Shoe Dog Book Summary, Review and Key Lessons | by Phil Knight (2023)

Lesson 1 – Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and surprise you with their results.

Many of the leaders these days are focused on giving instructions on how to do things. These type of bad leaders believes that they are in such position due to their knowledge and hence they know how to do everything. In person on your team has specific skills and that’s the reason why they are given those positions. The role of a good leader is to tell them what to do and get the best possible outcome while helping them with their decisions.

In Shoe Dog story, Phil Knight illustrates the importance of this by giving tasks to his employee Johnson, and providing full freedom to do them in his own way. His task was to sell shoes and no instructions were given on how he should do it. In the end Johnson surprised Phil with the results by personally communicating with customers, building a customer database with personal preferences and, building a store where runners can hang out and talk. All these additional benefits were possible because Phil gave the freedom for Johnson to show his skills, instead of telling how to do it.

Lesson 2 – Don’t wait for opportunities. Go and find opportunities.

These days, many people seem to complain about the things they don’t have, rather than finding solutions from the things they have. If I had more time, I would have done that. If I had this much money I could have done that business, If I had these resources, I could have solved it.

These are common things we hear from people everyday. These people will wait everything to be in their favor and keeps waiting till the opportunities come to them. For these people, chances of becoming successful are very slim. Instead, we should learn to use whatever we have and find opportunities that doesn’t automatically come to us.

In the book Shoe Dog, the author explains how he built the business from scratch without getting any big opportunities. He started with just 50 dollars and selling shoes from his home. He didn’t have money or resources to start a shop. He was rejected by few sports good stores, saying that we don’t need another track shoe. Most people in this situation would have given up saying I don’t have a store and I cant get customers. Instead, Phil took the shoes and travelled to various track meets in different places. He talked to coaches, runners, fans in the track meet and showcase his shoes to them. These people really liked the Phil’s passion for shoes and started giving orders to him. In the end the orders came at a rate which he can’t handle. All this was due to his attitude of going and finding opportunities, rather than waiting for opportunities while complaining lack of resources.

Lesson 3 – Be Honest and Trustworthy.

This is what most people lack these days. It’s tough to be a honest and trustworthy person in modern world. However, being honest and trustworthy has more benefits than you imagine.

We can find a great example for this from the Shoe Dog story. The Nike shoes were introduced first time in a sports goods show in chicago. They developed the shoe using a third party factory and the stock they got for the show was no way near the quality they needed. The shoes didn’t look good and Phil’s team was already given up. However, the salesman like the Nike shoes and ordered more than they expected. The team was surprised and asked why they liked the Nike shoes even when its not in good quality. Salesman replied with “We have been doing business with Blue Ribbon ( The name of the Nike company earlier ) for long time. You people the only ones who tells the truth. Others are not like that. If you believe in this shoe, we have no problem believing you. As you can see, honest and trustworthiness of Phil’s company led to the initial success of Nike shoe even when it was below the expected quality.

Lesson 4 – Don’t pay too much attention to the numbers.

Making decisions just based on numbers and figures is seen frequently in these days. Numbers are important in decision making. But numbers alone wont give a perfect overview of the situation. For example assume that you have a company generating considerable profits with existing products. Then, you decide to develop a new product that has the potential to overtake the profit of all of the existing products. Due to development of the new product, your focus on other products maybe reduced and also the company costs will go high. In this case, if you just consider numbers, company is going in a bad direction. But when you consider the potential of new product, company might be going in a good direction even with loss of profits. So it’s important not to focus too much on numbers.

We can find the same thing in Shoe Dog story. From the beginning, Phil was obsessed with making the company better and develop shoes that everyone would wear. So, he didn’t have much money in bank and all money was spent on the company. Due to the lack of capital, banks refused to give him loans. Also in later stages, the company was building well, but didn’t generate money to pay for their suppliers on time. So the bank decided to stop doing business with Phil’s company. However, the company which Phil was loaning money from realized the potential of Phils company and paid off all its debts telling that people should not focus too much on numbers.

Numbers are important in decision making. But process is more important that numbers in almost all the situations.

Lesson 5 – Don’t put multiple innovations into one product.

People who buy products like to see new features, that adds value to the product. People who build products like to add new innovations, in order to stand out from similar product developers. However, putting multiple innovations into a single product can waste your efforts.

Innovation is something Phil and his team was interested in from the beginning of the company. His partner Bill Bowerman was always trying new things on shoes in order to improve performance and make the shoes more comfortable. At the later stages of the Shoe Dog story, the author explains how they innovated the air soles shoes and the lesson they learned from creating it. The air soles concept was introduced by a person called Frank Rudy and they decided to implement it. However, they added 12 different product innovations to the new shoe along with the air soles feature. But the new shoe was returned by large number of customers complaining that its not stable and falls apart.

This is what happens when we try to add too many things into a single thing or try to do too many things at once. So, we should focus on adding one new feature and test it before experimenting with another new feature.

Lesson 6 – Take risks and come up with quick solutions.

