I have never met Phil Knight, but Mr. Knight has influenced my life in more ways than is first apparent.
I purchased my first pair of Nike running shoes in the fall of 1975: a pair of Waffle racers. The yellow and green shoes were wildly colorful for the time. It was only my second pair of real running shoes: for the first two plus years of running, I wore K-Mart special white sneakers, low tops, which I purchased for $3.50 a pair. My first real pair of running shoes was an Onitsuka Tiger Corsair, which cost, with a pair of adidas Interval track spikes, cost $34, which was an amazing amount of money at the time.
I worked at Runner’s World from 1981-1987, and worked with Nike the last two years, when they began working with RW again after a bit of litigation that many have read about. When I started my first business, Tom Clarke, then President of Nike, was kind enough to look at my business plan for a four color track magazine, and thought it made sense. It took me three years to earn the support of Nike for the project, probably the reason the project succeeded, as I had to develop relationships with most of the brands of running shoes in the business at the time.
I go to track meets and marathons, as part of my job. I compare most of the track meets to the Nike Pre Classic: Nike’s homage to the late, great, iconic Steve Prefontaine, America’s James Dean of distance running (find the Runner article about Pre from 1981), who was so influential on the Nike brand. The Pre Classic kept world class track meets alive in North America when no one else cared.
Phil Knight’s speech to the graduating class of 2014 at Stanford School of Business is a must read. Mr. Knight, unlike some speakers at graduations, was refreshingly honest. The key message: building a successful business requires drive, sweat equity, much luck and the love and support of family and friends.
The most important accomplishments of Nike should be left to the business writers. My personal thoughts are that Phil Knight, and his company of friends, those still around, those long gone, those, at other companies, reinvented the sports equipment category. Running shoes are fulfill both the needs of form and fashion. Mr. Knight took the developments of the late Horst Dassler, adidas heir apparent, and the man who invented sports marketing, blew it up and gave sports marketing an uniquely American perspective. No matter how much you agree or disagree with it, the Nike swoosh is one of the most desired logos on the planet.
Read every word. Read it a second time. Lessons are there.