by Phil Knight, published 2016
What can we learn from business books, especially business biographies?
I used to laugh about this with a friend a considerable amount– all these dopey books about businesses, business men and business secrets, written by ghost writers and know-nothing journalists (hack writers), developed for and marketed to mass audiences who want an entertaining dream and not an edifying edifice to stare at imponderably.
We would be amazed at how absent these books were of any meaningful details, in fact, precisely the meaningful details necessary to actually understand what was going on and “how’deedodat?” It was like some kind of conspiracy of incompetent stupidity, to write books about business without margins, without tax rates, without rates of return on capital, without the capital structure outlined and revisited periodically as an enterprise grew, without definitions of risk and explanations of strategy.
Instead, lists of names, dates, places. Stylized depictions of tragedy and success. Cliched, retrospective business wisdom, as if the hustler-entrepreneur thought in any terms other than pure, maddening survival or unbridled, sociopathic dominance of everyone around him. Overlooking special revenue or R&D relationships with governments that were critical to a firm’s mastery of its market or early survival, or ignoring impolitic questions of how the founder avoided getting swept up in the local social conflagration du jour and being drafted out of existence.
To this mish-mash of storytelling sins this book adds a new one, anachronistic language. Somehow, Nike/Blue Ribbon was a “startup” before startups in the 1960s (and even into the 1970s, when it had been around for almost a decade… just getting going, really!) and one of the guiding philosophies of Knight and his “Buttface” crew (more on this in a bit) was to “fail fast”, nearly five decades before the software development revolution convinced the business world that iterative testing and quick trial to failure was the right way for all businesses to grow and not just a specialized niche that could essentially emulate A/B variants of its product or service offering at no cost or risk with the simple push of a button. But yeah, the shoe makers were doing that back when Vietnam was a thing.
That is why I read “Shoe Dog” with skepticism and found myself lusting after a critical beatdown as I turned the pages. A 25 year-old Phil Knight travels to Japan and secures a distributorship for a top Japanese athletic shoe, quite by chance and without any explanation of how he surmounted the language barrier in post-war Japan, then proceeds to tour the globe for four months by himself as some kind of backpacker-type tourist while his order samples, presumably, sit and wait for him the whole time? This is the beginnings of what would become Nike. And it went just like that.
The book is full of these glaring contradictions. Knight wanted to avoid the standard, stultifying corporate life, so he built a massive corporation. He believed in playing it straight as he advised his Eagle Scout nominees, so he lied to his financiers and production partners to grow his business. He never had enough cash to keep the bank happy and grow the business organically, so he bought himself a nice home and took the team on bi-annual corporate retreats to luxurious places (the book suddenly introduces this information about 12 years into the company’s history, where it is also revealed that they endearingly refer to one another as “buttfaces”, somehow demonstrating their open and transparent corporate culture). His co-founder fools him into giving majority control of the enterprise at the time of founding, then gives him 2/3rds of his share when trying to retire without fuss or challenge.
What “Shoe Dog” taught me, then, is that I’ve been naive to think there is anything esoteric one can learn from business books like this. It is my mistake for coming to a mass market piece of media and expecting to hear an honest telling, or even an interesting one. These books are written to entertain, glorify the egos of those who they are written about or nominally by, and perhaps even to some extent to distract, delude or otherwise throw off of the scent the would-be competitors who read them.
Reading between the lines, Knight was an alcoholic. He was clearly unscrupulous and at times cruel in his dealings with others. He did not spend the time with his family that they wanted from him. He lied, consciously, to his business partners and financiers. And he sued and counter-sued to stay in business or gain advantage. He did some other stuff, too, but these are the kinds of things that seem to set people apart, alongside luck. Some people play by the rules, either legally or their own conscience or both, and some people find ways to stretch these factors or simply break them without regret. Those people go on to be billionaires. And they have an incentive to lie about what they did and how they did it because after all, lying is what got them there in the first place.
You will never know how a business was really built by reading a book about it. And you would probably never find out even if you were a friend of the founder. You may not even be clear on what happened if you were inside the company itself. It’s too complicated and there are too many human factors involved that lend themselves to obfuscating the truth, if it can even be remembered.
One thing I learned from “Shoe Dog” is it’s my own fault if I keep reading this stuff and find myself frustrated at being anything but entertained.