The entrepreneurial journey is nonlinear.
Many entrepreneurs are in the trough of disillusionment without realizing it. The trough of disillusionment is a low point in the entrepreneurial journey where your interest wanes. It starts with a peak of excitement, then it’s a long slog of experimentation, pivoting, and feedback from the market before you know if your business is working. Some entrepreneurs should stop sooner, nine out of 10 startups fail, but others need to keep moving forward. Phil Knight, Co-Founder and current chairman emeritus of Nike, knows this journey far too well.
After graduating from the University of Oregon as a track & field star, Knight enlisted in the Army and served one year on active duty and seven years in the Army Reserve. Born out of a research paper about shoes that he wrote in an entrepreneurship seminar at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 1962, this “run-of-the-mill assignment” turned into an “all-out obsession.”
Nike, which began as Blue Ribbon Sports, rose from conception to iconic brand in large part due to the vision of Phil Knight, the team he surrounded himself with, and the perseverance he learned from serving in the Army. Knight bootstrapped his way to being one of the world’s wealthiest people, documenting his whole journey in his bestselling memoir, Shoe Dog.
Shoe Dog is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve ever read about entrepreneurship and what the path to success looks like from someone who’s scaled a business from conception to product-market fit.
In 1964, Knight detailed the initial struggles of borrowing money from his dad, importing shoes from Japan, and selling them out of his car’s trunk. Through the first years of building the company, Knight worked as an accountant, taught at Portland State, and fought for financing through traditional banks while also developing a new family at home. The company posted $150K in sales in 1968. It wasn’t until 1969 that Knight went full-time at Nike, paying himself just $18K a year. Today, the Nike brand is valued at approximately $34.8 billion.
Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. A shoe dog is the customer Knight targeted, and he sought to onboard to his team — athletes, savants, and the legendary coach Bill Bowerman. Basketball legend, Bill Walton, called Shoe Dog “the ultimate entrepreneur’s guide to the top of the mountain.” Below are some of my top takeaways from Shoe Dog that I believe can help you in your entrepreneurial endeavors and reaching the top of the mountain:
- “Driving back to Portland, I’d puzzle over my sudden success at selling. I’d been unable to sell encyclopedias, and I’d despised it to boot. I’d been slightly better at selling mutual funds, but I’d felt dead inside. So why was selling shoes so different? Because I realized it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.”
- “The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way.”
- “So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy . . . just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”
- “Life is growth. You grow or you die.”
- “We were the kind of people who simply couldn’t put up with corporate nonsense. We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play. But meaningful play. We were trying to slay Goliath.”
- “I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear; the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
- “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.”
- “But my hope was that when I failed if I failed, I’d fail quickly, so I’d have enough time, enough years, to implement all the hard-won lessons. I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.”
- “I told her that I flat-out didn’t want to work for someone else. I wanted to build something that was my own, something I could point to and say: I made that. It was the only way I saw to make life meaningful.”
- “Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete.”
- “Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.”
- “I wanted to build something that was my own, something I could point to and say: I made that. It was the only way I saw to make life meaningful.”
- “Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.”
- “You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”
- “To study the self is to forget the self.”
- “For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuits of profits, period, full stop, but for us, business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood…But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living.”
- “Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith as others define it. Faith, as you define it. Faith, as faith defines itself in your heart.”
Mountain climbing and entrepreneurship are analogous to one another. As Knight said, “entrepreneurs have always been outgunned, outnumbered. They’ve always fought uphill, and the hill has never been steeper.” You go up; you go down. You reach your peak, descend vistas on the way down, and camp at the base before climbing up the slope of enlightenment. Check-in with yourself and where you are with the state of your business. Are you climbing up or walking down the mountain?