Learn the art of winning from the founder of Nike

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Learn the art of winning from the founder of Nike

Today I would like to focus on something different but which is certainly useful for learning to deal with problems and having a clear vision of success!

Today I'm talking about the story of PHIL KNIGHT... the co-founder of Nike.

In his early twenties, a sports enthusiast, fresh from a degree in economics at Stanford University and returning from a year in the army, Phil "Buck" Knight returned to his parents' home in Oregon. It was that turning point when a young man had to decide what to do with his life, and Phil was looking for a deeper sense than a simple two-book accounting job.

The main concept in his mind was to start doing something…

The concept of STARTING BEFORE YOU ARE READY is very useful here

Of one thing he was certain: he wanted his life to be meaningful, creative and purposeful. Before making decisions about his future, he wanted to know the world, so he went on a one-year solo tour of the Hawaiian Islands, Asia, Europe and Africa, supporting himself with makeshift jobs, such as selling encyclopaedia. During his journey he faced the big questions of life and decided that the only way forward for him was off the conventional rails. He didn’t want to work for a big company, but he intended to create something of his own that is new, dynamic and different.

An idea continued to buzz in his head, his “crazy idea” that dated back to his college days. At the time, Phil realized that Japanese cars had become very popular in America and, given his passion for sports and racing in particular, he had the intuition that Japanese shoes, of excellent quality and lower price, could have been very successful in the United States. After months of research, Knight presented the idea in his final college paper, without anyone being particularly impressed. Yet he could not get this “crazy idea” out of his head, with the deep conviction that he had sensed a great opportunity. So, towards the end of his trip around the world he decides to stop in Japan to talk to a local shoe manufacturer. He is very young and with zero business or commercial experience. Furthermore, relations between the United States and Japan in the 1960s are rather delicate. Far from sure of what he can achieve, yet determined to see if he can pave a way for his crazy idea, Knight contacts Tiger shoe maker Onitsuka and gets a meeting.

Onitsuka managers believe that Phil represents an established American company: when asked for his name, the first that comes to mind is "Blue Ribbon", referring to the blue ribbons won in sports at school. Yet despite these weak premises, Onitsuka sees an opportunity and agrees to let Phil Knight distribute their shoes in America. Thus, the “Blue Ribbon” company was officially born, which later became Nike. Phil places his first order for a few thousand Tiger shoes to be made and shipped to America. When he signs the order, he doesn't have the money to pay or an idea of ​​how to get it, but he is confident in his ability to find a solution. He borrows a small amount of money from his father and uses it to import the Tiger shoes, which he begins selling from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant in 1963.

Looking at tennis… all the great players have had that little voice, that vision inside and they never gave up.

Despite the defeats, the adversities, and the problems... they always went on: they fell and quickly got up, looking clearly at where they wanted to go!


From the beginning Knight had an important mentor, who became his business partner. This was Bill Bowerman, a great American running coach with a passion for experimentation in terms of sneakers. Charismatic and passionate, he loved to test his creations directly at the feet of the athletes he trained. One morning at breakfast – while he saw his wife making waffles – he had the idea of ​​creating a shoe with a waffle pattern on the sole, which can improve the foot's grip on the ground. He then poured some gum into his wife's waffle maker and starts rehearsing. The end result was a shoe, the Waffle Racer, which was hugely successful on the market.

Phil Knight built his company by surrounding himself with what he calls “shoe dogs”, people completely absorbed by the world of sneakers in every aspect, from design to production to sale and of course use. Passionate, visionary, and obsessed with details and constantly attentive to the concrete needs of athletes: this was the team of senior managers who forged Nike.

Together, thanks to a bold vision and shared faith in the transformative force of sport, Knight and his collaborators have created a revolutionary brand. In addition, much of the company's early success sprang from early sales reps: Knight surrounded himself and hired athletes and former athletes who adored his shoes and spread their glory across the United States.


Phil Knight enjoyed reading books written by great generals and leaders, because he loved learning new leadership lessons. One of the most important that he has learned, and which he has made his own throughout his career, has been the importance of speaking little, in particular of “not telling people how to do things” and avoiding excessive control over employees. His management style involved telling co-workers and employees WHAT he wanted them to do, but letting them know HOW... and being surprised by the results.

So, Phil gave his co-workers carte blanche, letting them sort things out themselves and getting great results. At the base of this management style, however, there is a fact: the founder of Nike showed an almost natural ability to hire people who are as passionate about his company's mission as he is. This has meant that many of his collaborators achieved and made the company achieve great results. “Tell your people WHAT to do, but give them a lot of freedom on HOW to do it” is an approach common to many great leaders, but at the base there must be the choice of collaborators and employees who are highly motivated to carry out the mission and who have the corporate spirit.

