How a failed athlete built Nike

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Phil Knight, the Co-founder of Nike, a global leader in athletic footwear and apparel had envisioned a life where footwear would make his dreams come true. But life had other plans.
Knight, a former athlete from Portland, Oregon, refused to let failure stop him. Despite setbacks, he kept pushing forward with determination and an unwavering spirit. He was an average runner at best in school, but one thing ignited his spark – shoes.

He fell in love with sneakers so much that he thought one day he would make his own. His path to this goal had a few bumps along the way. Despite his love for the sport and the shoes, he was not an excellent athlete. While competing in a track meet at the University of Oregon, he lost so badly that he started contemplating quitting the sport altogether. But, the thrill of running made him think otherwise.

In 1962, Knight was awarded a scholarship to pursue an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, which proved to be a life-changing opportunity. It was here that fate would decide his destiny. In a class titled Entrepreneurship, taught by former University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, Knight had a moment of inspiration. Bowerman was known for his unorthodox and often experimental shoemaking techniques, and he instilled in his students a passion for innovation. It was during this time that Knight became fascinated by the way shoes could affect an athlete’s performance. He noticed that many of the shoes available at the time were heavy and cumbersome, and he believed that he could design a better shoe that would help athletes run faster and jump higher.

Bill Bowerman

He put his knowledge and interest into action and started the company, Blue Ribbon Sports, selling Japanese running shoes called Tiger shoes. But selling wasn’t his strong suit. While managing his business, he also opted to pursue a formal education. He completed his MBA during the day and sold shoes evenings and weekends out of the trunk of his car. He spent the next few years learning as much as he could about the shoe industry, and in 1971, he and Bowerman decided to start their own shoe company. Nike was founded with a meager $1,500, with the promise to create better running shoes.

When it came to making the logo, they looked for someone who could do it for ‘Free’. Carolyn Davidson was an excellent graphic design student working at Portland State University while her husband Jeff Johnson who was Knight’s accountant introduced her to his employer after seeing her sketch ‘Swoosh’. With some changes done by Knight for a minor amount as a token of appreciation in 1971, the legendary logo has become one of the most recognizable brand identifiers worldwide to this day.
Their goal was to create a shoe that was lighter, more comfortable, and more performance-oriented than anything else on the market. However, this process was slow and far from perfect. The first few years of Nike’s existence were a struggle. The incredible performances of Nike’s athletes during the 1972 Olympics led to a remarkable increase in sales, reaching an impressive $3 million. Knight even started paying himself his first salary from the money that came in. This gave him a new sense of hope and he felt the business was now gaining the momentum it needed but at the same time, they kept facing problems of supply and quality. Even though everything was improving slowly and steadily he was facing an internal power struggle with Bowerman. Eventually, though, Nike’s relentless efforts to innovate and create high-quality shoes paid off as the brand gained immense popularity among athletes who valued their superior design and top-notch performance.
Within 20 years, Nike had become the number-one-selling athletic footwear company in the world. It is estimated that one in every 3 adults on the planet owns a pair of Nike shoes. From his failed athletics career to being the co-founder of one of the most successful sports brands in history, Knight’s story is a testimony to the power of perseverance and the belief in one’s own vision.
Today, Nike is the world’s leading sports brand, with annual revenues of over $46 billion and a market value of over $166 billion. It has expanded its product range to include apparel, accessories, equipment, and digital services for various sports and activities. It also sponsors many high-profile athletes and teams across the globe, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams, LeBron James, and the US Olympic team. Nike continues to innovate and inspire with its products, campaigns, and initiatives, such as the Flyknit technology, the Nike+ platform, and the Breaking project.

Michael Jordan

Nike’s success is largely attributed to the vision and leadership of Phil Knight, who retired as the chairman of the company in 2016. Knight is widely regarded as one of the most influential and respected entrepreneurs of all time and has been honored with numerous awards and recognitions, such as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He has also been a generous philanthropist, donating billions of dollars to various causes and institutions, especially his alma mater, the University of Oregon.

Phil Knight’s story is a remarkable example of how a failed athlete turned his passion and dream into a reality, and built one of the most successful and iconic brands in history. He once said, “The only time you must not fail is the last time you try.” He never gave up on his vision, and neither should you. Just do it.

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