Friday, October 18, 2019

Books #6: Shoe Dog

This post contains spoilers for Shoe Dog, if you intend to read the book, click the "x" at the top left or right corner of the browser right now, thanks! Do come back next week!

Shoe Dog written by Nike's co-founder Phil Knight was published in April 2016. It was written in plain English and immediately shot up the bestseller list as one of the best business books ever. Phil described how he tried to build up Nike, the difficulties he faced, the juggles between work and family and the seemingly insurmountable task to beat Adidas, which in 1965 probably 100x bigger than Nike. It's really must-read for anyone who wants to startup a company.

We tend to see only the end result of spectacular startup successes and think we can do it. One tagline to encourage more startups in Singapore goes like this, "Tired of a 9-5 job? Start up your own company, be your own boss!" It is the same trick used to entice thousands to become Uber drivers. It's never that simple. The greater the success, the greater the effort put it to achieve it. Are we actually up to it? What is not said is that working at a startup is not 9-5 but 24x7x365x10. To be really successful, both the CEO and the new team have to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days for 10 years or even longer.

That is what it takes. It's a competitive world. It's the same story in all arenas of spectacular human achievement: gold medalist in the summer Olympics, Nobel Prize winners, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Stan Drunkenmiller. You name it. Even in Singapore, past President scholars - how many hours did they put into their studies? Robert Kuok. His memoir was also published recently. Gosh, how hard he worked. That's the reality. The greater the success, the greater the effort put it to achieve it.

The story of Nike's employee #1 Jeff Johnson also came across memorably for me. He was Phil's good friend and a reliable worker. So Phil tasked him to do the most difficult stuff like firing people and then sending him across the country to restart the new office that was in a mess, with no advance notice, no resources and best still, no increase in salary. It's usually not a one man show. Great endeavours require great teams.

Nike was fortunate to have such a team. In my mind, Shoe Dog was, in essence, a remarkable story about teamwork. A good team rarely exists. Think of all the organization structures all over the world. People are simply put together based on their CVs. But a real team requires camaraderie, diversity, balance, trust in good leadership and also good advisors. Phil had his coach, Bill Bowerman, the other co-founder of Nike. He was a fatherly figure and the guy who originated the idea of Nike Air. We all need mentors in life to bounce ideas, to guide us towards better solutions. This is one of the most important takeaways for me after reading Shoe Dog.

The contrasting corollary to the above is soft partnerships. We must be mindful of people who were helpful when circumstances were good. In Nike's case, these were the Japanese partners that Phil worked with. It's nothing bad because it's business. These partners are not Nike's teammates. They had their own interest to look after. So, when the winds change, they have to part ways. Phil was good at reading this and moved quickly to secure Taiwanese and later Chinese partners. That's just business. I guess the lesson learnt here is to be able to read people well and where their ultimate loyalty lies

To sum up this post, I would like to circle back on hardwork, intelligence, luck and success. It takes a lot of hard work to start something. But hardwork itself is not enough. Bill Bowerman's quote above comes in right here. One needs to work hard and also work smart. Innovation brings about the step change to rise above the competition. But that's still not enough, Nike's story is full of lucky encounters of how one wrong step would have meant bankruptcy. Behind one successful Nike, there are hundreds of failures. Behind every successful startup, there are many more failed attempts. 

So, it's not just do it. In this internet age, think different, do no evil, move fast, break things on top of just doing it! 

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