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What I learned from Nike about life, building a brand and business

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Recently I got a chance to read the “Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike. This book ended up as a ticket to an immersive experience of the early days of Nike. You get an opportunity to learn about how hard it was to grow the company. How they did compete in a market with already well-established competitors such as Adidas, Puma, and Converse. This book will keep you engaged from beginning till end. By reading it, I got the pleasure of learning tricks and tips, and the true value of a great product in the long run. Also, you start to realize that even the most famous people who built extraordinary products have doubts, downs and ups, weaknesses and strengths. Here are some of the most important things I learned:

 

Your logo is not your brand

As a designer I can relate with this 100%. Sometimes even our clients ask me ” Hey we want a logo like Nike so it is easy to remember and looks cool”. You should understand that it takes more than a logo to build a great association with it as Nike has. It takes a great product that will give meaning to that logo.

To give you a little bit of backstory here. Nike was called Blue Ribbon in the beginning and the swoosh logo appeared only years later. As written in the book, Phil Knight had doubts about the logo and name “Nike”. But he had no choice and he went with it because he was facing a hard time with cash flow and wanted to go public. A logo gets recognized by millions only if it passes the test of time. You have to be on the market for decades to represent something. You have to be known for innovation, designing a great product, having a story and meaning on why you do it. But having a logo like Nike won’t give you anything rather than an illusion.

 

Great products come with time and countless iterations

One of Blue Ribbon co-founders was Bill Bowerman, Phil Knight’s track coach, and one of the initial shoe designers for Nike. Interesting fact about Bowerman is that he almost never gave up and was trying constantly to improve their shoes. He was constantly making improvements to the sole of it so you could have fewer injuries. Before we got the Nike we have today, it took them countless product iterations, change of factories and partners, constant change of strategy, and lawsuits, to give you the best they have.

Now I get the idea of why Steve Jobs said that Nike and Sony, alongside Apple, are the only companies that produce great products (at that time). It’s because Nike did not settle for the average like Adidas or Puma. They were striving to get the best product possible. The best factory for manufacturing. The best partners who could point out the flaws of their products. The best materials. The best comfort in the sole so you can have fewer injuries. They did not settle for the average. They where always aiming for the great. But until they got there, they had to pay the price.

 

Money does not change people. It tests them

One day you will hit the lottery and finally, all years of work will start bringing you money. A lot of them. And this affects all us. But if you are truly not driven by profits and false luxury, then it will not last long. In the beginning, it is always that hype of buying new stuff. Cover all your insecurities and desires from childhood. Many of us are just driven by it and it poisons our thinking, makes us feel invincible and “special”. It is all an illusion. That’s the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it.

 

How much are you willing to pay for success?

Whether you are Bill Gates, Phil Knight, or Steve Jobs, everybody faces the same problems when it comes to building a brand, career or family. Debt, bad products, internal conflicts, investors, and creditors, spending less time with the kids due to the high amount of work, bank refusing to give a loan when you are almost bankrupt. We are all in the same business with the same thoughts. There is even a small paragraph that stuck with me and it says that: “I got used to the feeling of going every night to sleep while you know that you have a lot of money to return to your creditors. And it can blow up at any moment.” And then you realize that it is all a matter of resilience and patience. How much risk are you willing to take? It is up to you. You decide the price you want to pay for your success but it always comes with the problems listed above.

 

The best things can come from unexpected places

When Phil Knight had the negative cash flow for Blue Ribbon, he decided to take a side job as a professor of accounting at the University of Portland. He had a decent salary that allowed him to stay afloat while building the company. But he never could imagine that his future wife will be one of his students. Also, on the day he decided to quit the job as a professor he met a girl in the hallway of the university. The girl was a painter or a “starving artist” as he called her. He decided to offer her a job and pay $2/h to do different advertisements or draw some graphics for the company. He could not even imagine that this girl, Carolyn Davidson, will be the person who will design the most iconic logo in the history. The best things can come from unexpected places.

 

Seek a calling but not a career

A timeless advice that can be applied to business and life overall. Phil Knight recommends that men and women in their mid-twenties shouldn’t set for a job or a career. Because that is the easy part. You can always find a 9–5 job. What he recommends is finding a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you are following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you have ever felt.

 

It’s not just business

In the beginning, we all struggle when trying to build something. Even when we are 10 or 20 years into a business we still have moments of struggle. Tons of conflicts, bad news, bad reviews, lost property, people fired, lost friends, etc. And we somehow tend to call this “it’s just business”. No, it’s not. It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all your triumphs and struggles, under the hat of business. It should feel like is something more than that. It should feel like a calling. Each day will bring you fifty more problems to solve and you have to look with enthusiasm for each of them on how to solve it. For some, business is the all-out pursuit of profits. But if you want to create something truly great, you have to look beyond that. You have to create something for the people and improve their lives. Nike had a negative balance sheet for almost two decades, but never stopped because they wanted to give you the best shoes you ever had. Can you go through that to make a change in the world?


Hopefully, you enjoyed the article and make sure to subscribe for more articles and read the book as it is always interesting to analyse how one of the best companies of our times was created. Make sure to check our podcast where I talk with designers, creative & business people about design, how to and what it takes to create a great product and company.

 
Eugen Esanu