And it is also true for the world of tennis… today, too many times tennis players are harnessed (the younger tennis players who are growing up) in tactical preconceptions that do nothing but put strings on freedom, imagination and creativity. Of course, what I am saying feels absurd but tennis is like an art… it is played by instinct… tennis is made up of moments and in those moments ONLY a free mind without any preconceptions will be able to find its own solution.

I really love letting my students try to find the solution on their own. I watch them in tournaments but I love to analyse how they manage to get out of difficult situations ON THEIR OWN: I let them grow independently. THEY KNOW WHAT I WANT IN THE MATCH…


Knight's company was always short of cash, always on the brink of disaster, until – after much resistance from Phil and associates – Nike went public. Every penny in turnover was reinvested in ordering and producing more shoes, and the company doubled in size every year.

There were no venture capitalists at the time, and banks rejected Blue Ribbon as it didn't have enough capital, despite its insane growth. So, the company kept a low profile for a long time, struggling to make ends meet, to pay suppliers on time, and to meet a rapidly growing customer demand. Phil lived on a tightrope every day, but for him that was the only way to do things. While most people live in fear and are averse to taking risks, he had been taking risks and living on the edge for years, in the belief that if the company went bankrupt, he would lose money but gain wisdom that he can apply to the next business. The wisdom derived from a possible failure experience was an asset for Knight, an advantage that justified the risk. In those early years, his mantra became “fail fast”. If Blue Ribbon was doomed to fail, he pushed hard to make it fail quickly, so that he would have plenty of time to use the lessons learned for his next project. But his company did not fail.

With reference to tennis… one must dare… one must risk in tennis!

I'm not saying to play recklessly, but not to be afraid to throw a shot, to do something… if you feel it inside... DO IT!

I always say this to my players: “Do what you feel on the pitch... do it and if it goes wrong amen... turn around and don't judge yourself but think about the next point…”


After a couple of years of “Blue Ribbon” activity, the Tigers started to become very popular in America. In the meantime, Knight worked daily to grow the company as fast as possible: all profits obtained from the sale of a shoe order were reinvested to make a new order, each time larger than the previous one, raising the bar of risks more and more each time. Sales skyrocketed, sometimes doubling year after year.

In this situation, the main problem was the relationship with the banks, which opposed this highly risky commercial approach. The banks advised Knight to slow down growth and set aside some money in case something went wrong. But Phil never used this cautious approach, and at the cost of enormous stress he remained on the razor's edge for years, driving the company to explode.

His philosophy – borrowed from his readings – was clear: life (and business) is growth, either grow or die. That's why he invested all his money in the growth of his company. Additionally, Knight found himself overcoming one seemingly impossible challenge after another, to transform his company into the Nike we know today.

If at the beginning, without any commercial experience, he proposed himself as a partner of Onitsuka, a few years later the relationship with the company was interrupted and Blue Ribbon found itself having to design its own shoes and look for new factories. Then the competitors of Knight's company, frightened by its growth, found a way to overturn government regulations and had an astronomical fine imposed upon Blue Ribbon. Knight still had to fight for survival, fighting none less than the United States government to get out of the impasse of a bureaucratic trap. Yet for Phil these challenges were a fuel, a constant stimulus and an opportunity for growth.

Then we know how Nike came to be what it is now… a colossus!

But why did Phil succeed in a feat that seemed titanic?

He was passionate about running and sports in general = HE HAD A PASSION

He always believed that his shoes could help spread the passion of running = HE HAD A VISION, A MISSION IN MIND

In the early years of his company, he made almost no profit as he reinvested every penny to buy more shoes to sell. Knight saw and believed in an opportunity he was convinced could become something huge, so he worked hard to grow his project as much as possible. At the beginning –  to give stability to his wife and small children – after having founded his company he went back to work as an accountant for some time, but soon he returned to devote all his energy 100% to his “crazy idea.”

“If you follow your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the high moments will be like nothing you've ever experienced.”

Money wasn't his ultimate goal... it was just a means to make it all work.

He was working (and was aware of it) for a mission... a vision!

And here, back to tennis... if you play tennis you can face all the sacrifices, the hard training, the darkest moments.

Because if the work you do every day is your mission, every obstacle becomes easier to deal with.

My advice is not to seek victory, success for its own sake... but play because you have a vision, a mission. Believe it all the way!

If you are pursuing your mission it will be easier to endure the fatigue, hostilities will be fuel and the rewards will be priceless.

PS: Do you know why the Nike logo, that comma, that swoosh?

“What the hell is a swoosh? The answer came from me: it is the sound of someone passing you.”