“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.”

–Phil Knight, cofounder of Nike in Shoe Dog

When Toni and I asked John Mackey in Episode 1 what books he’d recommend to new or aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to improve the world, his answer–Shoe Dog–piqued my interest. I knew the book’s been a big bestseller, I regularly see it in airport bookstores, and I even had it on my Amazon wish list as a reminder to get around to reading it. But my interest in the book related more to how Phil Knight built a successful company rather than anything to do with using business to make the world a better place. Afterall, wasn’t Nike more associated with sweatshops than social responsibility?

Well, John’s recommendation pushed the book from my wish list into my iPad.

First, let me say that I really enjoyed the book and found it very useful. Knight is surprisingly frank about the difficulties he had starting the company, how much of that hardship was his fault, and the seemingly countless near-death experiences Nike had for years on end. 

(Side note: I also had no idea Nike is the name of the Greek goddess of victory. Pretty cool name, and one that was chosen almost at random when an early employee literally dreamt it.)

Knight weaves a gripping story of how his athletic empire was built though passion, trial and error, actual trials, luck, an enormity of work, and even the occasional lie to his banks and suppliers. What became clear to me in reading it is that Knight wasn’t driven by money, though Nike has made him a multi-billionaire. Other factors, from simply wanting to win to seeking approval from his father and coach, were far bigger drivers for him. But Knight also clearly viewed what he was doing as a mission to help others.

He makes it clear that in his early days he was driven by an almost messianic zeal to use his company to promote something he thought would save people: running. “It wasn’t selling,” Knight asserts. “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.”

At other times in the book, Knight makes an argument for the benefit that any trade brings, repeating the adage that when goods don’t cross borders, soldiers do. (This is somewhat related to Mackey’s general argument about how trade has done more to lift humanity out of its primordially impoverished state.)

As for the sweatshop allegations, Knight does briefly address them, and while I’d have preferred a deeper exploration of the issue in the book, Knight essentially concedes that his response to his company’s critics at the time was wrong.

“My handling of the crisis only made it worse. Angry, hurt, I often reacted with self-righteousness, petulance, anger. On some level I knew my reaction was toxic, counterproductive, but I couldn’t stop myself. It’s just not easy to remain even-keeled when you wake up one day, thinking you’re creating jobs and helping poor countries modernize and enabling athletes to achieve greatness, only to find yourself being burned in effigy outside the flagship retail store in your own hometown.”

But eventually, Knight argues, Nike got its response right. Rather than simply self-defending, the company agreed it could do better and got to work using the company’s influence to help improve the lot of their overseas factory workers. “In the ten years since the bad headlines and lurid exposés, we’ve used the crisis to reinvent the entire company.” He goes on to note that Nike paid to invent worker-friendlier and eco-friendlier methods of shoe production for its factories, and then gave those technologies to its competitors so they could implement them as well.

In all, Shoe Dog is a riveting read from a business magnate about where he failed and where he succeeded. Knight uses the same analogy Mackey often does about business having a higher purpose. I’m not sure who used it first, but it’s a good one: The human body must make red blood cells in order to live, but that’s not the purpose of the human body. A company must make money in order to survive, but that’s not the purpose of the company. The company’s leaders, just like the owner of a body, must decide what the company’s purpose is.

We hope that using this podcast as a way to spotlight companies doing great things in the world will inspire those in business or thinking about going into business to think about what higher purpose they want to serve.

If you have thoughts on Shoe Dog or have other book suggestions, please let me know by hitting me at businessforgoodpodcast@gmail.com!  –Paul Shapiro