In the film Air, Matt Damon - playing Nike’s basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro - decides he wants to sign Michael Jordan at all costs. Ben Affleck - playing Nike CEO Phil Knight - isn’t sure. Hijinks ensue, every rule in the book is broken, and they get the deal over the line. If this were an ordinary film, Phil Knight would be the villain.
But he’s not. Why? It’s what he says after Vaccaro pitches Knight the name “Air Jordan” that gives us a clue: “I don’t know, maybe it’ll grow on me.”
That line is actually taken from another event in Nike history: when Carolyn Johnson designs the Swoosh. He’s similarly non-impressed, calling the options at first “morbidly obese squiggles,” and only then offering qualified approval to the final designs.
It was the same story with the word Nike. In 1971, after the company had decided to be more than a mere distributor of Japanese designed trainers, they needed a name. Phil wanted “Dimension Six.”
Just a few hours before they needed to file the patent, Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first hire, had a dream in which he’d seen the word Nike. He called it in. Debate ensued. Phil lost. Again.
“I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”
This is the weird thing about Knight. If you look at many of the foundational decisions that built Nike, it seems like he disagreed with every single one. But - unlike most other CEOs - he let it happen anyway.
Indeed - it’ll grow on me - is probably the best way to understand both the great paradox of Phil Knight, and the reason for Nike’s success.
It’s also why Shoe Dog is - for my money - the best business book out there. He breaks all the rules about how to build a great company.
You’re told to move fast. He spends an entire year doing nothing but waiting for Onitsuka, his Japanese supplier, to send some samples of their shoes.
“This is how I spent 1963. Quizzing pigeons, polishing my valiant, writing letters.”
You’re told to over-communicate. He relentlessly ghosts his best sales person (Jeff, mentioned above), ignoring pretty much every letter and update he gets sent.
And you’re told to make the big strategic decisions yourself. Not outsource them to other members of the team.
But Phil wins. And deservedly so. Because he’s the master of disagreeing and committing. He’s comfortable about being outvoted, in a way that very few CEOs would be. Sometimes, your gut is wrong.
And I think it’s because he gets one big thing right. He understands that a startup isn’t one good idea, it’s 1000s of good ideas. And one person can’t come up with them all.
It’s a great lesson because it runs counter to so often what we’re told. Chill out. Relax. Bring the energy, but let others bring the ideas.
Sometimes, things grow on you.