How Phil Knight’s Nike Memoir Inspired My Approach to VC Funding
What ‘Shoe Dog’ taught this venture capitalist about influencer marketing, building a global brand, and IPOs
This is part of the Marker series “Read Like a Boss,” where founders, CEOs, and leaders in business reflect on books that revolutionized their thinking, framed their career, or aided them in a crucial business decision. This week, Nicole Quinn, a partner at the venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners who has invested in brands such as Cameo, Goop, and Zola, reflects on what Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog means to her.
I was a competitive sprinter for many years. Even today, I like to lace up my trainers and knock out a quick sprint a few times a week. It’s how I clear my head and maintain equilibrium in the often-frenetic world of Silicon Valley. So it’s probably not surprising that the book that has inspired me in my career more than any other is Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s story of how he started his career selling low-cost running shoes out of the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant and turned it into a $34 billion empire.
I remember reading Shoe Dog for the first time shortly after it was published, under the arches at the Knight Management Center at Stanford, where I had just finished my degree while also working on my own startup. (Of course, that building was named after Phil Knight, who received his MBA from Stanford and had donated $105 million to the university a decade before I arrived.)
Knight was one of the first to discover the power of influencer marketing — most famously Nike’s connection with Michael Jordan in the 1980s.
Shoe Dog resonated with me on several levels — as a runner, as a fellow Stanford grad, and as someone who now works in the tech startup community. Nike’s iconic startup story gave me a valuable perspective that I use each day at Lightspeed Venture Partners.
For example, Knight was one of the first to discover the power of influencer marketing — most famously Nike’s connection with Michael Jordan in the 1980s. The deal was a partnership of equals between an up-and-coming company and a rising superstar, and it completely transformed the worlds of both sports shoes and celebrity endorsements.
Knight’s account of that partnership taught me to never take my own partnerships for granted. I consider myself lucky to work with influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga on Lightspeed portfolio companies Goop and Haus Laboratories respectively. By treating these as true partnerships of value and respect, we can aspire to achieve what Nike and Jordan did with theirs.
Shoe Dog also drove home for me the incredible importance of word-of-mouth marketing. Knight writes about what happened when his first full-time employee, Jeff Johnson, walked around in a pair of Blue Ribbon Tigers: “People kept stopping him and pointing at his feet and asking where they could buy some neat shoes like those.”
When we have weighed whether to add B2C companies like Calm or Cameo to our portfolio, we look very closely at their potential for generating word of mouth — though these days, that’s less about stopping people on the street and more about online reviews, Instagram posts, and YouTube videos. As in the early days of Nike, word of mouth is still one of the leading indicators of a brand with staying power.
Knight’s book also taught me about the power of thinking globally. Back in 1980, Knight was already plotting to use Nike’s foothold in Japan to expand into China. Today, many strong U.S. brands still underperform in other countries. One of the key reasons Lightspeed has opened offices in China, India, Israel, and London is to offer insights and advice for companies that seek a more global footprint.
In the early 1970s, when Knight was trying to build Nike into a global brand, IPOs weren’t necessarily a celebration. They were often the only ways organizations could raise the capital they needed to reach the next level.
Finally, Shoe Dog has made me grateful for all the funding options we have today for startups. In my world, initial public offerings are usually a celebratory event. They’re like a coming-out party for your startup, a sign you’ve made it to the big leagues (even if, for most, the journey is only just beginning).
Shoe Dog reminds us that it wasn’t always that way. Back in the early 1970s, when Knight was trying to build Nike into a global brand, IPOs weren’t necessarily a celebration. They were often the only ways organizations could raise the capital they needed to reach the next level. “If we didn’t go public, we risked losing everything,” Knight writes. He didn’t want to do an IPO, but it was his only option to scale the company.
That’s an entirely different universe than the one we live in now, with all the different investment rounds and funds available to startups today, including Lightspeed’s own dedicated growth funds, which allow companies to take as long as they need before filing for a public offering, assuming they decide to take that path.
These are just some of the reasons why Shoe Dog was such a seminal book for me. It perfectly captures the entrepreneurial spirit I see in the people and companies I work with each day and inspires me to help them follow in Knight’s footsteps.
Read an excerpt from Shoe Dog, in which the founder describes how they came up with Nike’s logo and name, here: