What Reading Shoe Dog Can Teach You About How To Be Successful In Business

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) currently account for 99.9% of the business population. In 2021, there were estimated to be 5.6 million UK private sector businesses – 5.5million of these were small businesses, with just 0-49 employees. Starting a small business in today’s modern, digitalised landscape can see elevated results with the aid of ever-evolving technologies and social platforms that allow us to reach millions of people quickly and efficiently, as well as engage with an audience through digital marketing strategies.

On the other hand, the same tools that can greatly benefit any startup can come with difficulties and accessibility to competitors within the influx of enterprises in today’s economy. This is why the right marketing tools and expert advice is crucial for business success.

Here at Embryo, we have proven results working with an extensive range of SMEs to develop their brand and establish authority in their industry. With the perfect balance of creative and technical services, we create innovative strategies with proven results that make sense for the brands we work with. 

But let’s not forget the granular framework behind any successful startup that is key for success. Prioritising the finer details and remaining focused and passionate when starting out in business is just as imperative as a seamless marketing strategy to elevate your brand.

Let’s take a look at an example of this..

We wanted to go back to basics and look at a key example of a small enterprise that has since become one of the most attributable, multinational corporations with continuing success on a global scale, apparel company, Nike.

This blog will take a closer look at the founder of Nike, Phillip Knight’s memoir, ‘Shoe Dog’, which documents his personal and professional journey and shares the story of Nike’s growth to global success.

About Shoe Dog

‘Shoe Dog’ is the inside story and personal memoir of Phillip Knight, who documents the early days of his start-up, which was originally founded in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports, with Knight selling footwear from this basement, and it’s the evolution into one of the most successful and profitable existing brands.

Knight details how he created the Nike independently, inspired by his love of running, as a former track athlete at the University of Oregon. Knight comments on why the personal gains that he found through the physicality was a niche that he was passionate about sharing.

“Running for pleasure, running for exercise, running for the endorphins, running to live longer and better was something unheard of”.

He has a ‘crazy idea’ that he was determined to see through. Knight wanted to create something new and dynamic and recalls the foundational partnership with his former track coach and a key player in sharing Knight’s vision. The charismatic and highly praised figure in Knight’s nostalgic recollections, Bill Bowerman, revolutionised the footwear market by creating innovative new models of athletic shoes, which, originally intended for his track stars, were developed further and taken to market by Knight to set the brand apart from the rest. They were doing what their larger competitors weren’t – taking risks and making connections was contributing to sales and investments. Knight initially landed contracts with Japanese suppliers due to his innovative products and consumer and culturally research and went on the grow on a multinational scale, with suppliers and retailers around the globe.

He recalls the additional and integral relationships with his employees throughout those early days of business growth that quickly became a family at the heart of Nike. Together, harnessing the electrifying power of a bold vision and a shared belief in the redemptive, transformative power of sports, they created a brand, and a culture, that changed everything. From sales, marketing, finance and legal services, Knight surrounded himself with passionate entrepreneurs and business people, as well as employing key players in the industry with the expertise to educate the Knight and the team and elevate the company.

As the business evolved as did the name, and the apparel startup became Nike in 1971, named after the Greek goddess of victory and inspired by Knight’s experiences of travelling in Greece. Knight details the many terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters and hostile bankers—as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes.

Knight continued on his trepid journey in business growth, consistently putting out the fires that came with such rapid growth of a company, yet always focusing on the end goal of his ‘crazy idea’ over financial gains, which he attributes to Nike’s success. We come to the end of Knight’s tale in 1980 when the company went public to solve monetary problems. Knight recalls,

The world was the same as it had been the day before, as it had always been. Nothing had changed, least of all me. And yet I was worth $178 million”.

In an interview with the associate editor at Harvard Business Review, Geraldine E. Willigan, Knight comments on how the brand’s image and structure began to evolve as he discovered the importance of marketing, as outlined in ‘Shoe Dog’.

We reasoned it out. The problems forced us to take a hard look at what we were doing, what was going wrong, what we were good at, and where we wanted to go. When we did that, we came to see that focusing solely on the product was a great way for a brand to start, but it just wasn’t enough. We had to fill in the blanks. We had to learn to do well on all the things involved in getting to the consumer, starting with understanding who the consumer is and what the brand represents”

So what can we take away from Knight’s teaching when starting our own business growth journey. We’ve put together some key advice for business success by outlining our top five tips informed by reading ‘Shoe Dog’ and our extensive work with SMEs across a range of industries.

Tips for SMEs learnt from reading shoe dog

Define and articulate your brand

Understanding your brand is integral for short-term and long-term success and articulating this correctly will aid a wider audience of consumers, investors and employees to understand engage in your company ethos, purpose and direction. Your brand values should be integral to your company, vision and philosophy — and really shouldn’t ever change. In fact, those values should drive much of your business in the future. Having a business plan and staying clear and focused on this will help guide you along the way. Of course, there will be diversions along the way, but understanding the risk and rewards from the beginning will help evaluate problems as much as possible from the onset. Understanding the competition and how you can differentiate your business from the rest is also imperative.

