TIL Book Club Pick: Shoe Dog
Posted on 19 May 2017
This month we are reflecting on Shoe Dog, a memoir of Nike’s founder Phil Knight. As we turned a year old early this month, we are looking back at learnings from the year gone by. And we continue to ask ourselves about the kind of organisation we want to be.
At the early age of 25, Knight decided to follow his dream of building a shoe company. He had this crazy idea of improving the existing athletic shoe market that was at the time predominated by Puma and Adidas. It was crazy on two counts—Puma and Adidas were already well-established shoe companies with a high market share, and if an athletic shoe could be improved then why hadn’t it been done already? We continually ask ourselves the same question about fashion. The fashion industry is inundated with labels which either provide high fashion Western garments in synthetic fabrics, and Indian or fusion wear garments that are made in natural fabrics. If Western clothing could as easily be made in natural fabrics, then why wasn’t anyone doing so already at a reasonable price point? Were we forgetting to pay attention to something? But it seems the biggest benefit of the beginner’s mindset is instead of asking ‘why’, we asked ‘why not’.
Everyone among us faces that inertia in the beginning. Picture yourself going for an early morning run. You push yourself out of the comfort of bed, lace up your shoes and step out. You stretch your legs, lower back, and probably groan as your take the first few balky steps. So why is it hard to get started? It is hard because we are full of self-doubt. Knight shows that the essence of being able to follow your dream is to forget the self. In his running career, he had competed with, and against, men far better, faster, and more physically gifted. Many were future Olympians. But he trained himself to forget that he couldn’t win.
“The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past.”
We joined the ‘race’ in fashion continually researching to try and answer how we could bridge the gap between high fashion and quality of fabrics. Our research showed us that synthetic fabrics cost lesser, and hence there is a huge incentive for manufacturers to increase profits by compromising on fabric quality. This occurs especially because most people don’t even realise how harmful synthetic fabrics can be for the skin.
Along the way, we were even more convinced of our love for design. Despite the long days and nights that unfolded, we loved visiting manufacturers to understand different possibilities and techniques of production. You possibly just see a top or a dress when you shop, but we picture the pickers humming in the cotton fields, the chatter of the artisans by the handlooms, and the music of the sewing machines. As Knight puts it,
“I found everything about it interesting. Even musical. Each time a shoe was molded, the metal last would fall to the floor with a silvery tinkle, a melodic CLING-clong. Every few seconds, CLING-clong, CLING-clong, a cobbler’s concerto.”
Once you’re past your early inertia of taking that bold step towards your dream, the struggle becomes people not taking you seriously. And, why should they? All you have is a dream, perhaps a little too romanticised because who wouldn’t want to focus on the best-case scenario. But maybe what worked for Knight was being the biggest consumer of his own product. He was obsessed with running. In his memoir, all his ‘eureka’ moments about taking Nike forward occurred while running. His first business partner was his track coach Bowerman, a gentleman even more obsessed with creating the perfect shoe to enhance his team’s performance. After all, the value of any product likes in the extent to which it makes our lives better.
We find it hard to simply treat it as “business”. It seems wrong to throw away all those magnificent triumphs and struggles under that bland generic banner. A business at its core is about running after profits. Yes, we need profitability to build a self-sustaining company but that’s not the core aim. Our true mission, what pushes us out of bed each morning, is our desire to create beautiful clothes that make our skin happy. Our aim is to build an organisation that provides an ethical, healthy and happy work-environment for everyone.
“We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is - you're participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you're helping others to live more fully, and if that's business, all right, call me a businessman. Maybe it will grow on me.”