartaches over his children, especially the distant relationship with his son Matthew who died tragically in a diving accident. A middle distance runner, Knight paces his story really well. You could say it literally swooshes by. Perhaps, that’s also because 78 year old Knight has chosen to only share 18 years of his story in detail. In 2007, he stepped down as the chief esecutive office of Nike, after 40 years of helming the company.

In 2015, Forbes said Knight was the 15th richest person in the world who even owns a film production company. Which means, there’s a lot more to this charismatic business tycoon’s life that needs to be told.

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