I’d been skating around a book called Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – the origins story of Nike, written by its founder – for some time.

It had been recommended by a few podcasts I’d listened to and rated very highly on Goodreads with some glowing reviews, but it just never seemed to be at the top of my list of to-reads. Next thing I know, my wife’s standing in our living room holding a copy out to me with a grin on her face and I’m doing a weird happy dance shuffle.

Fast forward to the turning of the final page and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this book. I can’t remember the last time I was this transfixed by a story. It was like watching a gripping Netflix series where you just can’t wait to see what happens next. Andre Agassi writes a review that’s printed on the back of the book with the words “beautiful, startling, intimate book…” and I cannot find better words to describe it. It reads like a thrilling novel. It was so intimate. Knight is so vulnerable and open in these pages that you can’t help finishing the read with a sense that you know the man, warts and all.

I thought it would be a business book but it’s not. It is. It isn’t.

I learned so many things from this book, some of which I think will only develop in my mind over some time, like a slow going darkroom. Here are my 5 initial lessons from the read.

1. Anything but a straight line

I know, I know, such a cliche beginning. Seriously, if someone sends me that meme with the straight line titled “What we think the road to success looks like” next to the spaghetti scribble “What the road to success actually looks like” I swear I’ll… well… I’ll probably just politely send a laughing emoji back. But I don’t want to see it anymore! I get it! It’s a well known fact that entrepreneurship is not a simple ideation, execution, fame and riches story for the vast majority of founders. As much as we know this though, we still can be unprepared for exactly how squigly that spaghetti scribble can be. Someone recently described entrepreneurship to me as walking through a dark room, getting to the other side, turning on the lights and looking back only to see the room was filled with spiders and scorpions. I think of Shoe Dog as a small lamp at the outset of that dark room. Just gently highlighting to readers that even the biggest successes had to make it through a couple hundred crises over the years.

What struck me in particular was that in that annoying scribbly road to success picture, there’s a time when success is “achieved” and then the line goes straight. As though, once you’ve achieved whatever bar for success you’ve set for your business, things will magically go smoothly. That certainly wasn’t the case for Nike, and isn’t the case for any business – if anything, your problems expand by orders of magnitude with success.

Think about Facebook (now known as Meta). The size and the difficulty of the problems faced by Facebook since becoming a global, successful business are much, much larger than those faced when they were starting out. Their journey after achieving success is as squiggly as anything. There’s no sabbatical at the end of the rainbow. There’s no ‘I’ll be so successful that I’ll just pay other people to do all my work for me’. There’s just a long series of ups, downs, triumphs and troughs through a life in the marketplace.

Whilst this is in and of itself not an inspiring takeaway, it should be a sobering one. It’s a flag to us to make sure that we’re not endlessly chasing some ideal, some ambiguous day in the future when all of our problems would go away if only we could get to x in sales or y in net profit. This has been said a million times over by ancient philosophers to modern influencers but the truth really is that the pursuit is the real pleasure of life. The good news is that as long as that line stays squiggly, the pursuit continues and in that way we can see the stimulating, difficult challenges ahead as part of the wonderful experience of living.

quote from shoe dog

2. Sacrifice is the ticket to the show

The hard truth about doing anything worthwhile is that it’s going to cost you something. I remember first thinking about this when I was in my late teens dreaming of living a really impactful and meaningful life in the world. I thought of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ghandi and the like. One thing that seemed common across all of their stories was how much they had to sacrifice in order to leave a legacy of that size. There seems a directly proportional relationship between sacrifice and impact. Of course it’s important not to seek sacrifice in order to make success appear but to acknowledge that the need to sacrifice shouldn’t come as a surprise when it arises.

But even if we’re not literally changing the world, we’re engaged in efforts of sacrifice all the time. Jordan Peterson lays this out neatly in a lecture on making sacrifices that explains that when we’re working we’re sacrificing time today for our future well being. When you train you’re sacrificing time and energy for a healthier, fitter future. Yet, on some deep level we hope that we can develop and sell an app (my favourite dream as a 20-something year old) and get rich quick with minimal sacrifice and maximum payout. That’s just not the way it works for 99% of the world. It’s about reps over prolonged periods to slowly grind our way to where we want to be.

Sacrifice also comes in many shapes and forms. It’s easy to see sacrifice as late hours and a whole lot of energy given up in pursuit of something but often times the less tangible types of sacrifice can be a greater burden. Knight, for example, was the son of a butcher and his father’s primary intention was for his son to have a respectable career. A shoe salesman importing Japanese shoes to America in the 60’s was not what his father had in mind. In this way, one of the biggest and earliest sacrifices Knight had to make was that of directly pleasing his father, who’s respect he deeply desired.

This spirit of sacrifice was one that extended itself throughout the team. Every member of the early Nike company (first called Blue Ribbon) had to sacrifice in so many ways in order to just keep the business alive on many occasions. One of the trademarks of Knight’s leadership style reminded me of a line from the animated movie Shrek. Lord Farquaad charges his men to rescue Princess Fiona and states, “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” In short, Knight requested and expected a lot of sacrifice from his early employees.

Just one example of this was when Knight needed Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first official employee, to move from the West Coast to the East Coast of the US to set up a new office. Johnson heard of this when his replacement pitched up at the store he was working. Despite the lack of tact and major inconvenience, he did it. He made the sacrifice. Many of the early employees did. Over and over. Without the compounding benefit the business received from individuals willing to sacrifice their time, energy and convenience it’s difficult to see how the business could have survived for long enough to become what they are today.

As to what level of sacrifice and what types of sacrifice are worth professional success, that’s for each of us to work out for ourselves.

