I have just finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike Inc. I recommend that any person with a business dream read the book because, through his story, Knight relays the many trials and tribulations entrepreneurs experience until they get to the top.
I found myself relating to his story on many levels. Cash flow problems, increasing debt, risk of business loss, ill treatment by your partners, debating whether to bring in new investors and, above all, bringing the right people on board. Success is impossible without a shared vision. We all need to be rowing in the same direction unless told otherwise. Here are a few things that stood out for me:
Values must lead
To blow your competition out of the water build your business model around value. This should be practiced both internally and externally. Through their employ, your staff will gain an income, but their provided services should be a critical building block to the value you’re trying to create.
It’s one thing for you to be the visionary of your enterprise but to win you also need to have an implementor who will live out what you have imagined and add to that dream through feedback on how you can further progress and do better. The relationship that Knight had with his first employee, Jeff Johnson, is worth a mention. Johnson’s commitment to the cause is a rare quality and Knight realised this through several redeployments of his No 1 to all the new and strategic things that Nike rolled out as they grew.
The opening of new branches, the running of a new factory, setting up in different areas — Johnson got to do it all. This is because he saw value in what the business was bringing to its customers. It wasn’t just about selling shoes, it was the feeling one got when wearing the shoes.
The fact that the shoes were also being designed by an athletics coach and former college athlete added to the value equation, that is, shoes being made for us by people like us, who have lived experiences like ours. Who better to design and recommend what shoes to wear than them?
So, to win in the marketplace, ensure that you always lead with the value you bring to the table — be it the product or service you’re offering.
Life is moving faster for most if not all of us. We often find ourselves juggling too many balls and this leads to a loss of focus. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Commit to a main cause, which is to please your customers and keep your suppliers and partners satisfied always. Your clients should always commend you for your undying devotion to exceeding their expectations through each interaction.
From a product standpoint, innovation and (re)invention should be a priority that is practised again and again and again. The novelty brought to the fore should be championed by your pursuit to understand your customers’ need and how you can make a difference in their lives for the longer term.
As an example, Knight’s partner and former coach, Bill Bowerman, was committed to getting better performances from his athletes. He was convinced that some of the results had a lot to do with the shoes they wore. So, in addition to training his athletes hard, he also designed and redesigned the shoes they wore and through Nike’s initial partnership with Onitsuka Tiger introduced shoes into the market that were ahead of their time.
A borderline obsession with getting it right is critical to winning in today’s congested marketplace. The results you bring to the table reflect how far you will go to bring nothing but your absolute best to the fore. Your best should in turn result in your client always having a smile on their face.
You can’t get ahead without taking risks. Big ones, too. These risks could include taking on debt (reasonably, I must emphasise), bringing on new staff, entering into partnerships, being open to new ideas, and expanding your goals and ambitions. You can’t sit in one place and opt for the safer route. Dream big.
Back those dreams with thorough research on their feasibility and viability. Plan accordingly and roll it out, closely monitoring your wins and losses as you execute your plan. Based on his graduate research, Knight got a loan from his father to travel to Japan and met up with the leadership team of Onitsuka Tiger. Blue Ribbon Sports was still an experiment but he positioned it as a business that was coming up and that would bring value to Onitsuka Tiger through a partnership.
The risk taken there resulted in a distribution agreement, which, became exclusive. After nearly being coaxed into selling Blue Ribbon Sports to Onitsuka Tiger based on the anticipated boom in demand from the United States market, Blue Ribbon Sports decided to go it alone. This came with a lot of trials and tribulations but, by the time they got to 1980, Knight was worth $178-million after going public.
I must admit that taking risks should come with a strong disclaimer. Don’t take gigantic risks that will leave you in a worse-off position than where you started. Take risks but ensure they’re informed by a strong body of evidence on the potential outcomes.
Find like-minded people
In as much as many people believe that they appoint themselves captain because they were born to lead, this isn’t so. It takes a village to raise a child. The same must apply to a business because they thrive on nurturing. Nurture doesn’t come from one person. It comes from a whole team of people. If likened to a family, in as much as your parents are your primary caregivers, there’s a lot to be learned from your uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, family friends, peers, juniors and seniors.
For your business to thrive, hire wisely. Get people on board who first buy in to your vision, believe in your leadership and feel counted for their contribution. If north is the direction that needs to be taken and everyone is steering that way, the journey is pleasant.
Root out those who will say they want to go north but whose minds are in the south. That inertia is unpleasant and not necessary for the business. Constructive debate is centred around identifying problems and finding solutions because no one is looking to lose if they’re all buying into the cause.
If they do lose, it is a dust yourself off moment, which makes the team stronger and better prepared for what tomorrow will bring. Choose wisely and use selection criteria aligned to the business’ long-term vision. Success will be hard to come by if you’re working with people who are often caught in two minds.
James Maposa is the founder and managing director of Birguid, a research, strategy and advisory company