This is not the story of Phil Knight, as you know him. The billionaire co-founder of Nike, Inc. is known as many things — an entrepreneur, an iconoclast, a marketing genius, a philanthropist, the most powerful person in sports and a rich, rich man. His tale as the head of the most recognizable sports footwear and athletic apparel company in the world has been told many times over. But his origin story—the man before the money—is just as fascinating and shows us that it’s OK to walk before you run.
Phil Knight grew up in the Pacific Northwest, calling Portland home and attending the University of Oregon. While in school he spent time as a sports reporter for the Oregon Daily Emerald before graduating in 1959 with a journalism degree. Knight also ran track at OU, a hint of the passion that would fuel the rest of his career. A jump into the business world seemed like an obvious next step but Knight chose the path less traveled. He enlisted in the Army for a year—and served in the Army Reserve for another 7—giving him a unique perspective on leadership and providing him a strong sense of discipline. Soon thereafter he stepped back into the classroom enrolling in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. This decision would spark the idea that would eventually transform into a multi-billion dollar business. A love of sports had driven much of Knight’s interest up to that point. But the teachings at business school enthralled him. While in a small business course Knight, and the rest of the students, were tasked with inventing a business and creating its marketing plan. The title of his paper: “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?” The project helped Knight discover his entrepreneurial spirit along with a competitive advantage he’d eventually use to shake up the shoe industry. But, to this point, the swoosh was still a dream.
Phil Knight graduated from Stanford in 1962 and became an accountant. Yes, an accountant. But that was just a day job taken mostly to appease his father. His loves—entrepreneurism and athletics—kept Knight reaching for something more. He visited Japan in the early 60s and struck a deal with shoe manufacturer Onitsuka to distribute their Tiger running shoes back in the United States. Along with co-founder Bill Bowerman, Knight began selling them under the label Blue Ribbon Sports. He spent his days working as an accountant and nights as a salesman, peddling the re-branded shoes at track meets across the Pacific Northwest. He grew his side business for nearly a decade and finally, in 1971, quit accounting and stepped into the shoe business with both feet. Phil Knight transformed Blue Ribbon Sports into Nike, Inc. and paid $35 to commission the now famous “swoosh” logo. Nike—now with nearly 50,000 employees and $25 billion in annual revenue—is world renown and Phil Knight, who chose to chase a dream, is an industry titan.
The tale of this scrappy Pacific Northwest hustler is proof that dreams are meant to be chased, even if it takes decades to fully realize them. Like most entrepreneurs that came of age in the twentieth century, the head of Nike didn’t raise millions of dollars in funding. You can start small—spend evenings selling shoes from the back of your Plymouth Valiant as Knight did—and grow purposefully. After selling “a million bucks worth of Onitsuka shoes“, the Nike co-founder knew it was a legit business model and, only then, did he turned it into his life’s work. If you want to build a fitness app, do it in your spare time before the sun rises or while the rest of the world sleeps. Want to manufacture sports equipment? Design it, prototype it and save money from your paycheck to fund it. Baby steps are good—they save you from a crash-and-burn ending and can validate your concept in its early stages.
Phil Knight imagined a better, more affordable athletic shoe. He loved creative business models, tinkering with the possibilities while studying at Stanford. And he knew a combination of these two interests would make him truly happy. Knight’s stint in the Army and full-time hours as an accountant wouldn’t dissuade him. He knew, despite the distractions, he was after something bigger. When Nike, Inc. formed in 1971, Knight realized that dream. You have one too. Don’t look back with regret—just do it.