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Finally, a real story of building a company


Save the typical heroic founder stories for others. Read Shoe Dog.

It is honest. It drills deeply into being an entrepreneur.

Rather than a selection of carefully-maneuvered strategic moves, building NIKE is a constant sequence of operational hassles, existential threats and near-death catastrophies. Rather than the work of a genious-born natural entrepreneur, succeeding is to a large part luck, coinsidence and hard work. In other words, NIKE is just an ordinary startup that happened to grow big.

NIKE’s co-founder Phil Knight, an introvert who hates negotiating, has difficult time explaining why he puts everything in line. Sure, he wants to build something. In the beginning, which means NIKE’s first 15 years, there is no other reason than to “win”. What “winning” means to Knight? He cannot define it other than “winning” is opposite to “losing”. He is afraid. Avoiding losing is the engine that keeps him going.

In the end, his net worth at $10 billion, Phil meets with Buffett and Gates, wondering that the guys are worth 5 to 7 times more, and sure they have done everything they need to do in their lives. Or have they? Back home, Phil takes his yellow pad and starts thinking his “bucket list” of things to do before it is too late. Is the only meaning of life to avoid losing and work with something that feels play?

From the book, one can distill a great list of qualities for startups that can be successful. Maybe not so surprisingly, based on my own experience of building (and sometimes, only trying to build) couple of companies, and being part of investing in close to 100, I agree on the list.

Here is comes. The list of commonalities in all great startups based on the NIKE story:

  1. Money is never a motivator. On contrary, one actively needs to fight against its bad influence.
  2. Extreme, geek-like dedication to the product. “Shoe dog” means a person who hacks together better shoes 24/7.
  3. “Never stop. Keep going.”
  4. Focus on sales and customers. Nike is known for iconic brand and advertising, but it certainly was not how it all came to light.
  5. Starting small before becoming big.
  6. Sticking to your values no matter what.
  7. Hiring people based on real skills and commitment; not how they look, behave and polish themselves.
  8. Unique culture, that can also be really odd.
  9. It takes long to build a company. Phil started the business in 1962, and was the CEO for 40 years.