Make informed recruitment decisions 

Hiring the right people with experience and knowledge of your sector, who also share in the brand’s passion is one of the biggest investments that SMEs will make when elevating your company to the next level. Defining the key and crucial roles within the company and recruiting knowledgeable, adaptable and hardworking employees will contribute to company growth, productivity, and will lessen the need to hire more individuals in the future. Many entrepreneurs advise following the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of results come from 20% of the efforts, which means that encouraging team effort within the granular details of the roles will reap results while aiding in developing leadership styles to guide your team in making informed decisions and developing internal strategies for success.

Hiring the right people who understand the company’s ethos and wider vision of the brand is something that Knight put at the forefront of his strategy in the early days of Nike. His unlikely companions and business associates followed Knight in fighting for his vision, to which he attributes a lot of Nike’s growth and success in ‘Shoe Dog’.

Expand your creativity and adapt along the way

As your company continues to grow it’s important to be creative in developing new ideas that will elevate your brand. Implementing company training days or space outside of the psychological and physical structures of the workplace into your company culture to brainstorm, evaluate your company growth against your competitors and explore new ideas openly will help to elevate your brand and create stronger internal bonds while further developing employee engagement.

Technologist and business leader, Bill Gates developed a method for boosting productivity and creativity, which he defines as a ‘Think week’; a method that Gates has been practising and believes is imperative for success. Twice a year, Gates retreats to a secluded space for seven days with only business-related documents, leaving behind social media and devices and breaking all communication with the outside world. In this space, Gates describes some of his best work being done as fresh new ideas are able to wash into a clear mindset without any distractions

Knight similarly created a retreat, which he branded as the ‘Annual Buttface Retreat’. He recalls the origins of the name and how his team would gather offsite with new ideas to solve the problems that accompany business growth.

Johnson coined the phrase, we think. At one of our earliest retreats he muttered: “How many multi-million-dollar companies can you yell out, ‘Hey Buttface,’ and the entire management team turns around?” It got a laugh. And then it stuck…Buttface referred to both the retreat and the retreaters, and it not only captured the informal mood of these retreats, where no idea was too sacred to be mocked, and no person was too important to be ridiculed, it also summed up the company spirit, mission and ethos.”

Knight created an environment where team members felt compelled to share their ideas and opinions. The Buttfaces were willing to be vulnerable because Knight lead the way and the best ideas survived, creating a company culture of innovation and trust.

Marketing matters more than ever

The right marketing tool and strategies are key for communicating your products and service to a wider audience that can elevate growth quickly and set you apart from your competitors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of planned wages (WBA) and high-propensity (HBA) business applications is up nearly 45% in January of 2021 compared to December of 2020 and that’s with seasonality factored in. With an increasing number of people interested in, and starting up their enterprises this year, marketing has never been more important.

Here at Embryo we create and communicate exciting and integrated campaigns that span the entire digital marketing spectrum. From highly technical and specialised paid strategies to creative design and content creation, we’re always looking for the next breakthrough to help the brands we work with thrive online. From paid and organic strategies, our services include but are not limited to, innovative SEO strategies, pay-per-click management, Digital PR, paid social and website development, offering all that is integral for brand recognition and establishing authority in your field. Marketing also aids in creating a seamless and trustworthy customer experience when engaging in your products and services.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Knight outlines how high performing marketing changed the image of the company and was important for brand-building

“For years, we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool. What I mean is that marketing knits the whole organisation together. The design elements and functional characteristics of the product itself are just part of the overall marketing process”.

Stay focused and remain consistent 

Stay focused and always remember why you started, prioritising the granular details and keeping your products and services at the forefront of all business decisions. Consistency is key for SMEs success when holding onto your ‘crazy idea’. According to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. If you want to be among that 25%, rigorous passion, effort and consistency are required. Don’t be afraid to call on your mentors and the people who inspire you. Just as Knight recalls his gratitude for the innovative and organic teachings of Bill Bowerman, asking for help and guidance is what will develop your brand and your own journey as a business leader.

Stay passionate about what you do and don’t focus on monetary gains, this is secondary. During the early years, Blue Ribbon could not afford to have Knight on a salary while the business was in its initial growth stage. As documented in ‘Shoe Dog’, the staggering income was attributed to Nike’s going public in 1980, but getting rich had never influenced Knight’s decisions or those of his partners in business.

In the latter part of his story, Knight recalls the memory of going public and the nostalgia of the journey before the business levelled up to extraordinary financial gains. He highlights the importance of focusing on the brand rather than the income.

When going public… ‘I asked myself: What do you feel? It was not happiness. It was not a relief. If I felt anything, it was… regret? Oh my God. Yes, it is a regret. Because, honestly, I would have desired to start again.’”.

If you’re interested in starting your own business journey then please get in touch with our team to find out more about our services, our approach to digital campaigns or to find out how we can help you grow your business online.


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