Taking risks is one of the key factors for becoming successful in life. Without risks, you will do the same things every day and struggle to learn new things or grow as a person. Also, making quick decisions at the right time is pivotal to success. Phil’s journey on building his company was full of both taking risks and finding quick solutions. That’s what make Shoe Dog such an inspirational story as well.

In the story, we can find two major occasions where we can learn these lessons. He went to Onitsuka company in Japan to get a contract for shoes for the first time. While he was doing the presentation in front of the Onitsuka management, they asked about his company. He didn’t have any company or even a small shop at that stage. Most people would have panicked in this situation. But, he took the the risk and quickly said he is representing Blue Ribbon Sports, thinking about the blue ribbons he received from the track events. Then, he asked them to ship samples to his parents house, which he gave them as the address of Blue Ribbon Sports.

There was another instance, late in the story where Onitusuka had a new export manager. When Phil asked for exclusive rights to sell Onitsuka shoes in US, the new manager said he is looking for a bigger firm which has a office in east coast. Again, Phil quickly took the risk and said they have a branch in east coast, when they didn’t have anything on that side. So, the new manager gave the exclusive rights. Phil signed a contract for 5000 shoes costing $20000, he didn’t have. This was a huge risk considering they had no office in east coast. Also when asked for address, Phil said, he will send it later. Then he went back and asked Johnson to quickly open a branch in east coast.

These risks allowed him to build one of the biggest footwear manufacturing companies in the world. So, you should also take risks in life in order to fail, learn and be successful.

Lesson 7 -Good reputation creates great opportunities.

Good reputation is essential for building businesses as well as getting more opportunities in your career. When you are starting your job or business, you don’t usually have much of a reputation. In these situations, associating with reputed people can bring you opportunities, that you would not have been possible.

At the start Phil didn’t have a big reputation. Onitsuka company was ready to offer contracts in certain states to a different person. However, Phil wanted to get exclusive rights to all states. So, he mentioned the name of his partner and famous coach Bill Bowerman and stated how his reputation can help Phil’s company achieve success. So the management have to reconsider the decision and give those states to Phil’s company due to the reputation of his partner.

So, always try to get the support of reputed people when starting your career or business from scratch.

Lesson 8 – Keep calm when the odds are against you.

As humans we tend to get stressed when the things are not working according to what we expect. Phil faced the same issue with his company when the his one and only shoe provider, Onitsuka company decided to terminate contract and find other distributors. They also wanted him to sell Blue Ribbon company to them. He was very angry with the export manager as Blue Ribbon were doing well. However, he knew that without this provider, his company will be in trouble. So, he kept calm and asked for some time to discuss it with his partner. Then, he thought long and decided to contract different distributors, and build their own Nike shoe as a backup plan for Onitsuka termination. He kept calm and stayed patient until they could run the company without them.

It’s important to keep calm in such situations, delay your decisions and think hard before making a decision.

Let’s take a look at the summary of the book.

The story starts with Phil Knight having a crazy idea of getting Japanese running shoes into the US market. Japanese cameras were selling well in US market at that time. So, he predicted Japanese shoes will do the same. Then, he decided to go on a trip around the world, while planning to visit Japan to pursue his crazy idea.

He goes to Japan and chooses a company called Onitsuka. He gets a chance to meet the management of that company. In his presentation, he somehow convinces management that he has a company called Blue Ribbon Sports (which he didn’t have) and gets Tiger shoe distribution rights in United Status. Then, he orders first samples from the company worth $50, from the money he borrowed from his father.

Once he get the first set of shoes, he gives few pairs to his famous track coach Bill Bowerman. His coach likes the shoes and his idea of getting them to US. So, the coach invests money and becomes a partner in Blue Ribbon. Then, Phil orders another shoe stock from the company.

Since sporting goods stores rejects selling his shoes, he decides to sell manually by going into track events in various places in the country. In those events, he talked to coaches, runners, fans and introduced his shoes to them. People likes his shoes and his attitude and gives him orders beyond his expectations.

Then, he hires a person called Jeff Johnson to handle sales. Johnson is also a runner super passionate about shoes. He helps Phil grow the Blue Ribbon company by maintaining close connections with customers and managing customer database. After a substantial growth, they open the first retail store.

However, new export manager of Onitsuka company decides to find a bigger distributor than Blue Ribbon, when Phil Knight wanted the exclusive selling rights for the US. Then, Onitsuka realizes Blue Ribbon is not a big company as they thought, after visiting the Blue Ribbon head office. They decide to find superior distributors.

Phil, knowing the risk of potential contract termination, uses a different factory in Mexico and developers a new shoe called Nike. As soon as Onitsuka get to know about the new shoe, they terminate the contract with Blue Ribbon. So, Phil loans money from a company called Nissho Iwai. Blue Ribbon almost gets into a state of bankrupt, and the Nissho company saves them by paying their loans. Since then, Nike grows steadily and becomes one of the worlds largest footwear manufacturing companies. This is a fascinating story on how Nike was born.

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