My review of Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog

I have to say I only picked up Shoe Dog, Nike’s Phil Knight’s autobiography (or memoir? What’s the difference?), because of it’s mention on Gates Notes, Bill Gates’ blog, where the Microsoft founder publishes an yearly holiday book list based on what were his top reads of the year (in this case, 2016).

Here’s what Gates had to say about the book:

[the] memoir, by the co-founder of Nike, is a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like: messy, precarious, and riddled with mistakes. I’ve met Knight a few times over the years. He’s super nice, but he’s also quiet and difficult to get to know. Here Knight opens up in a way few CEOs are willing to do. I don’t think Knight sets out to teach the reader anything. Instead, he accomplishes something better. He tells his story as honestly as he can. It’s an amazing tale.

I tend to trust book suggestions by people whose reading habits I admire. It’s the case of Bill Gates. My trusting bias is leveraged by the facts that he’s a very successful entrepreneur (maybe the most) and a very avid reader. These two traits lead me to believe that his suggestions will most likely be useful for other entrepreneurs and aspiring CEOs like me (since he’s damn good at it) and well written (since he’s very well read).

Shoe Dog proved my assumptions right.

The book has earned its place among a handful of other reads I consider powerful aides on my journey to build a long-lasting successful company. Made in America (by Sam Walton), The Hard Thing about Hard Things (by Ben Horowitz), Gringing it Out (Ray Kroc), Pour Your Heart Into It (by Howard Schultz) and now Shoe Dog, all have something in common: they discuss the hardships, sacrifices and joys involved in building such a legacy in a way that feels like these guys are your mentors meeting you for weekly 1-on-1s over coffee.

Knight’s book teaches us a lot about resilience (“don’t ever stop”). Nike’s cofounder fought a number of life-threatening fires during his journey, and maybe that’s really a big part of building such a successful company: remaining in the game. He lost credit lines when his business depended on them; he repeatedly almost lost his partnership with Onitsuka (I didn’t know Nike had started selling Jap shoes) when distributing them in the U.S. was the only business he had; he was fined for more than a year’s revenue by the Government. But he lived to fight another day, meditating, counting backwards, running, doing “whatever it took to hold it together”. I can relate to that.

Another recurring theme in the book is Knight’s reluctance in going public. Founding a company that’s built to last is a commitment that’s best measured in decades, and so an IPO was very far from his goal, a vision unlike Silicon Valley’s.

We all see many startups going public with founders holding less than 10% of the equity, and quickly stepping down to start other companies and do it all over again. Building a huge company takes a very long time, and the really great founders behind the really great companies do everything in their power to remain in control (see Google, Facebook and Amazon).

So knowing he’d be around for decades running Nike was a huge factor in Knight’s holding up an IPO as far as he could, so that he wouldn’t abide too much equity, and I think he was right. I, too, want to build Qulture.Rocks for the long long run. He says “the cowards never started, and the weak died along the way.” He might as well have said “the cowards never started, and the weak died - or sold out - along the way”.

Of course, that really stems from the fact that he wasn’t really chasing money, but the amazing road that’s building a company for the long-term. Reflecting on his 30-plus years with Nike, he looks back and reflects on the journey being the end goal, “because, honestly, I wished I could do it all over again”. That helps a lot to put my path in perspective… Remembering all the sacrifices and hardships I’ve been going through are actually the thing I’ll miss when all is conquered and set. Not that everybody thinks, or even should think, this way: that’s the privilege of a small part of entrepreneurs, who do it for the love for their products and the excitement of building something bigger than themselves.

Another thing I could relate was Knight’s view of the importance of money in building Nike, not as the endgame, but as a means to build greater things: “For us, business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood”. I can also relate to that. I’d love to be selling ten times what I’m selling right now so I could hire more talent, build a great office and pay top dollar to our amazing team. And that’s what money’s for.

That’s enough. If your a founder trying to build a great company, read it.

 
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