4. Honesty is as good a tactic as any

We sometimes, maybe often, have the tendency to overcomplicate situations because of our fears. Whether you’re the CEO, an executive, a middle manager or a team member, there are always numerous stakeholders that you need to keep happy. The problem is, things don’t always go well. I started my career as an Account Manager in a marketing agency. Essentially my job was being the middleman between the team running campaigns, and the client. As a 22 year old sitting in the big, intimidating boardrooms of large corporations with month end reports that could sometimes look pretty bleak, the pressure to cherry pick and golden sample the best bits of information to paint the best picture was immense. Over a few years I became really good at this. Perhaps we all do this instinctively, whether it’s just in the words we choose when explaining something we don’t really want to be explaining, or choosing the date ranges on a set of data that presents the best graph.

What I learned over time though is that charades and euphemisms only work for so long, and so long is not very long in most cases. Eventually the bottom line reveals whether or not something is working. What I also realised, although only years later when running another business, was that people actually valued honesty. They value partners, employees and bosses that are honest with them.

One example of the effectiveness of honesty comes from one of my favourite books Leadership in Turbulent Times. The author talks about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address as he came into power during the Great Depression. It’s telling that the very first sentence of that famed inaugural address contained these words:

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.

That speech is hailed as the one that united America behind their new president and his vision for a better America. I can only imagine that had F.D.R. tried rather to smooth over the situation and try to convince bitterly suffering Americans that actually, this wasn’t so bad, he’s seen way worse, the tide would have turned against him quickly.

Honesty as a business strategy comes up for Knight through a few different business experiences. One of the most telling are in 1972 at a trade show where the Nike shoe is being revealed to trade for the first time and they’re not up to scratch. Eventually, they got a bit of feedback from the salesmen there that day:

I love this quote. It shows so clearly how honesty can actually be a differentiation strategy. In my work running Conversion Rate Pros, a website research and experimentation (CRO) agency I find the same theme. Being honest with clients even if the truth isn’t great to hear, is almost always the quickest way to earn their trust.

5. Autonomy can be powerful

Knight spends quite a bit of time in the book slagging his own management style. By way of example, he tells the story of the company’s first employee Jeff Johnson. Apart from being an industrious, committed and loyal servant to the Nike business, Johnson was a communicator of note (pun intended). Phil talks at length in the book about how Jeff would send letter after letter after letter detailing strategies he’d like to employ, obstacles he was facing and most of all consistently asking for words of encouragement from Phil.

Phil hardly ever replied.

This wasn’t some Mr. Miagi type smart leadership strategy, but rather a combination of apathy and laziness. However, it occurred to me that despite this lack of communicativeness and thereby the loosest management strategy you’ll find, Jeff excelled. Perhaps this informed Phil’s longer term management strategy of providing absolute autonomy.

In every business, and with every group of employees there will be some sweet spot of management ‘intervention’. Some point on the scale between micromanagement and a circus of absent managers where the team is operating optimally with the perfect balance of close support and distant trust. This equilibrium point will be different for every team as every different team is made up of different people with different sets of needs.

6. Pay Nissho First

This is a great little takeaway from this book. In 1970 Nissho Iwai was Japan’s 6th largest trading company. Nike was on the verge of going out of business because despite its rapidly growing sales, Nike’s bank, First National, wanted to cut Nike’s line of credit. Nissho Iwai decided to take on the risk and become Nike’s financier. Throughout the following months and years Knight chased growth at all costs. This meant that he had to manage his creditors strategically. He had one rule though: Pay Nissho first.

It’s a powerful rule. Simple, yet deeply profound. It’s become something of a catchphrase in my mind regarding prioritisation. Knight recognised that as long as Nissho was paid, everything else could be dealt with, managed or negotiated. I found that this was Knight’s way of taking the very complex situation of starting a new business and making it seem simple in his mind. As long as I do this, pay Nissho first, I can breathe. If Nissho is paid, all else can be handled. The importance of paying Nissho was obviously not something that had to be explained to Knight, but I wonder if we can’t take this idea and apply some thought to our lives and businesses in a way that would develop deeper focus for us on what really matters and in so doing simplify our mental framework for what we’re trying to achieve, and simultaneously increase focus.

What is the one thing that if you got done every month, all else could be dealt with?

I’m currently in the process of growing my Conversion Rate Optimisation agency Conversion Rate Pros and I’ve found that it’s so easy to get distracted by the superfluous, even when you’re coming into the game with a high level of intentionality and focus. I spent 3 days this week trying to find a CRM software for our client outreach. It’s not to say that finding cool, shiny CRM software isn’t really important in the long run but I sacrificed a lot of outreach time. Time I could have spent on the phone with businesses in need of our help, assessing the fit of their online goals and our approach. I should have had a sticky note on my desk saying ‘Call people first’. The truth is, I love technology! I love poking around different CRM systems and figuring out which one is right for out needs. (Incidentally, I also apparently love signing up for free trials and forgetting to cancel them before billing happens. Am I the only one?). I love sifting through technology more than I love other, more important tasks like finishing the heat mapping presentation that’s due for the end of the week or checking our accounts. So, if I’m led on a daily basis by what I prefer to be doing, rather than what I’ve previously ordained as being the priority, I’ll naturally spend my time on more fun, superfluous tasks and Nissho won’t get paid. And if Nissho doesn’t get paid often enough, we’ll be in trouble.

A small sidebar, but this idea of paying Nissho first made me think of something I learned from an absolutely fantastic personal finance management book: Manage your money like a f_________ grown up. Sam Beckbessinger talks about paying yourself first when you get your salary through an automated transfer into your savings account. That way you’re not saving what’s left after expenses, but spending what’s left after saving, investing and paying off debt. It’s the same simple yet profound switch that reminds us that if we pay Nissho first, we’ll make a plan with the rest.

What’s your Nissho?

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