8 Pieces of Startup Advice Founders Can Learn From Phil Knight

8 Pieces of Startup Advice Founders Can Learn From Phil Knight

Take a look at eight important pieces of advice that you can take away from the legendary entrepreneur, Phil Knight, and his success with Nike.

Innovation Insights
 Min read
August 20, 2023

In this candid memoir, Nike founder Phil Knight shares the inside story of how he built the company from a startup to one of the world's most iconic and profitable brands. He started the brand in 1963 with $50 he borrowed from his father, and today Nike's annual sales are more than $30 billion. Shoe Dog is incredibly inspiring and relevant to my journey as an entrepreneur. In particular, a few insights jumped off the page at me as they articulated critical mindsets and techniques crucial to startup success. Here are 8 of the most important takeaways I derived from Shoe Dog:

1) Believe in What You Are Doing

Knight said that he "believed in running" and that when you have that belief, it becomes "irresistible." He's right that when you feel deep down in your bones that you are creating something of value, it makes a big difference. Richard Branson said that he only starts a business if he believes it will improve people's lives. That belief and enthusiasm are contagious, and it will cause others to believe in you too.

According to Jay Friedlander, a professor of sustainable business at the College of the Atlantic and Babson College, belief is crucial: "Most entrepreneurs I know believe they will change the world." He explains that this excitement and the powerful belief in what they are doing get them through difficult times. Belief gives you the intrinsic motivation to keep you going, even when the going gets tough, and it is hard to see the finish line.

Don't forget to also surround yourself with people who believe in what you are passionate about, too. This not only includes employees but your customer base as well. A line Phil likes from the movie The Bucket List states, "You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you." Put another way from a business perspective, measure your company by the customers who measure themselves by your brand.

group of people rowing

2) Fail Fast

Phil Knight also has a lot to say about lean startup mentality. He warns: you must grow or you die. This is linked to the idea that has become gospel in the startup world: Fail Fast or Die. Eric Ries has made this strategy abundantly clear in his book, "The Lean Start-up." Eric's strategy of providing the market with an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) as fast as you can to gather market reaction and not be afraid to fail is an aggressive and scary endeavor. However, getting your potential customers to tell you what they want is extremely powerful. It will help your company grow to new levels with products that have an immediate market fit.

Essentially, don't be afraid to take risks, make mistakes, and push yourself out of your comfort zone. It might be a little scary, but it is the only way you will grow. If you stay inactive due to fear of failure, you may miss your chance.

3) Don't Tell People How to Do Things

Respect your employees, and they will respect you back. Don't tell your employees how to do their jobs - just tell them what needs to be done and let them surprise you with the results. I'm shocked with how little this methodology in management is followed. People are creative if you let them be.

Micromanaging is one of the worst things that you can do to your employees. It will annoy them, make them resent you, and make them feel like you don't trust them. It also stifles learning. If you don't let them make mistakes, how will they ever gain new skills and experience?

You trusted them enough to hire them, so don't do their job for them. Allow them freedom so they can impress you, and you can build a company that is based on loyalty, trust, gratitude, camaraderie, and respect…and as Phil writes, "even love."

One thing I have noticed since starting my own company is the amount of information and knowledge I am learning because I am out of my comfort zone in many respects. My background has given me a good base in marketing, sales, and finance. Now I am learning other things like software development, developing market feedback loops, leadership, etc. My business acumen is growing at a much faster pace because I moved out of my comfort zone.

4) Mix Business with Pleasure

"We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play. But meaningful play." - Phil Knight.

It's okay to mix business with pleasure. In fact, the only way you will be able to achieve the level of innovative creativity that is essential to stand out from the crowd is when you approach your work from a playful mindset. Game-changing ideas don't often come when you see your work as drudgery.

This is more than just being "happy" at work - it is about delving into the deeper meaning of your work and finding what you do endlessly fascinating. Charlie Hoehn, author of "Play it Away," says, "You don't need more money. You don't need more free time. You can always do it. Play is a state of mind – it is a way to approach the world. Whether your world is a frightening prison or a loving playground, it is up to you."

5) Be Competitive

Steve Prefontaine, Pre, was famous for being the greatest long-distance runner to have ever lived. Knight was a good friend of Pre, and Pre famously stated, "Somebody may beat me - but they're going to have to bleed to do it."

If you want to succeed and go the distance with your startup, no matter what industry you are in, you're going to have to compete as hard as you can. In my view, competition is not a bad thing. Competition makes you elevate your products, your company, and your impact on society. The competition also validates your product and your view of a market gap. Embrace competition, understand their business, go to market strategies and elevate your company to battle them. As Pre did, give it everything you've got and make your competition have to bleed if they want to beat you.


6) Fortune Favors the Brave

So you've got an idea for a startup. So what? Ideas are great, but ideas aren't worth much if you aren't willing to take the risk and give it a go. Knight writes about how the "coward never started, and the weak died along the way." It will take bravery to be the one who sees any great idea through to its conclusion.

"Fortune Favors the Brave" is a translation of a Latin proverb used historically by the military in the Anglo-Saxon world and the US Army. What it means is that "luck" isn't some divine force that you cannot control. You can create your own luck by making bold, intelligent moves, putting yourself out there with confidence, and taking the right risks at the right time. Have the courage to follow your passions.

7) When You See Only Problems, You're Not Seeing Clearly

When you look around you, do you see nothing but problems? Does this make you feel discouraged and ready to give up? Perhaps what needs to change is not the so-called "problems" but your attitude towards them.

Perception is everything, and when you focus on the negatives, it can affect your ability to see the possibilities. The key is not seeing the problems as negatives but seeing them as opportunities to figure out different strategies to succeed.

In Shoe Dog, Knight writes about how he only saw problems because he was approaching burnout. If you feel like this is happening to you, perhaps it is time to stop and give yourself a break to recharge. Listen to your body and what it needs, whether that is sleep, time with friends and family, or being unplugged from the business for a few days.

When you come back with your energy refreshed, you will be amazed at how the "problems" that caused you so much stress before won't seem so insurmountable anymore. Yogi Berra is famous for stating, "If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.".

8) Don't Ever Stop

The last lesson to be learned from Knight is never to stop. However, there is a big difference between never stopping and never giving up. He writes, "Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn't mean stopping. Don't ever stop."

He's right. It's fine to try something else when what you are doing is not working. After all, Einstein defined insanity as attempting the same thing again and again yet expecting different results.

You can change course, redefine your goals, make a new plan and pivot your trajectory whenever you need to - just as long as you keep moving in the right direction. Knight's story is incredibly inspiring due to the one common theme in starting Nike…perseverance.

a pair of feet walking up stairs

How will you apply these pearls of wisdom to your career?

Shoe Dog is an excellent book for any entrepreneur. The experience that Knight passes along is relevant for any entrepreneur who's ready to lace up their shoes and enter the race for success. We can learn from the visionaries of the past and use their advice to help us accelerate towards our goals with uncanny belief and confidence.

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